In the interests of being honest, my expectations for 47 Ronin were really low. Judging from the trailers, it looked like it was going to have some fun fight scenes and neat special effects. I wasn’t really expecting much more than a good time for a matinee price in my preferred theater. What I got was a movie that jumped fairly high over that low bar and surprised me by making me cry in the end.
The movie is based off of an epic tale from Japan’s past, a story of 47 samurai and their quest to avenge their master. While the basic premise of this film remains the same, there were a few notable additions. The chief of these additions being a character created for the film, Kai (Keanu Reeves), a “half-breed” who may or may not have been raised by demons. As a boy, Kai was saved by Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) and grew up on his lands. Of course, he falls in love with Asano’s daughter, Mika (Ko Shibasaki). Add in some supernatural elements like demonic beasts and a witch (RInko Kikuchi) and it certainly bears little resemblance to the historical tale.
The movie is visually stunning. I’m not just talking about the breathtaking special effects, of course, but of the cinematography and costuming. The colors are beautiful and vibrant. The production team did an amazing, underappreciated job with their work. Every shot in this movie is beautiful. From the emotion-filled close-ups to the wide shots of landscapes. I was continually impressed and awed by what I saw on the big screen and don’t regret for a moment the money I spent in order to do so.
Speaking of other stunning and surprising things, I was impressed by the acting in this movie. Of course, there were some performances that were slightly hindered by the fact that the U.S. release had them speaking in English which was not their native tongue. Still, the men and women of the cast did a fantastic job with what they were given. One of the standout performances for me was RInko Kikuchi as a witch. Since the first role of hers that I had ever seen was Mako Mori from Pacific Rim, seeing her play someone so sensual and unapologetically wicked was wonderful. She looked like she was having so much fun being evil.
The heart of the movie is Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada). It is his leadership that pulls the masterless ronin together in their quest. He is an understandably stoic character whose grim demeanor covers his deep sense of honor and loyalty. He’s easily my most favorite of the men in the movie.
All things considered, I think this movie’s major failing was in not adequately managing expectations. I’ll get into that more in my final thoughts. The supernatural elements in the movie were more like icing on a drama cake, adding color and flair to make it more appealing to those who wouldn’t necessarily go to see a historical epic. I’m still fond of the movie despite the occasionally clunky way they shoehorned Reeves’ character into the plot. Word to the wise for those unfamiliar with the source material: the movie ends well, but it doesn’t end happily.
If you look at the promotional material for the movie, the biggest images you will see on the posters are Keanu Reeves and Rick Genest. Genest’s character has maybe two lines and appears for fewer than five minutes of the movie. Reeves’ character was not only created for the movie but word has it that studio executives insisted that they shoot additional material for the film to make his character more integral to the film. Apparently, they believed that Reeves had the same bankability he had back in the nineties. As you may have guessed, he doesn’t. Not really.
The movie is much more than the trailers and posters would have you believe. The fact that Hiroyuki Sanada doesn’t appear anywhere on the posters for the U.S. release is particularly damning. If you don’t think that the movie business has a peculiar problem with race, I’d draw your attention to that fact alone. On the plus side, at least they decided to cast popular Japanese actors instead of actors that American audiences would recognize. So, there’s that.
By having Keanu Reeves and his character’s journey shown as taking precedence over the core of the plot, audiences were led to believe that the movie was something different and that turned into one of the factors that led to its downfall at the box office. Furthermore, it didn’t do well with Japanese audiences who weren’t sure of what to make of this version of their beloved national tale. It would be like someone deciding to make a movie about how the Civil War was really about vampires and their quest for power and political domination. Oh, wait. They did that.