Wednesday, December 25, 2013

47 Ronin

It has been said the story of the Forty-seven Ronin is the definitive Japanese tale dealing with themes on honor, revenge, and the code of Bushidō. Although the events described in the tale actually took place, over the years the story has morphed into something between legend and a morality tale, however the new film certainly takes the licence to add a far more fantastic spin on the proceedings.

The crux of the original tale is the centers around the greed and deviousness of Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) who uses the strict rules of his land to disgrace the rival lord in the neighboring province. The film's version increases the level of machination by Kira by several degrees adding the use of a witch (Rinko Kikuchi), poison, mind control, and dark magic to force Lord Asano's (Min Tanaka) rash actions.

By striking Kira, or in the film making an attempt on his life while under enchantment, Asano's honor is lost, his lands are given to his rival, and his samurai are exiled from province.

With all of this going on the film introduces a new element in the half-breed Kai (Keanu Reeves), an outsider trained by demons and taken in by Asano as a child but never truly embraced or trusted by the other members of the province, except by Asano's daughter Mika (Kô Shibasaki). Kai will play his own role in the disgrace of his Lord and the retribution of the now masterless ronin. After a year the ronin unite again under their former leader (Hiroyuki Sanada) to defy the Shogun's (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) orders by attempting to kill Kira and stop the forced marriage of the man responsible for their lord's death to their lord's only daughter who Kai loves.

Although overly complicated in spots, 47 Ronin does succeed in developing the themes of the original story (and thankfully doesn't compromise the lesson of the ronin for a more Hollywood ending). Reeves' character provides someone in the film for the samurai code to be explained to as well as someone to explain to the ronin the hidden truths behind the more mystical aspects of their surroundings and circumstances. The love story between Kai and Mika (and her impending marriage) adds a secondary, more Western, theme as well.

Given the casting of an American actor to lead what many consider "the Japanese story," and the amount of magic injected into the tale, I was expecting 47 Ronin to be a complete trainwreck. Surprisingly, that's not the case. Although much of the additional story elements aren't necessary, and at times even distracting, the script by Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini never looses sight of the story's original message.

I didn't get the opportunity to view the film in 3D, but its effects and CGI worked without the necessary enhancement (even if I found Kikuchi's witch to be more ridiculous than threatening). And despite Reeves' prominence in the story, and the fact that the movie is presented entirely in English (rather than Japanese with English subtitles), it somehow still has the feel of a Japanese film (albeit one with heavy American influences).

The film is at its best during its final act when the ronin attack on Kira's home on the eve of the wedding. The prolonged action sequences offer the pay-off to the slow build-up (which also offers various mystical side journeys of Kai and the ronin that are bizarre but interesting). Is 47 Ronin what I wanted it to be? No, not really. But it's not the disrespectful mess I half-expected to find either.

For those interested in more I'd suggest seeking out other versions of the story (such as the recent comic mini-series from Mike Richardson and Stan Sakai), but for those simply seeking a Japanese-style fantasy film filled with action, magic, sword fighting, and the heart of the original story, 47 Ronin delivers an enjoyable B-story action-fantasy with an impressive budget and quite a bit of Keanu Reeves kicking some serious ass.

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