I know I’m a sucker for nerdy fantasy and sci-fi and at times my opinions might be heavily biased, which I believe is OK, so long as the reader understands where my standpoint is coming from. Therefore, despite panning reviews and my personal disdain to Keanu Reeves’ acting skills, I decided to give “47 Ronin” a go – simply enticed by the story founded in Japanese mythology and enhanced with fantasy elements. What more could you possibly want from your fable-like fantasy film, if not a vivid world, solid mythology and a compelling story? Well, a good execution would be nice, I might add, and maybe a hint of trust towards the viewer, but I’ll get to that in a second.
In theory, “47 Ronin” should have been a fantastic film material, just because of how the old Japanese legend plays out. Especially for us – westerners – it would have been amazingly refreshing to see the exotic take on morals, the sense of justice and its price, simply because only in Japan those values are taken to such extremes. If you’re interested in the legend of 47 Ronin, I think it’s best to start with a Wikipedia article and go from there. The film, however, adds a lot on top of the original and takes it into a world of magic, supernatural creatures, and dragons, all the way up to a point where the only thing this film has in common with the actual tale is the backbone and a couple of major plot points.
In “47 Ronin” we are introduced to Kai, a young boy (half-white, half-Japanese) found in the demon forest by a local lord Asano (Min Tanaka) and his men. He is feared to possess some sort of supernatural powers, so even though he is allowed to stay on Asano’s land, he lives in solitude in the woods. Kai eventually grows up to be a fine young man (Keanu Reeves), whom Asano’s daughter Mika (Ko Shibasaki) secretly loves. One day, a tournament is to take place in Asano’s castle, where Shogun Tsunayoshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is supposed to be a guest of honour. However, a strange set of events put in motion by an enigmatic witch, wherein Lord Asano (being under a spell) assaults an unarmed guest in his house (neighbouring Lord Kira, played by Tadanobu Asano). As a result, in order to redeem him himself, as well as to save his people, Asano is forced to take his own life. His samurai led by Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) are stripped off their ranks and banished, Kai is sold into slavery, and Mika is forcefully taken by Lord Kira. In order to restore the good name of Lord Asano’s, Oishi will eventually have to gather the remnants of his men and fight their way to face off against Lord Kira and the scheming witch. However, to stand a chance against the supernatural forces, the 47 Ronin will require the help of Kai and his mysterious abilities.
In my humble opinion, a story like that, with the added benefit of being a proper regional legend, and decorated with high fantasy elements, should translate to film without any difficulties. With powerful story arcs and a very compelling idea of a band of renegades working toward a goal knowing very well they would not come out of it alive, “47 Ronin” should be a delight to watch… And the legend of 47 Ronin has been adapted for the screen so many times already, that it just begged for a big budget treatment.
Well, it isn’t a delight to watch, I’ll tell you that much, with the main culprit being its target audience, because someone out there figured it would be a very good idea to have all the Japanese actors speak (with varying degrees of proficiency) English instead of their native tongue. It pains me even more, because apparently “47 Ronin” was initially filmed in Japanese (so a freshman director Carl Rinsch looks to have had a proper idea in mind), but it was then re-shot in English. Well, if it was a Weinstein production I would maybe understand it, because this guy is already well known for messing with foreign films, so that they are “understood in Kansas”. I mean, it borders on a joke, because none of the lines make sense in the context of the flow of the story. All the dialogue was clearly envisioned to be spoken in Japanese, which would have added to the story’s authenticity and created the sense of immersion in the world on screen.
I genuinely believe that if I had the opportunity to see “47 Ronin” done (maybe not necessarily by the Japanese, but) in Japanese, it would have been a completely different beast to tackle. It is quite clear to me that the entire photography, stylized scenes, costumes and direction was meant to look completely different, but with the substituted English captions, it makes “47 Ronin” look like a poorly-dubbed westernized anime, but live-action. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it would like to see the same exact script but remade into a proper anime, and I bet it would be superior to this. I simply couldn’t get past the horribly mutilated English quotes spoken by genuine Japanese actors. Hell, I can even give Keanu Reeves a pass, because (even though his character is pivotal to the story) he blends into the crowd of the titular Ronin to make space for Oishi’s character to take the lead, and as a result, his shoddy acting didn’t bother me that much.
No amount of stunning vistas, cool CG monsters, dragons and supernatural forces could get “47 Ronin” up from its knees. I think the entire premise of making the story so accessible to the semi-educated western audiences who refuse to read the subtitles was a suicidal move for the film’s authenticity. And it’s not, as if the story could have been instead implanted in the western setting all that easily, because the moral values at its roots are completely idiomatic and wouldn’t make any sense outside Japan. We simply don’t value our honour in extreme ways the Japanese samurai used to.
At the heart of any fantasy story, there lies the idea of immersion in the world. Without it, everything about it will look silly: trolls, elves, dragons and all that… However, when we are allowed to lose ourselves in these mythical circumstances, we can easily take any supernatural characters and settings as they are presented and let the story flow. “47 Ronin” for all its efforts with special effects, costumes and the solid story material falls flat on its face when it comes to making the viewer take a plunge into its world. In the end, everything about this film looks and feels dumb and if it hadn’t been for my admiration towards the Japanese culture and style, I’d hate it wholeheartedly.