Japan is a beautiful country. I know that even though I’ve never actually set foot on its soil. Thousands of years of myth and steadfast tradition has long enthralled the more relaxed Western cultures, and cinema has always revelled in the deep cultures of its picturesque history. Modern filmic takes like the animated Spirited Away go into great detail to bring their Japanese worlds to life, and often this can result in deep, complicated and slow-burning plots that weave through character and mystery.
Unfortunately, 47 Ronin is what happens when someone called Carl watches a Japanese samurai classic and thinks “you know, this could be more accessible.”
Apparently, the story is based on an annually-celebrated legend of the forty-seven ronin (samurai no longer without masters) who fought to regain the honour of their killed feudal leader, or daimyo. It is, as a sombre and reverential final block of text tells us just before the end credits roll, an event to remember those who put honour in front of tradition, two elements still at the heart of Japanese society. However, we’re in movie territory now, so you can expect additions of witches, shapeshifting, giant beasts, ghostly demons and magic all around. Obviously. This actually perfectly encapsulates the movie’s approach – whereas a Japanese production might be more likely to focus purely on the human factors with tact and focus, 47 Ronin instead elects to blast the senses with special effects at any given moment. Cuts are quick, story threads pass by in a blur and slo-mo deathblows abound.
CARL WANTS A CENTRAL FOCUS. So, in steps Keanu Reeves as the grown-up version of an orphaned boy, Kai, who was taken in by daimyo Lord Asano after escaping the demon-filled forest. Raised alongside the samurai but allowed none of their honour or respect, he is instead used as little more than a slave boy who would have surely lost his life years ago without the protection of their communal leader figure. He hones his skills in private, proving to be a fighter with potential even without tapping into the super special demon powers that he is rumoured to have.
Did you get that? Super special demon fighting powers that he has sworn to never, ever use? Under no circumstances? Ever?
CARL WANTS A LOVE INTEREST. The feudal leader has a beautiful daughter, Mika, who was one of the first people to show Kai any compassion when he was first brought in from the cold. They are of similar age, one of a number of quick “young Keanu” scenes showing how they grow close over their parallel upbringing. Now, as adults, she is sad as they can’t be together, the shame of their social split too much to overcome.
CARL WANTS A CENTRAL BADDIE. Enter Lord Kira, the sneering lord who sets up the whole situation to force a dishonourable death on Lord Asano and steal his land away from him. And why just stop at land? Why not disband/torture Asano’s remaining samurai and forcefully marry his daughter, too? You know, Kai’s secret love? She is allowed a year of mourning, so why not make sure she’s safely locked away in a castle that will make a great setpiece in roughly 365 day’s time?
CARL WANTS MAGIC. AND MYTH. LOTS OF THIS. Kira can’t do all this by himself, so he has his own witch in tow. She’s very useful – distorting perspectives to force action, turning blood into spiders, changing into a terrible CGI fox-wolf-thing to spy on people in between standing around in human form…spying on people. Oh, and she can also turn into a terrible CGI dragon to give Kai something to actually fight in the final act (reputedly formed in hasty reshoots when Universal realised their key actor was basically missing from the climax). A totally wasted Rinko Kikuchi looks unsure and uncomfortable throughout, showing none of the cool charm from The Brothers Bloom or the raw grit from Pacific Rim, both elements that could have shaped her witch into something much more interesting. Again, the speed of the cut is to blame – a potentially terrific scene where she straddles Mika to force her into suicide is once again dealt with a total lack of focus and patience.
CARL WANTS THE HERO TO FACE AND OVERCOME HIS DEMONS (LITERALLY) IN PREPARATION FOR THE FINAL BATTLE. So into the forest we go, paper-thin characters of the forty-seven ronin trudging behind Keanu in search of swords, because mythical forest demons totally have the market cornered on those. The following scenes not only allows us to understand that only a calm mind can overcome the test of great evil (or something), but it’s also a chance for the reputedly overstretched CGI team to really get the motion blur going. For nothing says secret-demon-powers-that-I-have-sworn-never-to-use better than streaking motion blur.
And so on we go, the film creaking onwards down the necessary path dictated by the hero’s journey into a battle that is as predictable and uninspiring as the rest of the movie. The final action of punishment – the taking of life, choosing to die with honour – leaves a hollow thud as its deeper meaning has no real contextual explanation or relevance to the preceding ninety minutes.
CARL WANTS…A NEW JOB. As the budget exploded and tales of production stress began to flow out like dead witch blood (SPOILER), producer Universal snatched Carl Rinsch’s movie away the moment he finished reshoots and left him out of the editing process completely. Maybe that’s why the finished article is so happy to skip over the typical slow-burn elements of Japanese culture in order to plough into the next fight scene – who knows, had Carl managed to keep his job, perhaps it could have emerged as a different beast.
Reeves is becoming the focus for the film’s failure (after only making $9.9 million in its opening weekend, 47 Ronin now needs to make half a billion dollars world-wide just to break even), but really, he’s not to blame. He may not be the most varied actor but he’s eminently watchable, and you can tell from each of his scenes that he’s taking the whole thing very seriously. His respect and interest in Asian combat and culture is no secret (as his directorial involvement in Man Of Tai Chi shows), but his deeply respectful tone is as odds with a movie that is more of a picture postcard. Aside from his brutal fighting scenes, he attempts to adds peace, pace and character to a film that doesn’t seem to be concerned with filmic beauty at all.
Kai’s sensei, and chief samurai, is Ôishi. A loyal follower of Lord Asano, it is Ôishi who leads the remaining ronin into battle against Kira. After the seppuku death of Asano, Kira decides to break Ôishi’s will by leaving him in “the pit” for an entire year. At this point, any director trying to capture the Japanese tone of film would build a slow montage as time passes – browning cherry blossoms, Ôishi’s son watching the pit cover from heartbreakingly little distance, snow, shadow, moonlight and sunshine – leaving us to live the torture of the pit with the solitary prisoner. But not 47 Ronin. Ôishi is thrown into the pit and looks around in the darkness. Screen goes black, then three words; One Year Later. Ôishi is pulled back out with only a tatty glued-on beard to show anything has happened at all.
The result is one of complete disconnect. Why should we care? It’s a feeling echoed as the final credits roll and we emerge from our own pit of torture. What was that? Why should I care when clearly all you wanted to do was fill the year that Mika had to mourn before her forced marriage?
Aah, Mika. Kai’s true love, locked in an impregnable castle with the chief protagonist and his pet witch who is capable of turning into a fearsome, deadly dragon. Hey, do you remember Kai’s super secret demon fighting powers that he swore to never, ever use?