UK Release Date: December 26th, 2013 (UK)
Running Time: 119 mins.
Director: Carl Erik Rinsch
Writer: Chris Morgan, Hossein Amini
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Kou Shibasaki, Tadanobu Asano, Rinko Kikuchi, Jin Akanishi, Min Tanaka, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa,
47 Ronin is the Hollywood adaptation of a real incident from Japan’s samurai past during the Tokugawa era where 47 masterless samurai seek revenge over the death of their Lord through the assassination of another even though it means certain death. It is a celebrated tale that has been turned into multiple films because it typifies the bravery and loyalty of the samurai at a time when they were losing their place in the country. Instead of sticking firmly to the facts the writers of this version favour have endeavoured to make a fantasy epic close to The Lord of the Rings (perhaps to make it more palatable to a mainstream audience?) but in doing so they make a vapid and dull action film.
Ancient feudal Japan. A group of magical islands full of witches and demons. Peace is kept by samurai. The story of 47 Ronin is the story of all Japan.
The first character we meet is a boy named Kai, the illegitimate son of a British sailor and a Japanese peasant woman who was abandoned in a forest raised by Tengu. He is fleeing the forest in which they live so he can experience a life amongst humans. During his escape he runs into Lord Asano (Tanaka) and his entourage. Asano takes pity on the boy and takes him in. Asano’s samurai are displeased, not least his loyal general Oishi (Sanada), but his daughter Mika takes a liking to Kai.
Fast forward to the future and Kai (Reeves) is an outcast in Asano’s kingdom. He is held in contempt by the haughty samurai, usually referred to as half-breed and treated like a dog, but the love of Mika (Sibasaki) is enough joy for him to remain in the service of her father. This loyalty is called upon when the evil Lord Kira (Asano) and a witch named Mizuki (Kikuchi) use magic to destroy Asano and steal his lands. Oishi, banished with the rest of Asano’s samurai plot their revenge and it is Kai with his mysterious past who will play a pivotal role.
I wanted to like this film despite reports of it being a potential disaster but the best I csn say is that 47 Ronin is not an entirely bad film. It has already been dismissed by other critics and it looks like it will be one of the bigger box office flops of 2013 considering it had a budget of $175 million and looks to be struggling to recoup big box office returns from North America and Japan. Its big crime is not so much that it is badly made but that it is not better. It is dull for long stretches and that is down to writing and directing.
The film is the directorial debut of Carl Erik Rinsch, a man with a background in advertising who had a huge budget and a cast and crew of talented people to work with but the result is underwhelming. The huge budget is clearly on the screen with some great visuals but there is no interesting style to remark upon.
There are some beautiful and even stunning outdoor sets which are glimpsed like the mist shrouded Tengu forests, the Dutch Island and the bad guy’s frost-covered castle located in somewhere Mordor.
Many scenes are great to look at because there is the bold use of colours as well as the excellent set design, CGI and the costume designs. There is eye-candy here but the overall direction makes the film feel really inert despite all of the action because the editing and camera-work are formulaic, competent and nothing more.
With the injection of fantasy elements the film goes for and achieves a Lord of the Rings feel as can be seen from some spectacular sweeping shots of the landscape and the magical creatures cribbed from Princess Mononoke. I felt that 47 Ronin also achieved the bloodless action of those fantasy films as characters I did not consider fully rounded humans whirled blades around in unenthusiastically shot battles. Due to dull editing which cross cuts between battles that lacked the frenzy and desperation, and failed to show the skill of the characters. It wastes the monsters and the massive amount of extras who get into battle and so it fails to be exciting like other samurai titles and it hurts the film more when most of the characters are rather dull and this is where the film really flounders, the human drama at its heart.
The script is driven by a formulaic plot and characterisation is dispensed with too simply or ignored entirely. Maybe Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini have no real interest or understanding of Japanese culture and history or maybe they were under pressure to deliver something safe but the film’s writers opt to avoid examining and displaying anything too Japanese and instead rely on the fantasy elements to create a stock fantasy film. Their screenwriting credits include Drive and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, so one would be forgiven for expecting any in-depth exploration of the themes and world on offer but they do broach so many different aspects of Japanese culture from realistic things like samurai and ninja to fantasy elements like Tengu and fearsome demonic samurai armour so it is disappointing more isn’t made of it and the battles and mythology involved are skimped on.
