47 Ronin by Carl Erik Rinsch

47 Ronin by Carl Erik Rinsch

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.
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Pacific Rim by Guillermo del Toro – 100th post!

Pacific Rim by Guillermo Del Toro

As a war between humankind and monstrous sea creatures wages on, a former pilot and a trainee are paired up to drive a seemingly obsolete special weapon in a desperate effort to save the world from the apocalypse.

The fights are the main attraction. You either go along with that premise or not, there’s no two ways about it. In reality, it’s probably more resourceful to bomb these giant monsters or shoot them with a very big cannon, instead of making giant robots to punch them to death. But where’s the fun in that? Suffice to say, the fights are a tense visceral experience and the scale of everything delivers an epic sense of awe. They do everything to up the ante and surprise the audience. Special moves are only used in climatic moments and there’s just something about a giant robot using a boat as a bat that’s just hilarious and jaw-dropping. These fights run very dangerously to the cinematic equivalent of watching somebody play a video game. That’s why I like the drifting mind meld concept, because it solves that problem by it properly adding both physical and emotional conflict to the pilots controlling the Jaegars as well. It focuses to how well these pilots are controlling the Jaegars as opposed to how the Jaegars are fighting the Kaijus.

The fights are shot somewhat tightly but for a very good reason. Shooting the fights close holds the tension and injects the sense of jeopardy and stake into every exchange in the fight choreography. I imagine if the fights were covered entirely in long wide shots, it would lose that sense of scale and the fights would look silly. That said, I had no problem following what’s going on because emotionally it felt right to be watching them that way. And personally, it was doubly fun that the film was set in Hong Kong.

There’s been a common complaint that the characters lacked development, I disagree.  Basically these people all have baggage and they have to band together as a team or fall apart. The film spends time building arcs for its ensemble cast, and it’s sufficient to justify the epic robot monster fights. That’s it, so I don’t understand that complaint. Adding neat little quirks or oddball idiosyncrasies to these characters would have been overkill.

The dialogue is one of the film’s weaker portions. However, depending on how well each actor was able to milk the lines, I was still able to have fun with it. I couldn’t stop cackling at Charlie Day’s fast-paced high-pitched deliveries, who rises above being “Dr. Exposition” and balances the film with comic relief. Day’s exchange with the rival math-based scientist played by Burn Gorman is essentially a cartoon-level quarrel equivalent to Daffy Duck arguing with Bugs Bunny. The math Gorman’s scientist applies is is grade-school at best. Ron Perlman facetiously entertains in flying colors as the Kaiju body parts black marketer Hannibal Chau, the most asshole character name ever created. Idris Elba also adds significant weight as the team leader. So for me, the side characters take the cake from the Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi storyline, which was played very straight for story purposes.

Guillermo del Toro is aware of current big-budget blockbuster tropes and differentiates himself from those trends in Pacific Rim. There are no homage or geek references to distract or alienate the audience. Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako character is not sexualized or filmed through a salivating male gaze; she is a real human character with a story and treated as such. The film doesn’t play like a military recruitment advertisement nor has any blatant nationalistic or jingoistic intentions. Perhaps one of my favorite things about Pacific Rim is it tonally divorces itself from post-9/11 sentimentality. The world has its own distinct fictional reality, where destruction is not linked by evoking imagery, memories or emotions from September 11th. Civilians evacuate from buildings, hide in shelters and the streets are clear for the Jaegers to bash the Kaijus. Most importantly, del Toro never dwells heavily on despair or hopelessness and the audience can enjoy the city-wide destruction guilt-free. All those things counted together, Pacific Rim is truly a breath of fresh air amidst current blockbuster aesthetics and a film made with the most earnest intentions.

Without an A-list star, a love story or a recognizable established franchise (i.e. Godzilla or Transformers) , it’s not hard to see why Pacific Rim didn’t score at the box office. As Snakes On A Plane proved at its theatrical release, the geek fan base doesn’t represent much of the core population. The geeks merely are just the most vocal. Perhaps other parts of the demographic are alienated just by the material itself, despite that del Toro is aiming to entertain everybody. If there’s one underdog movie people should give a chance to this summer, let it be Pacific Rim. It’s a passionate earnest film made by a director that loves the material and wants to deliver good clean fun with a positive message for everybody. His attention to every little detail exudes his excitement for the material; that passion rubbed off on me and elevated my enjoyment.  It’s the most fun I’ve had watching a movie this summer. Guillermo del Toro, give me a hug!