Directed by Carl Rinsch
Starring Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada and Rinko Kikuchi
In feudal Japan, the half-European boy Kai (Reeves) stumbles from the demon-haunted Tengu forest and is taken in by Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) of Ako, and comes to be loved by Asano’s daughter Mika (Ko Shibasaki), although hated by his samurai. When Lord Asano is framed for assault by his rival Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) and his witch (Kikuchi), he is forced to commit seppuku, leaving his loyal samurai – led by Oishi (Sanada) – to become ronin, forbidden from seeking vengeance by the Shogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa).
A year later, Mika is to be wed to Kira to prevent a feud, but Oishi recruits Kai to aid him and the other ronin in their unsanctioned quest for revenge, despite knowing that it will mean their own ignominious deaths.
What’s wrong with it?
Someone looked at the story of the 47 Ronin and apparently decided this needed a slutty witch, some demon crows, and a love story with a western actor. In the latter case, this is sadly probably the truth if the film was ever to sell in English.
Rinko Kikuchi, who was all kinds of awesome in Pacific Rim, is given a role where everything about the character – her hair, her clothes, her expression, her voice – basically screams sex. It’s not a bad look per se, but… Okay, you know how in Pacific Rim she wore a sculpted body suit and still looked serious? In this film, even when she shapeshifts into a fox, it’s clear that this is a fox who is no better than she ought to be. It’s not subtle, and placed against the other female characters – Oishi’s wife, a stoic and dutiful samurai bride; and Asano’s daughter, Kai’s love interest, who is painfully virtuous and lovelorn – it is clearly intended to make her seem bad, which is kind of disappointingly conservative and sex-negative.
The ronin – apart from Oishi and his son – are a bit of a cipher. There’s super-envious samurai, fat samurai, younger samurai, older samurai, archer samurai, and samurai with a top-knot; it might have been nice to get a bit more on them instead of Mika and Kai making doe eyes. The love story feels especially pointless, since the end of the film is so preordained. They keep saying they now they have to die, so it’s a bit like if, in Titanic, Jack Dawson had offered to show Rose the world, having already made a suicide pact with the iceberg.
There are also some dialogue clunkers, such as the reference to Kai learning the Tengu’s ‘lethal arts of killing’. As opposed, one presumes, to their non-lethal arts of killing.
What’s right with it?
The Japanese cast of 47 Ronin are excellent, from Sanada’s fragile dignity and quiet strength to Asano’s masterclass in smug snake leering, and while the role may be problematic, Kikuchi goes full on creepy as the Witch.
Also, the film is gorgeous, from the costumes to the larger production design. Ako and Nagato each have their own distinct colour schemes; warm, brick reds and green, against cold blue and black.
How bad is it really?
I think that ultimately the sin of 47 Ronin is to add weird magic shit to the story it is telling, and then not go balls to the wall with it. Kai can do this Tengu speed thing, but only a couple of times (wait; the otherworldly teachers, the reality-bending speed powers… it’s an earlier version of the Matrix and Kai is the One! Mind. Officially. Blown), and having done ‘witch’, the movie feels like it might have been more comfortable in an more fantastical vein.
As it is, the fantasy leaves the martial arts action and honour morality play which should be the heart of the story playing a little flat. It does, to its credit, avoid the obvious trap of having Kai criticise the samurai code, and keeps the ending intact.
Best bit (if such there is)?
The assault of Nagato is brilliantly choreographed, in particular the ronin climbing the walls with matting on their heads and the crackerjack timing of the initial takedowns.
What’s up with…?
- The ronin being so damned ninja?
- The witch’s heterochromia? Was it just to make her distinctive, or does it have some significance?
- The witch’s creepy, pseudo-sapphic menacing of Mika? It’s just a tad gratuitous.
- The beast from the opening hunt? It’s some sort of mythical monster, and yet people poo-poo the idea of witches and Tengu later on.
Production values – It’s so pretty. The fight choreography is a little heavy on special effects, however. 5
Dialogue and performances – For the most part, the script is clear and the acting good, although in places the speech is just too quiet. Keanu Reeves… remains Keanu Reeves. 9
Plot and execution – The story mostly follows the story of the 47 Ronin, just with more supernatural bullshit. 7
Randomness – The previous category is as low as it is because the supernatural bullshit is being marked of here. It would probably be as valid to mark higher for execution, but accept the supernatural stuff as part and parcel, with a resulting low mark in randomness. 16
Waste of potential – As I note above, I think that while the fantasy elements were probably an essential of selling the film in the west, having gone there it would have been better to go all in. 11