Hollywood always gets its knuckles rapped whenever it chooses to adapt Japanese stories for the big screen. The most recent cinematic take on the legendary Chūshingura – it had already been filmed seven times – this time by Hollywood, was universally panned on release and failed to make it big in Japan with audiences taking a dislike to the fantasizing of a moment in their country’s history normally viewed with great reverence.
Seven years later, was this latest adaptation of the famed 47 Ronin another example of Hollywood whitewashing or a more creative yet- equally-compelling take on a prime moment of Japanese history?
Keanu Reeves plays Kai, a half-Japanese, half-English outcast adopted and raised by the Tengu Lord (played by Togo Igawa) and later adopted by the household of Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) who joins the Ronin to avenge his adopted father.
Respected Japanese actor making the crossover to Hollywood, Hiroyuki Sanada is cast as Oishi special counsel to Lord Asano and the leader of the Rōnin seeking revenge against the man who disgraced him, Lord Kira played by Tadanobu Asano. Kira is aided by the powerful and manipulative witch, Mizuki, brought to life by Rinko Kikuchi.
Ko Shibasaki portrays Mika, Lord Asano’s daughter and Kai’s love interest. She was forced to marry Lord Kira following the death of her father, under orders from the Shōgun Tsunayoshi played by veteran screen legend Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.
When Lord Asano, daimyo (powerful Japanese feudal lord) of the Ako province attacks one of his guests, Lord Kira during a visit to Ako by the Shogun, he is ordered to commitseppuku (the formal term for the commonly known word ‘harakiri’) to avoid disgrace and maintain the honour of his house.
Suspecting Lord Kira is in league with a powerful witch who used her powers to bewitch Asano into disgracing himself, special counsellor to Asano, Oishi defies his Shogun’s orders and vows to avenge his master’s death. With the help of outcast Kai, Oishi assembles a group of fellow Ronin and together they plot to unmask Kira’s treachery and restore Ako to Asano’s daughter Mika, knowing it will cost them their lives.
Ridley Scott protege Carl Rinsch was clearly aiming for a “Gladiator” style samurai epic with elements of “300”, for his first (and sadly only) time as director; a blend of intense crowd-pleasing action and visceral heart-wrenching drama.
Since the Chūshingura featured no big battles, standoffs or sieges, to say the writers took some artistic license would be an understatement. Yet this is far from a bad thing, and luckily Rinsch won himself a veritable fight and stunt dream team adept at blending drama and action into a well-paced cinematic ride.
They include; veteran stunt coordinator Gary Powell along with fight trainers Tsuyoshi Abe and Roger Yuan, and fight choreographers Peng Zhang and Nikki Berwick. Between them all, with such hard-hitting and dynamic credentials that include the Bond and Bourne franchises, one can expect a combination of classic and contemporary Hollywood action with some kick-ass martial arts mayhem interwoven into some of the film’s story. The Qilin (or ‘Kirin’, Elder Dragon, in Japanese) hunt and tournament duel between Kai and Kira’s steel-encased samurai, for example, amplify Kai’s outcast status.
Credit should be given to Rinsch for his visual flair, very much akin to the style of Asia’s top action auteurs Tsui Hark and Zhang Yimou but with a more dark, gothic feel – imagine for a moment if you will, “Hero” meets Tim Burton.
Duel To The Death Scene
The inclusion of supernatural characters and creatures weaved a certain creative touch into the story. In all versions it is Kira’s actions that sets the tragedy in motion so, in that regard, the film does stay respectful to its source. The addition of the Witch using her powers to further Lord Kira’s ambitions makes the story more accessible to a wider audience.
The fight action blends old-school acrobatic dynamism and wire-fu straight out of vintage wuxia with authentic Japanese budo-fighting style from the Kurosawa movies.This works especially well to emphasize the ‘fantasy versus reality’ of the story treatment, with Kai hunting down the Qilin beast and stepping in to fight Kira’s steel-encased warrior.
The scenes in the Dejima (Dutch fighting) pits where Kai battles a giant who looks like he wandered off the set of “300” perfectly illustrates this especially when he faces Oishi. Kai leaps and flies in stylish slo-mo as Oishi stands in perfect kami (en garde) facing forward with his Katana guarding the centre line, even his footwork as he shuffles back are the hallmarks of genuine Japanese fighting styles and as an aficionado of bushido it is a joy to watch.
This continues all the way into the final showdown and it’s the storming of Kira’s fortress that’s a stunning example of just how brilliantly the stunt and effects team, under Rinsch pulled off an epic action-packed finale.