There are interesting stories here. People labouring under the tyranny of the Shogun and the Bushido code, the forbidden love between an outsider and a feudal lord’ daughter, racism and violence but none of it is explored. This lack of interest and analysis in human event results in a superficial film full of superficial characters which wastes the cast.
Perhaps imbuing 47 different Ronin was a tough challenge for the writers and director who settle on defining them through simple physical traits (the half-breed, the leader, the fat one, the grizzled one, the guy with a moustache and a hat) but they fail to make any character come to life. Perhaps Seven Samurai or 13 Assassins is a more reasonable number of characters to cover…
The script’s treatment of characters is a shame for the actors.
Kou Shibasaki, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rinko Kikuchi, Tadanobu Asano and Keanu Reeves are all great actors but they are given so little to work with thanks to the script which reduces them to playing shallow characters with rote character arcs.
Kou Shibasaki can do action, drama and comedy (Battle Royale, Galileo, One Missed Call), and yet she is reduced to being a doe-eyed love-interest constantly crying “Father” or “Kai” and looking either defiant or submissive. The romance between her and Keanu barely registers beyond polite and perfunctory despite all of the frisson and sizzle that their forbidden romance should entail. Even when they lay hands on each other’s flesh it lacks any depth of feeling or meaning beyond being a plot device.
For his part Keanu plays his character straight. Kai is a stoic outsider raised on the periphery of samurai culture and, like a “half-breed” would, pragmatically adopting it so he can live among humans and endure their hatred but despite being the top-billing actor he is curiously on the periphery of the film, one of the 47 ronin. Indeed, Hiroyuki Sanada’s character Oishi seems to lead most of the action. Perhaps it is meant to show his acceptance by the samurai but their acceptance lacks any meaning because the racism he endures and his ordeals are rote movie stuff wheeled out at the appropriate time. It feels false and the dramatic weight is missing as a result. We never get a sense of his anger or frustration or the depth of contempt in which he is held which is a missed opportunity. He is just a guy with a magical past who longs for a princess and is handy with a sword, not a human being.
Other actors like Hiroyuki Sanada (The Twilight Samurai) and Tadanobu Asano (Vital) are just awesome and have played samurai before and yet their characters barely register beyond being noble yet haughty and handsome yet evil respectively. Their climatic swordfight is intercut with Keanu’s battle but it is just another action set-piece to crown the film. The other actors are solid, just given too little to do and so they are wasted. There is so much to explore, the ridiculous demands of the Bushido code and the tyranny of the Shogun’s rule but due to the problem of poor characterisation these things barely register on an emotional scale.
The one bright note (and it shines so bright!) is Rinko Kikuchi. I have been a fan of hers since watching Norwegian Wood and it is the second film of 2013 she features in (the first being Pacific Rim). She was the centre of attraction for the film, always stealing a scene because she is the one who got to stretch her acting muscles. She is the witch who can transform into a fox and bewitches men and she bewitched me. Sexy, alluring and playful, she also has an acidic sea of rage that threatens to burst out of her when she is up against a rival. Kou Shibasaki is her prime target and Kikuchi is deliciously malevolent. She gets to have fun in her role as she flirts with and destroys enemies and comprehensively out-acts everybody from the film.
Everybody delivers their English lines well but the content of their words is hardly meaningful or original.
There is a really interesting tale here. Many actually, but the original, a tale of 47 men who bravely sacrificed themselves to fulfil their duty and uphold the bonds of loyalty to their lord and honour of their class is done a disservice by a film which is entirely average and mostly dull. If this had been fun to watch I would have forgiven the lack of drama. The poor direction and poor script are sometimes balanced out by some really great visuals, the great set and costume designs and some of the great (okay, just Rinko Kikuchi) acting. In the hands of another, more experienced director and writers who are willing to get stuck into Japanese culture and give more to a set of fantastic actors and it would have been a great fantasy film, a brilliant visual extravaganza. As it is the first English language adaptation of a classical tale is a wasted opportunity.
My first review of 2014 and so negative. The next review is another samurai film I watched in the second half of 2013 and will score much, much better. Lets end on a happy and beautiful note. Rinko Kikuchi, Rinko the beauty. Ah, the best thing about the drama Moteki.