I love samurai movies. I own the Criterion Collection edition of several of Kurosawa’s major works and they are among the prized pieces of my movie collection. With this in mind I went to see 47 Ronin. Despite claims that it was done in the same tradition as Kurosawa, I had no expectations that 47 Ronin would live up to that. All I was really hoping for was a faithful, artistic retelling of the Japanese legend. What I got was a disappointing mess. At almost every turn 47 Ronin managed to do the wrong thing.
The original legend of the forty-seven ronin is a classic Japanese tale about forty-seven masterless samurai lead by Oishi who avenge their master’s death. Their master, Lord Asano, had been goaded into attacking a court official, Kira, in Edo Castle over a perceived slight. Assaulting a court official was a grave crime and the master was forced to commit ritual suicide. Forty-seven of the disgraced master’s samurai vowed to avenge their master and waited two years to fulfill their promise. After completing their mission, they turned themselves in and were also required to commit suicide, an unfortunate but honorable end to their quest. The story has become an example of the best that the samurai culture has to offer; honor, duty and loyalty.
The witch, played by Rinko Kikuchi, was a very bizarre and frequently creepy addition. According to this movie, she placed Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) under a spell, which is what made him attack Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) with whom she is in league; rather than the original story plot in which Kira goads him into it. The whole idea comes across as somewhat forced and unnecessary. There also was a big deal made of her eyes, which have Heterochromia iridum (fancy name for her eyes being different colors). While this was an interesting little touch, the movie spent considerable screen time on close-ups of her face, trying to show off this feature but without any real explanation. Do all witches have eyes like this? I’m fairly certain the answer is no. Even when she transformed into animals (all of which were pretty awful looking CGI) they still had the two-toned eyes. She comes across as creepy. She’s not spooky, Stephen King kind of creepy, but more like the “I need adult supervision” kind of creepy. One scene in particular between the witch and Mika (Kô Shibasaki) was both creepy and bizarrely sexual and just made me mildly uncomfortable.
Hands down the biggest problem with this movie was of course Kai, the half-breed, played by none other than Keanu Reeves. /Sigh/ I’m almost at a loss of where to begin, but I think I’ll start with the character himself. Into this entirely Japanese cast the film makers dropped a half white, half Japanese character who was apparently trained by demons as a child to be a killer. He then escapes, is found by Lord Asano, and raised by the lord. However, he was forced to live outside the lord’s house in a hut (Japanese xenophobia prevented him from being an equal). Of course, the lord’s daughter Mika doesn’t care and becomes Kai’s companion.
Finally when Kai is grown up and the witch shows up with Lord Kira, he is the only one who can tell she’s a witch (apparently because he was raised by demons). I swear I’m not making up any of this, and in fact I’m leaving some of it out. It’s a mix of ridiculous and cliché that I could not have come up with after a week-long bender. I get why the studio would want to have included a white character, as there are not many big name Japanese actors, but to then add in all of this other crazy stuff just confuses the hell out of me. As for Keanu himself, he won’t be winning any awards for this performance, except for maybe a Razzy. Reeves spent most of the film mumbling out dialogue and then staring blankly at either the camera or his fellow cast members.
For a movie that claimed to be the successor to Akira Kurosawa’s work, it falls spectacularly short of that high mark. The scale of the movie was probably the only element that came anywhere near it. Kurosawa was capable of massive scenes, such as those in the movie Ran. In this movie there were a couple of shots in which I could see that the film makers had done at least a little of their homework. These however were the only glimmers of hope, and the overwhelming majority were in the first thirty minutes of the movie.
When it comes to Japanese culture, however, the film makers were less than studious. Frequently, characters spoke out of turn or insinuated themselves into situations in ways that would have been unacceptable in Japanese society. There were also issues from time to time with the sword choreography. At times the fighting was much more of a western style as opposed to a Japanese style, using stabs and thrusts with a sword that isn’t designed for those kinds of moves. If it weren’t for the costumes, there were several times that I would have forgotten this story takes place in feudal Japan. Even the costumes often looked cheap and not in keeping with the standards that Kurosawa set for movies of this type.
Overall this movie was just a mess. While I didn’t feel like my money was wasted, I certainly cannot recommend this movie to anyone. If someone out there would like to make a movie about the forty-seven ronin that is really good, I encourage you to make it quickly so that we can all forget about this one. I give it one Death Star.