The story of the 47 ronin is one of the most famous legends in Japanese history, based on the (sort of) true story about a group of masterless Samurai who seek to avenge the death of their former Lord. It is regarded as a prominent example of the honor and loyalty among the samurai and is a staple of Japanese culture. Seems like a great setup for a big budget movie. Then the trailer for 47 Ronin came out and it looked horrible. 300 like creatures, people that turn into dragon demons and lots of Keanu Reeves looking important and special. No offense to Keanu, but it didn’t look like it had much to do with the legend. I watched the film this week and as it turns out it isn’t half bad.
Warning: spoilers ahead!
Reeves play Kai, the bastard son of an English sailor and a Japanese woman, who left him to die in a forest where he was trained in magic by demons (bear with me). He ends up living in a shack on the land of feudal Lord Asano, where he becomes involved in the story of the 47 ronin.
Lord Asano is hosting a tournament that is attended by the Shogun, as well as Kira, the lord of a neighboring province. Lord Kira is a bad guy, and with the help of his right hand, sorceress Mizuki, he aims to get rid of Asano to strengthen his position in the Shogunate. Mizuki uses her powers to control Asano and make him attack Kira, a crime for which he is sentenced to commit seppuku by the Shogun. Asano’s feudal line is abolished, and his now masterless Samurai are banished, while Kai is sold into slavery at a European trading post. They get together and start planning to get revenge on Lord Kira.
The plot is actually pretty good, and mostly sticks to the traditional story, which makes the inclusion of all the magical weirdness a bit silly. The story could have played out just the same without it. It felt like they couldn’t decide between a proper historical movie and a fantasy film, went for the former and just threw the magic on top for the heck of it.
Besides that, Keanu Reeves’s character’s presence doesn’t really add anything to the proceedings. It’s not even clear exactly why he was around when everything went down in the first place. He’s not really relevant except for his powers, which he swore never to use, and for having a thing for the lord’s daughter (of course). It’s like they don’t trust the moviegoer to be content with the film if there’s not this special, Hollywood-like character to root for.
While this clearly is a Hollywood movie, it features a very nice Japanese cast. Hiroyuki Sanada (The Last Samurai, The Wolverine) plays Oishi, the head samurai and leader of the group. Lord Kira is played by Tadanobu Asano (Ichi the Killer, Thor). Keanu Reeves’ love interest is played by Ko Shibasaki, who you may know from Battle Royale, and Rinko Kikuchi, who recently starred in Pacific Rim, plays sorceress Mizuki. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Pearl Harbor, Memoirs of a Geisha) also has a small role, as the Shogun. Apparently it was a deliberate choice to go with this cast as opposed to faces more familiar to US audiences, in order to create a more authentic feel for the film. Keanu Reeves has stated that all the scenes were first shot in Japanese to help the actors get familiar, and then filmed again in English. This really makes me wish they would have just made a bold move and released it in Japanese. Since they were going for authentic, why not take it one step further?
This all sounds very whiny, but despite all my criticism I still enjoyed the film. The story was enjoyable, the settings with all the traditional castles looked great, and there were lots of badass warriors in ornate colorful outfits. The visuals were just great.
If you’re looking for a fun, good looking action film and are not put off by some over the top fantasy thrown in the mix, I’d say go see 47 Ronin. 2.5 Nerdskulls.
Check out the trailer:
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