by Kathie Smith
The voiceover at the beginning of 47 Ronin states, “to know the story of the 47 Ronin is to know Japan.” There might actually be some truth to that, given the popularity of this 18th-century story in Japan and its symbolic portrayal of the samurai code of virtue. This tale of 47 men bravely sacrificing their lives for the honor of their Lord has been adapted in many different forms in Japanese culture, most notably in Hiroshi Inagaki’s film Chusingura (1962) and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Genroku Chusingura (1941). But the power of this legend and its philosophical importance to Japan has very little to do with the anglicized fantasy from first-time director Carl Rinsch. Quite the contrary, 47 Ronin carves a different path by infusing the ethos of bushido, or “way of the warrior,” with sporadic doses of vixenish necromancy and heartthrob romance. It’s not so much the liberties it takes with the source material as the paper-thin conviction with which it does so that delivers a muddled, if not indistinct, experience.
Director: Carl Rinsch
Producers: Chris Fenton, Walter Hamada, Erwin Stoff, Pamela Abdy, Eric McLeod
Writers: Chris Morgan, Hossein Amini, Walter Hamada
Cinematographer: John Mathieson
Editor: Stuart Baird
Music: Ilan Eshkeri
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Kou Shibasaki, Tadanobu Asano, Min Tanaka, Rinko Kikuchi, Jin Akanishi
Premiere: December 6, 2013 – Japan
US Theatrical Release: December 25, 2013
US Distributor: Universal Pictures
The elongated and perhaps slightly misguided introduction to 47 Ronin explains that Kai (none other than Keanu Reeves) is the adopted servant of Lord Asano (Min Tanaka). Relegated to a low-class life due to his dubious family lineage (demon and foreigner seem to be one and the same), Kai nonetheless serves Lord Asano with dedication and courage while eliciting a star-crossed love with his master’s daughter Mika (Kou Shibasaki). Establishing Kai’s valor and chivalry first, the movie eventually, if not jarringly, switches gears to build the armature of the historical narrative, working in the catalytic death of Lord Asano via some black magic and trickery cooked up by Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), who has his manipulative sights on Asano’s land, and his trusted shape-shifting witch. Kai is sold off into slavery, Mika is betrothed to the evil Lord Kira, and Lord Asano’s loyal samurai, led by Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), are demoted to ronin and sent into exile. Oishi cautions his men that they must be patient, but promises that they will wait, reunite, and do their duty to avenge their master.
Even though no expense seems to have been spared on the opulent costumes and sets, 47 Ronin suffers from an identity crisis, one hinted at by months of industry rumors surrounding the troubled production. The film awkwardly can’t decide whether it wants to fully embrace the story of Kai—an outsider redeemed in the eyes of his peers—or the compulsory samurai tale of the title. As a result, it unsuccessfully does both, the love story deriding the action with a script that demands very little of its actors—a godsend for Reeves but a huge disappointment for the A-list Japanese cast. Similarly, the movie also seems caught between fantastical farce and intrepid tragedy, all splashed across a lavish but schizophrenic canvas that resembles a combination of The Hobbit and Pirates of the Caribbean with a few statues of Buddha thrown in for good measure. 47 Ronin only finds a certain salve of confidence in its long-in-the-making third act when the warriors furtively gain entrance into Lord Kira’s palace and pounce with swords drawn. But it is only a brief respite from this misconceived adaptation, its creative zeal imploding into insignificant disarray.