There’s an immersive feel to the film – the overhead shot of the guard on the wall is dizzying, made all the more so by the low sweep showing the ronin scurrying up the wall. This battle is well-paced and builds up the tension before the explosive showdown.
Pitting Kai against the Witch, once again keeps the fictional characters busy, with lots of old school supernatural action featuring magic hair tendrils, dragons, and fireballs straight out of “Zu Warriors”. Reeves’ experience with effects-heavy choreography serves him well here calling on the CGI and wire-fu gods to elevate his physicality.
This leaves the real historical players, the Ronin and Kira’s men, as well as Oishi and Kira to unsheath their katanas and get down to some conventional yet slickly put together sword action, as the real history unfolds to a tragic end…
There is something inherently enjoyable about “47 Ronin” – breathtaking cinematography, stunning set pieces, wonderfully garish costumes all wrapped together in a visceral fantasy tale of courage, loyalty and honour.
Whilst it may be a big-budget Hollywood fantasy actioner, this is an old- fashioned film at heart embodying the best of Asian action cinema with influences from some of the genre’s top filmmakers slowly creeping in.
Whilst Keanu Reeves puts in a solid, steady performance as the outcast Kai, it is the Japanese cast who, as always in these films, steal the show. Ten years on from his Hollywood debut – “The Last Samurai” – Hiroyuki Sanada moves centre-stage invoking the powerful presence attributed to the likes Ken Takakura, and Ken Watanabe, turning in a terrific performance as one of the film’s more authentic characters.
He is not alone though as it seems Japanese thespians know how to light up the big screen, even Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa manages to command the screen with minimal time and even fewer spoken lines. Director Carl Rinsch was blessed with a cast to whom he could simply point the camera and leave them to work their magic.
“47 Ronin” divides audiences is in its treatment of this story, considered to be a treasured part of Japanese history – as the opening titles clearly state ‘to know the story of the 47 ronin is to know the story of all Japan’.
For those immersed in Japan’s history, knowledge and culture, or aficionados of Kurosawa movies, the fantasy story lines of witches and monsters will seem sacrilegious. Yet with its big budget effects, and exciting swordplay, the film is a colourful action-packed re-imagining of the legendary Chūshingura, a treatment that introduces the legend to a new and more diverse audience.
- Fictionalized accounts of the story of the forty-seven rōnin are known as Chūshingura which translates as (“忠臣蔵” in Japanese) The ‘Treasury of Loyal Retainers’.
- This marks the seventh cinematic adaptation of the Chūshingura but the first Hollywood one.
- Whilst the film depicts a power-hungry Lord Kira using a witch to cast a spell on rival, Lord Asano, to act dishonourably, the actual events were very different. Lord Asano along with fellow daimyo Lord Kamei, arranged a reception for the envoys of the emperor at Edo Castle. It was Kira, an official of the Shogunate overseeing the preparations and instructing the damiyos on the proper etiquette who was relentlessly badgering, bullying and demeaning Lord Asano. It was an insult that caused Asano to lose his temper and attack Kira with a dagger. It was a crime to attack an official in the grounds of the Shogun and so Asano was ordered to commit Seppeku.
- The film features various creatures from Japanese folklore, the most recognizable being the Tengu Lord (played by Togo Igawa in the film). Translated as ‘heavenly dog’ the name is derived from a dog-like Chinese demon (Tiangou) though it was originally thought to have taken the form of a bird of prey. The Tengu’s features in the film are a combination of the two.
- Michael Reape, a well respected weapons manufacturer from Europe designed and made the arrows used in the film.
- Roger Yuan, who’s best known for working on “Jason Bourne” and “American Assassin” served as fight trainer for the cast of the film. He is currently the fight coordinator for the upcoming remake of sci-fi epic “Dune”.
- This was director Carl Rinsch’s first and only Hollywood feature film.
- The character of Kai is thought to be based on Minamoto Yoshitsune, a twelfth-century warrior said to have been trained in martial arts by the Tengu.
- “I see only Samurai before me. I grant you the samurai’s death, to be buried alongside your Lord, with honour.” – Shōgun Tsunayoshi
- “My father taught me this world was only a preparation for the next, that all we can ask is that we leave it having loved and being loved.” – Lady Mika Asano
- “I will search for you through 1000 worlds, and 10,000 lifetimes until I find you.” – Kai
- “When a crime goes unpunished the world is unbalanced. When the wrong is unavenged the heavens look down on us in shame. We too must die for this circle of vengeance to be closed.” – Oishi