47 Ronin

So last weekend the Metro Manila Film Festival finally ended and Philippine cinemas were finally free to replace the local garbage habitually exhibited during the holidays with garbage from foreign countries. This time we had a choice between two Hollywood films that have gotten abysmal reviews from critics and movie goers alike. As of this writing, The Legend of Hercules has a 4% score on rottentomatoes.com so that was out. I like a few of Renny Harlin's movies (Cliffhanger and Deep Blue Sea were both awesome, folks), but he's had so many misses since the 90's that I felt that this one didn't warrant the p220 ticket.

At an aggregate score of 11%, 47 Ronin isn't that much better, but it's got samurai in it. I'm pretty sure that it was Sun Tzu who said, "everything is better with samurai, dude". And besides, every now and then, I enjoy watching a 'bad' movie. At worst, I can write about it from experience, and at best, the reviews desensitize me so well that I end up enjoy it sans any expectations.

I'm glad to say that 47 Ronin was in that latter category.

47 Ronin is a film inspired by the forty-seven ronin (duh) of Japanese legend. The story has been shared in Japan since the 18th century as an example of loyalty and honor.

It goes like this: The Akō domain in Southern Japan is doing so well that it's daimyo,  Asano Naganori, is tasked with preparing a reception for the Shogun. Kira Yoshinaka, a master of ceremonies, is assigned to help Lord Asano prepare for the visit. According to the legend, Kira was corrupt and demanded bribes and favors from Asano for his services. After being refused, he shamed Asano into assaulting him in front of the Shogun. Asano was ordered to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide.

Afterwards, the Shogun dismissed Asano's vassals and dissolved his house. Kira went unpunished until the forty-seven ronin, once samurai beholden to Asano, snuck into his mansion a year later and killed him in retaliation for his part in their master's death. After the assassination, the men submitted themselves to the authorities and for the crime of murder, they were ordered to commit seppuku.

This story is told in every medium imaginable in Japan, from bunraku and kabuki, to manga and television to film. These 'chūshingura' all focused on the themes of loyalty, sacrifice, persistence, and honor, and while some of them are historically accurate (or as accurate as can be, considering), many are fictionalized, embellished versions of the tale.

And that's essentially what we have. The Hollywood version of the forty-seven ronin story is not an accurate portrayal of the historical incident. It takes the essentials from that story and re-packages it as a fantasy adventure for a Western audience.

Kai (later played by Keanu 'The One' Reeves) is a runaway who captured by demons. The demons spare him and teach him to hunt and to fight, but they are demons. They aren't known to be nurturing, caring people. Kai escapes and is taken in my Lord Asano (played by Japanese actor Min Tanaka) against the advice of his head samurai, Ôishi (played The Wolverine's Hiroyuki Sanada).

Being a peasant of mixed ancestry and having been raised by demons, Kai isn't welcomed by the samurai of Asano's court. They use him to help track game, but he's basically on the lowest rung of the social ladder to every one by Asano's daughter, Mika (Kô Shibasaki) who is infatuated with him.

After that bit of exposition, the movie moves into more familiar territory with Kira (Tadanobu Asano of Thor), now a rival daimyo instead of a court official, plotting to discredit Asano. In the film, he is assisted by his concubine, a witch played by Rinko Kikuchi, who we last saw in Pacific Rim. Lord Asano assaults Kira, the samurai are dismissed, Ôishi is thrown in the dungeon, and Kai is sold into slavery, while the Shogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) orders that no attempt at retaliation be made. To make certain, he arranges a marriage between Kira and Mika (after a year of mourning), to merge the houses.

After Ôishi is released from prison, he learns that the wedding is only a few weeks away and hunts down Kai for  in procuring weapons from the demons who raised him. After that, you can pretty much figure out where it goes.

While Kai is a rather clunky addition to the story, I see why he was added to the ensemble; he functions as an audience surrogate in the film, an outsider looking into a world that he isn't really a part of. I'm guessing that someone felt it was needed in order to get Western movie-goers into it, since this isn't your typical happy Disney fairy tale. And let's face it, American movie audiences won't flock to a movie with an all Japanese cast (no matter how great that that would have been).

The fantasy elements, I felt, was also added in attempt to facilitate that buy-in. The bushidō code as motivation and ritual suicide as they pay-off probably wouldn't fly too well in the west, so it's best that the setting of this film is more fantastic than it is real.

It helps that the visuals are so stunning. The costumes, sets, matte paintings, set extensions, weapons, and monster designs all look fantastic, full of color and awesome production value. The fights are also well-choreographed and, except for one weirdly shot chase scene with unintelligible geography, they were high points of the film.

The low points were also there. Because the cast is largely Japanese, English isn't the language normally spoken by the actors. I've seen several of Hiroyuki Sanada's films, and he's a great actor when he speaks in Japanese, but his cadence when speaking in English can be a little jarring. Rinko Kikuchi is probably the worst in that regard, and I noticed the same in Pacific Rim. Because of it, I really didn't like her as the succubus, here. I just don't see her as sexy, or powerful, but that's a largely subjective view.

Pacing is also an issue. There's a ton of exposition in this film because of all the things thrown into the narrative. I had no problem with it, but my girlfriend got pretty bored. Your mileage may vary. Apparently, this went through a butt-load of studio interference, numerous re-writes, and no focus group screenings.

Considering that, I think it's remarkably tight.

I really did enjoy this film immensely, and would very much buy it on DVD when it comes out. The action and the fantasy and the monsters, all of it mixes together nicely. I also like that it didn't come with a typical Hollywood feel-good ending.

I'm really hoping that this isn't the last we see of director Carl Rinsch. 47 Ronin, is bombed pretty bad in the box office and this is his first feature film. It would be sad if we don't see him again because if this is the result of his first time up to bat, who knows what he can do after he's had some practice.

To sum up, if you're looking for a relatively accurate portrayal of what is accepted to have happened in
Akō domain back in the 18th century, then I suggest you look for one of the dozens of Japanese film adaptations.

If you're looking for a pretty good fantasy adventure, with samurai, Japanese stuff, and monsters that look like they're out of Guillermo Del Toro's sketchbook, this one's pretty good.

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