“47 Ronin” (meaning samurai without a master), is the latest film about samurai’s and shoguns (generals) from Japanese history. The topic has been covered in films such as “The Last Samurai”, going all the way back to Asian cinema from the 30’s, through to the 50’s. With his first full length feature, director Carl Rinsch brings a fresh aesthetic appeal, along with a nicely developed back story and includes an American in the mix, one who is slowly but surely returning to form. 47 Ronin tells the story of a band of samurai looking to avenge the death of their master, who was wrongly accused of dishonoring the shogun. As a young boy, Kai (played as an adult by Keanu Reeves), was rescued and taken in by Lord Asano (Min Tanaka), the master of the city Ako. There, he was raised alongside the Samurai, but referred to as a half-breed and never truly accepted. Over time he forms a close bond with Asano’s daughter, Mika (Ko Shibasakii), Kai must lead the Ronin into battle if he hopes to save her from Lord Kira and a witch who wish to take over the city. (Respectively played by Tadanobu Asana and Rinko Kikuchi). The movie also stars Hiroyuki Sanada, Jin Akanishi, Takato Yonemoto and Hiroyuki Tagawa.
The film opens with some really nice narration explaining a little bit about Kai’s (Reeves) history, as well as touching on some ancient Japanese laws. In a film of this nature, the narrated sections are clear and to the point, they help to lay the foundation for the main character. A lot of the crucial information about Kai is only revealed when it’s relevant, but most of it doesn’t become clear until the last act. The quality of the camera work and the beautiful locations are fantastic and make for some wonderful scenes. The blend between the footage shot on location and the CG enhanced backgrounds, is impressive. There were only one or two visuals that struck me as obviously fake, although they were incredibly detailed (probably why they were hard to ignore). With this quality of CG, from the lush forest and creek in the beginning of the film, to the scenes filmed by the dock or on the ships, it really helps draw the viewer into that world.
The lovely cinematography and overall shooting style transfers well to 3D. I didn’t find any moments really jumping out at me but that’s not to say the look of each location wasn’t enhanced by having it in 3D. The action gets started nice and early with a battle between Kai and a huge beast in the woods. Unfortunately it subsides for a rather long period of time during the middle portion. Most of the cast put in decent performances, but the emotional scenes don’t have that sense of urgency one would experience if in a similar situation. Reeves does enough to get by, but doesn’t seem overly enthused by the idea. Although, being one of two non-Asian actors (the other only, having just one scene), feeling out-of-place is to be expected. When the action gets started in the second half its nicely choreographed and everyone seems well-drilled, making for some fun and realistic battles.
I wasn’t bothered by the fact, that over the years similar stories of the 47 Ronin have been adapted for the big screen, but I suppose that has to be acknowledged. Having not seen any of the previous films I can’t say this is original in any way but I can state that It’s a modern take on that part of history and I don’t think anything else would offer these kind of visuals. The problem with using 47 as the number is that there’s definitely not 47 in this group of sullied warriors (don’t know if there was in history). They should have cast more people to fill those roles or re-named it “Ronin”. Issues arise with authenticity because the group never really feels truly outnumbered or in a real life or death situation. The whole thing needed to be constructed on a much broader spectrum. Early on much of the film focuses on a battle of power between Asano and the Shogun and should have been spent building on Kai’s character arc. The story contains the predictable forbidden love aspect, which becomes the driving force behind Kai fighting back. The fairytale stuff isn’t needed here, after all this is an action/adventure movie primarily for men.
Moreover, when lifelong enemy Oishi, head of the samurai’s who serve Asano turns to Kai for help you can go ahead and put that big tick in the cliché box. I’m sure that’s a plot point used in countless Japanese films of the same vein (haha). It annoyed me because there wasn’t even a slow build towards acceptance or respect between Kai and Oishi. The two had grown up in the same environment. Oishi had nothing but contempt for Kai and then he’s like “Hey friend, I’m kind of in a bind, can you help me out” (haha), my answer would have been hell no! *anyways moving on*. I wanted to know more about Kai and his fighting ability, or his whereabouts as a kid before being rescued. To be fair, we do get a lot of those answers as the film progresses, but I can’t help thinking it could have been explored in the beginning instead of some of the lack-luster scenes we get. The acting falls pretty flat in the more emotional scenes but that could be due to this entire Japanese cast speaking English in a film set somewhere between the 12th and 16th century. It should have been made in Japanese for authenticity sake. These people weren’t speaking English back then so did they just do this for Keanu’s sake??. That or they were thinking it wouldn’t appeal to the masses if it was foreign, I’m not sure.
I wasn’t a fan of the witchcraft aspect of the story either. Everything else seems like it could have existed at one time or another, but dragons and magic don’t fit into something grounding itself in reality. I know with fantasy you can take some liberties but other than poisoning one character it played no real part in the outcome of the story. The most disappointing thing about this Americanized version, is that being a movie about ancient Japanese warriors you’d expect blood right??. There isn’t any. I mean not even a drop, it’s the equivalent of making a zombie film, in a family friendly way (Yes I’m speaking about you “World War Z” *rolls eyes*), no true fan wants to see that. Kids films are for kids, if you’re going to make a Samurai film it needs to be visceral to have any real impact. Side note, don’t allude to an awesome tattooed looking pirate if you’re not going to use him in more than one scene, that was very disappointing.
I feel like people decided they were going to hate 47 Ronin before they even saw it. This isn’t perfect by any means but it’s nowhere near as bad as some have led you to believe. The visuals are wonderfully striking, the time period has been re-created seamlessly and the action we do get to see is pretty entertaining. If they shot this with Japanese dialogue, edited some of the familiar tropes in order to include more story and let loose on the blood, this could have been great. Instead it’s just a solid film about Samurai’s that’s not overly memorable. I’m not well schooled in Japanese cinema or the genre so I don’t know how it stacks up against its predecessors, but I still enjoyed it regardless.
My rating for “47 Ronin” is 6/10