The film 47 Ronin is a textbook example of how helicoptering into a foreign locale and attempting to tell one of its cherished stories can go so dreadfully wrong.
The famous 18th Century story, an integral part of Japanese legend and identity, narrates how a group of 47 ronin, or samurai without a leader, extracted a terrible revenge on the court official whose actions were responsible for their master’s suicide.
But the Japanese myth retold for Western taste in director Carl Rinsch’s 47 Ronin is a sullen and ponderous enterprise, right from the opening voiceover that announces how ancient Japan was a time of demons, witchcraft and the like. You don’t have to be a devotee of Japanese history to know you’re in trouble. The flaccid narrative, random CGI creatures and absurd dialogue don’t help improve matters.
Among the liberties taken with the story to make it a potential Western blockbuster is the invention of a character for Keanu Reeves. He plays the grown up version of Kai, a lowly half-breed child with mysterious antecedents, taken in by Lord Asano (Min Tanaka). Kai grows up as an outsider and predictably falls in love with his rescuer’s daughter Mika (Ko Shibasaki).
Mika also catches the eye of villainous Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) who has empire-building dreams and wishes Asano out of the way. Kira’s trusted witch (Rinko Kikuchi) bewitches Asano into attacking his own guests — an unforgivable crime. Asano is sentenced to commit seppuku and end his life — which leaves his band of samurai with enough motivation to plot revenge.
47 Ronin is an odd choice of return-to-celluloid for Reeves — though on paper, he would have sounded perfect, given his martial arts exposure, Zen-like good looks and impassive demeanour that fans call inscrutable and critics, wooden. But it’s a badly underwritten role; Reeves winds up playing the self-effacing, shadowy outsider so thoroughly, he isn’t a presence in the film at all.
Centrestage, instead, is taken by the wonderful Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada who plays the ronin leader Oishi; his force of personality shines through, but the role is such a cheerless one. Only Rinko Kikuchi looks like she’s having fun, playing a shape-shifting witch who flies around creating spiders or transforming into a rampaging dragon.
These CGI escapades must have been responsible, in part, for stories of the movie’s budget spiralling upwards. However, the one bit of good news is this: every penny spent on production design is nicely visible. The film is beautifully designed. A darkly gothic look layers over the rich, visual tapestry of Japanese architectural and decorative motifs; while the gorgeous costumes are works of art in themselves. The landscapes are moodily evocative — though you can’t shake off a nagging feeling that whenever the director was stuck in terms of narrative ideas, he sent his cast careening off on horseback across the screen, against some gorgeous background.
But visual beauty isn’t enough to pull off a fantasy samurai film; in the end, like many of its characters, 47 Ronin falls on its sword rather than put it to better use.
Director: Carl Rinsch
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Min Tanaka, Rinko Kikuchi
Storyline: The Hollywood take on the famous Japanese tale of a group of masterless samurai or ronin who avenge their master’s death
Bottomline: Cinematically empty, but a great reference tool for designers seeking Oriental inspiration