We should get a few things out of the way at the onset. 47 Ronin is in no way, shape or form a factual depiction of the real-life story/legend of the 47 ronin. It is as close to actual history as the movie 300 was to the tale of the Battle of Thermopylae and the 300 Spartan warriors. Even as a fantastical take, it goes beyond to create characters, settings and relationships to explain the events that have become legend in Japan. If you cannot accept that, then I recommend you don’t go see this movie. That said, for those that love fantasy and those that love samurai movies, you’re in for a treat.
The basic story of the movie follows the one told in the Chushingura — the literary record of the Forty-Seven. Lord Asano of Ako (Min Tanaka, Twilight Samurai) is the head of a small clan that is desperately coveted by rival Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano, Thor). In order to bring about their downfall, Kira’s witch Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi, Pacific Rim) bewitches Lord Asano into attacking Kira while the Shogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Mortal Kombat) is visiting. The penalty for striking an honored guest is death, which the Shogun calls for; allowing Asano to commit seppuku in a way to retain his honor. The Shogun then decrees Kira to marry Asano’s daughter Mika (Kou Shibasaki, Battle Royale) a year from the events and banishes the Asano samurai warriors, led by Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada, The Last Samurai), far from their homelands. Amongst those banned is Kai (Keanu Reeves, The Matrix), a half-Japanese/half-British bastard that Lord Asano had found one day fleeing from a haunted forest and who is kept around to serve as needed – and because Lady Mika bears a not-small flame for him.
Let’s start with Reeves’ role in the story. To the untrained eye, the presence of Keanu Reeves in one of the Far East’s biggest legends feels akin to that of Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai – a Hollywood way of inserting a famous Western movie star to lead a story while the Asian cast sits back all to make Western audiences buy tickets. And while that may be part of what’s going on, let me say that Reeves is not the lead in this story. He’s a side character that has his own quest and mysteries that tie into the fantastical side of the story. As a boy who was raised by demons, it is Kai who can recognize the otherworldly elements at play – primarily the witch, Mizuki and her charms – while also acting as a key cog in arming the ronin for their final battle. Keanu does a good enough job with his role, but it doesn’t require more out of him than look mournful and stoic.
The lead is, instead, Sanada’s Oishi. Rightfully so, as the Chushingura’s story is the story of Oishi and how he suffers to try and ensure the death of their lord does not go un-avenged. It is Oishi who plots to bring about Kira’s downfall, seeks out and calls the other scattered ronin, goes to rescue Kai from enslavement in a fighting pit aboard a Dutch slave ship and will ultimately lead the assault on Kira’s stronghold. Sanada, a longtime veteran in Japan, does a great job with the intricacies of the role. He is resolute before his men, strong before his son and tearful as he tells his wife to divorce him and shun him in order to draw any attention away from her.
Around them, the rest of the cast does decent work. Kikuchi is called on to be a slinky, slithery seductress and she does it with aplomb – a far cry from Pacific Rim’s Miko Mori. Asano does great as the corrupt Lord Kira. The rest of the cast does well with very limited roles that require them to be either honest, loving, brave or foolish. Tanaka and Shibasaki as Lord Asano and Lady Mika are the quintessentially-noble Japanese lord and lady, who put duty and honor above desires or preferences. Mika’s forbidden love for Kai adds a nice modern wrinkle to the story, but it ultimately is secondary to the story. It acts as the driving force for Kai to join the former samurai who treated him like dirt when they decide to kill Kira and rescue Mika before their nuptials can happen.
Part of the dynamic at work here is that newcomer director Carl Rinsch and screenwriters Chris Morgan (Fast & Furious series) and Hossein Amini (Drive) are trying to depict feudal Japan and its intricate rules of behavior in an honest manner. This is not our world. To pretend to be a samurai when you’re not carries with it terrible penalties. To strike a guest under your roof means a penalty of death. And the highest code for those who serve is to die in the service of their masters – for to live after your lord dies is considered dishonorable. Rinsch and his team do a decent job of presenting Japan under the Shogun as a land that is far from what we know.
This is helped by really beautiful cinematography by John Mathieson (Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven). This is Japan as it existed in myth and legend; not reality. Landscapes are vast and deadly and dangerous. The colors pop everywhere – in the intricate sets of Elli Griff (Hellboy 2, Prince of Persia), the beautiful costumes of Penny Rose (Pirates of the Caribbean series). The mist envelops characters as does the darkness. And I point out the darkness because it is key for the two major sequences – the rescue of Kai and the final assault on Kira’s stronghold – where there’s a lot of action happening, but you are never lost because they’re happening at night. Instead, they’re both very exciting sequences: with the final battle being everything you want a final battle to be. It’s exciting and fun to see the ronin stealthily break into Kira’s castle and do so without alerting a soul.
Of course, the makers of this movie also go further than that by adding in elements that are fantastical. Mizuki the witch and Kai the half-breed are but the biggest examples. Mizuki embodies many Japanese myths about witches. She shape-shifts into various different forms. Her eyes are different colors. She’s a seductress and a terror and her powers are seemingly endless. Likewise, there’s a haunted forest inhabited by strange lizard monks who were the ones who raised Kai and tried to get him to forego the human world for their power. And there’s a strange, but powerful looking samurai warrior in Lord Kira’s service who serves as a massive and deadly bodyguard.
This movie has had a troubled history – shoots and reshoots, script rewrites, cast changes, English lessons and conversions to 3D. That combined with its bloated budget – something around $175 million – and the lack of discernible star beyond Reeves telling a story that few in America care for has likely spell negative feelings for this movie. And I am sensitive to that charge in particular. But I am here to say that, if you accept that this movie is not real, but fantasy, you will have a good time with it. Is 47 Ronin the definitive telling of the Chushingura? Obviously not. Then again, not every telling of a tale has to be exact and accurate. “When fact becomes legend, print the legend” was said at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance and, in this case, perhaps a little legend will help intrigue people about this famous story from centuries ago, then all the better.
If nothing else, you’ll have a good time watching samurais battle and witches turn to dragons. And that’s not so bad.