Movie Review – 47 Ronin (2013)
On paper 47 Ronin sounds like a compelling proposal to marry a time-honored Japanese classic tale with a kind of modern The Lord of the Rings style take on the material. While this might initially sound jarring a close look at Japanese entertainment be it feature films, TV series or anime shows a strong supernatural trend where demons either co-exist or openly oppose the human world. This at least lends some credibility to 47 Ronin where the filmmakers have decided to amplify the source material with the addition of ogres, mystical powers and huge rampaging monster boars. The fact that the resulting film is so decidedly bland and unfocused is a real wonder as it feels as if too many competing interests have caused the film to simply go awry at nearly every turn.
47 Ronin is a Westernized retelling of the famous Japanese tale revolving around the concepts of loyalty, honour and sacrifice. Set in Feudal Japan the movie focuses on the virtuous Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) who is killed through nefarious means by his rival Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) with help from his supernatural witch ally (Rinko Kikuchi). To preserve the peace the Shogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) orders that Lord Kira marry Lord Asano’s daughter Princess Mika (Ko Shibasaki) to join the two houses together and he forbids Asano’s samurai from seeking revenge. With their master dead the samurai immediately lose their station and ranking in life and become wandering ronin but Lord Kira still sees them as a future threat and orders their leader, Ôishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) imprisoned for a year hoping to break his spirit.
Fast-forward one year later and Ôishi is released but the time spent in jail hasn’t dulled his senses nor his thirst for vengeance thus he begins to cobble together his former charges as well as seeking the help of a skilled half-breed warrior named Kai (Keanu Reeves) who grew up under the guidance of Lord Asano and also harbors mutual feelings for Princess Mika. Outmanned and outgunned the 47 Ronin face almost insurmountable odds against Lord Kira’s forces but through some luck as well as some help from other mystical forces set out to avenge their former master while saving Princess Kira from her sordid fate.
Trying to craft a feature film based on a well-known and decidedly well-loved tale is always fraught with danger but doing it not in its native language certainly adds to the hardship. To put it simply, outside of Keanu Reeves the entire cast of 47 Ronin is comprised of Japanese actors whose native tongue is obviously not English. Although one can understand why producers have forced the film to be spoken entirely in English to potentially maximize its box office this core decision is seriously flawed, especially in this case where only Keanu Reeves’ character has any reason to speak in anything other than Japanese. Even then, the story takes great pains in showing how the orphan Kai is raised entirely in Japan by a secret society so that his native language should undoubtedly be Japanese.
By forcing everyone to speak English the film clearly suffers as it quickly becomes obvious that most are struggling to find meaning to their words. Although they all gamely soldier on with the alien dialogue it undoubtedly wraps them in a straitjacket so much so that they all become unnaturally stiff and their body language rarely matches well with that of a native speaker. Considering everyone should be speaking Japanese the film could easily have been subtitled forcing only Reeves to say his lines in a foreign dialect but alas this doesn’t come to pass and it is just one major missed opportunity.
Indeed, the production notes behind the project show that director Carl Rinsch initially had his Japanese actors first saying their lines in Japanese and then proceeding to speak them in English. If only he had edited the Japanese-only dialogue into the film rather than the English we might be looking at a totally different result.
Nevertheless, awkward intonation and pronunciation aside it might not have helped anyways to speak Japanese as the dialogue is woefully perfunctory and almost always focused entirely on exposition to move the plot forward. Without sufficient time allotted to fleshing out the characters the film makes the grand mistake of forgetting that audiences want protagonists whom they can identify with and cheer for but 47 Ronin never really bothers to dwell on that for long, more content to push on to the next fantastical action sequence.
Obviously, the film cannot even attempt to showcase 47 individual characters but the ones it does focus on are still constructed entirely from genre stereotypes that never deviate from the norm. Take the samurai who initially hates Kai for no other reason than his half-breed nature yet still takes the credit for killing a mystical beast even though it was not felled by him. Most viewers will probably surmise that eventually the character will come to see Kai as an honored equal and that is exactly what occurs. In short, the script has no surprises and it proceeds to unfold exactly as expected.
The only character given any significant backstory is Ôishi played by veteran Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada. As the de facto leader of the Ronin he is therefore tasked to either seek out revenge for their Lord or to fade ignominiously into history but at the same time his character still has to come to terms with Kai’s superior swordsmanship but half-breed nature. Sanada certainly has enormous gravitas and when on his game easily commands the screen with his presence making the character’s supporting status a real concern. To be fair, Sanada and Reeves have about equal screentime but this is a case where only one main character would have sufficed and Ôishi is clearly the stronger of the two as it is through him that audiences need to understand the samurai code and how honour works in this world.
In comparison, Reeves’ Kai functions more as the movie’s muscle as it paints him as the figure with the most swordsmanship skill to the point where he even has knowledge of mystical powers allowing him to move faster than humanly possible. As a half-breed that simply does not fit into the societal structure of the time, Kai’s backstory certainly could have been super-charged but instead the script quickly shunts that to the side for the traditional romantic sub-plot between lovers who come from different sides of the track.
