A band of samurai set out to avenge the death and dishonor of their master at the hands of a ruthless shogun.
47 Ronin is a film reimagining of a popular Japanese folktale that is stuck inside its mythic contraptions. Everybody is an archetype, as opposed to a character. Love, hate or brotherhood between characters is assumed rather than shown through character development. The story starts and ends with an unknown narrator, who tells the story as if we were all listening to an old tale by a campfire. The end result is that it places a distance between the story and the audience. It is as if the story itself is matted on a frame, and we are just looking at it in a gallery with a curator recounting the story as opposed to the viewer experiencing the story from a first-person perspective.
Keanu Reeves is not the problem here. There is no room here to critique about woodiness as there wasn’t enough for him to do. He is casted here for marketing reasons and it really shows. Reeves’ character is sidelined by Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays the leader of the Ronin. Sanada carries the film with his powerful presence; you really do believe he can really hurt someone with a sword. He has long been the go-to guy for American-Japanese co-productions and it’s finally nice to see him in a central role. Tadanobu Asano also shows up to chew some scenery as the villain and adds a depth that wasn’t on the page. My fingers are still crossed he will play Genghis Khan again in a sequel to Mongul.
Hearing the film opened poorly in Japan is unfortunate. Perhaps it is uncomfortable for the Japanese to see their own folktale retold in a foreign production. I have bulked at my fair share of Hollywood misrepresentations of Chinese culture, and evidently there is a sufficient amount of Orientalism in the film. Though the fantasy elements and the production design are so extreme it plays closer to a graphic novel. The more I think about why the fantasy elements were added, the more it seems like it is there to justify the casting of Keanu Reeves as a half-Caucasian half-Japanese outsider amongst an entire cast of Japanese actors. I can’t help but imagine what a more realistic telling of this story would have been like as the Japanese cultural elements and Samurai politics were more interesting than the magic and mythic beasts.
To sum it all up, 47 Ronin is a fantasy graphic novel style adaptation of a Japanese folktale released in December. Perhaps it is not exactly the most festive way to start the new year with all the beheadings and Samurai ritual suicide. The story also takes a long time to get set up, which asks for a lot of patience on the viewer’s part. The ideal crowd would have been overseas anime geeks who are fascinated with Japanese pop culture, and perhaps for that, the film may have fared better if it was released in the March-April slot. That all said, even with its flaws and supposed qualifiers, 47 Ronin accomplishes what it sets out to do. It’s just not for everybody.
Man of Tai Chi by Keanu Reeves