There’s nothing wrong with this focus but for audiences to buy into the budding romance it needs to also be fleshed-out and it is essential to show how these two disparate lovers come together beyond just physical attraction. Alas, the movie never bothers to elucidate on this at all and their romance quickly degenerates to lustful or longing stares as the only element missing is the omission of overly melodramatic music to accentuate their relationship.
Keanu Reeves has never been known as a charismatic actor who electrifies the screen but his role as Kai actually doesn’t need those qualities especially since he’s merely a follower for most of the film. Therefore, his relative passivity and blank stares work in his favour but though apt in this case, it also amplifies the film’s mistake of making him a main character as he brings nothing to the group beyond his skill.
The movie’s discordant production unfortunately extends to the antagonists which are just as shallowly depicted. Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) has no motivation outside of his own personal political gain and therefore, comes across as wholly one-dimensional but the biggest missed opportunity is Rinko Kikuchi’s evil witch who has a varied toolbox of tricks including making mystical poison in the form of a spider that can cause hallucinations or morphing herself into a gigantic snarling serpent. Here is a character that potentially could have been truly memorable if the plot took time to at least explain her background. Nope. Instead, all Kikuchi does is seductively slink around as the movies errs in never fleshing out her powers and how they operate.
Additionally, the film completely flubs the obvious inclusion of the subplot involving her love for Lord Kira even though he actively courts and wants to bed Princess Mika (Ko Shibasaki) to consummate the pact between their houses. The witch appears jealous of this arrangement going so far as to give Mika a means to kill herself as it is understandable that she doesn’t want any rival, yet the movie doesn’t spend more time on this angle nor does it provide additional scenes between her and Lord Kira explaining how the duo initially met. It’s all very nebulous and the audience just has to accept that Kira has a supernatural ally without question.
Obviously, a story about 47 masterless samurai who purposely disobey the Shogun’s strict orders can only end with one final conclusion and though most will figure this fact out long before the climax it also seems to have metaphorically sucked all the life out of the film. There’s nary a moment of levity as everything proceeds with a heavy atmosphere more akin to a slow funeral procession rather than grand adventure yarn and the solemnity is altogether dull as nails. One would expect that the film’s fantastical elements would at least breathe some needed life into the proceedings, yet this never comes to pass as each of these sequences is played out as if it were a serious attempt at the newest production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It is one thing to be serious in nature but another to have the weight of the narrative stifle any sense of enjoyment.
For a $170 million USD film, 47 Ronin certainly nails most of its production design with some gloriously colourful and incentive CG work depicting a mystical Japanese landscape but one also gets the impression that the filmmakers didn’t go far enough in their depiction of said world. The ogre and boar monster look more like they belong in a Western production instead of being influenced by Japanese folklore and the occasional side trips to locations such as the port filled with wooden ships feels more like it is ripped from Pirates of the Caribbean rather than Japanese lore.
At the same time, although the sets look sufficiently elaborate, one can’t get over the fact that the overall landscape doesn’t feel exactly “right.” However, chalk that up to one’s own knowledge of Japan as those more intimate with the subject matter will immediately realize that the scenery isn’t Japan at all but rather that of someplace else. Newcomers will probably not notice but there’s also no denying that everything looks more as if it were ripped from New Zealand in The Lord of The Rings to the point where one might expect Bilbo Baggins to appear in a cameo.
Director Carl Rinsch certainly has an eye for colour as the film literally pops with lush visuals especially the sumptuous costumes from samurai armor to flowing royal robes. Nevertheless, extravagant attire and decent CG can’t save a film that merely plods from plot point to plot point and the total lack of convincing sympathetic characters really does nothing but accentuate the film’s cheerless aura. Even the action sequences are hit or miss and part of this stems from director Rinsch who has pacing issues in constructing compelling tension-filled battles. In other words, though the ronin are outnumbered they never really feel under threat as the opposition is composed of nameless unskilled goons.
47 Ronin can certainly be enjoyed as a kind of guilty pleasure but there’s nary an ounce of originality or inspiration to be found. Fans of the source material will probably be repulsed by the lack of depth and the radical new elements but newcomers will fare no better considering how the entire film feels bland and dour to the extreme. The film might have had good intentions on bringing the classic tale to a wider audience but all it really ends up accomplishing is adding a strong sense of Hollywood that is certainly not appreciated.
*1/2 out of ****
2013, USA, 118 Min, Universal Pictures, PG-13
Directed by Carl Rinsch
Screenplay by Chris Morgan, Hossein Amini
Screen Story by Chris Morgan, Walter Hamada
Produced by Pamela Abdy, Eric McLeod, Scott Stuber
Executive Producer Chris Fenton, Walter Hamada, Erwin Stoff
Music by Ilan Eshkeri
Cinematography by John Mathieson
Film Editing by Stuart Baird
Keanu Reeves: Kai
Hiroyuki Sanada: Ôishi
Ko Shibasaki: Mika
Tadanobu Asano: Lord Kira
Min Tanaka: Lord Asano
Jin Akanishi: Chikara
Masayoshi Haneda: Yasuno
Hiroshi Sogabe: Hazama
Takato Yonemoto: Basho
Hiroshi Yamada: Hara
Shû Nakajima: Horibe
Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa: Shogun Tsunayoshi
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