‘47 Ronin’ is a bit disappointing, but it isn’t awful

Keanu Reeves is "Kai" in '47 Ronin'
Keanu Reeves is “Kai” in ’47 Ronin’

There is no American equivalent to the story of the 47 Ronin.  It is a story so famed and honored in Japan that it has its own word in the language, Chushingara.  It has been made into plays, an opera and before this film, six different movies.  The basic events in the story actually took place in Japan at the beginning of the 18th Century.

Daimyo were the feudal territorial lords through Japan at the time, ruling their lands, while the entire nation was ruled by the Shogun, (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa).  In this film version of the story, the Shogun has ordered a daimyo, Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) to play host to a gathering where two champions will face off.  In ensuring the Shogun will be safe, he and his samurai retainers are out hunting a monster that has terrorized the countryside.  They find and fight the monster and it is actually “Kai” (Keanu Reeves) who kills the beast.  Lord Asano saved Kai when he was found wandering in the forest.  Kai is now a servant on Lord Asano’s estate.  He is also the favorite of Lord Asano’s daughter Mika (Kou Shibasaki) although theirs is a love that can never be.

Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) is another daimyo and he covets the lands of Lord Asano and he has a powerful weapon at his disposal that he will use to get them.  “Mizuki” (Rinko Kikuchi) is a witch who serves Lord Kira and she uses her powers to get him whatever he wants.  She befuddles Lord Asano who attacks Lord Kira, thinking that his action is to protect Mika.  As a result, the Shogun orders Lord Asano to commit seppuku.  He does so, asking Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), leader of his samurai to be his second.  Once Lord Asano is dead, the Shogun gives his lands to Lord Kira to administer until one year later, when Mika will marry Kira and the lands will become his.  Oishi and all of the other samurai who had served Lord Asano become ronin when their lord dies.  Oishi and 46 others swear to avenge their lord’s death by killing Lord Kira, in spite of an order from the Shogun that Kira is not to be harmed.  But they will need the help of Kai to carry out Oishi’s plan.

It is a rare thing to see a first-time feature director given a film with a budget approaching $200 million and it is asking a lot of anyone.  47 Ronin isn’t a bad film but it might well have been a better one with a more seasoned director at the helm.  The fight sequences are done well, and some of the visuals are pleasing to the eye.  The acting from the cast of very talented Japanese actors is first rate and that helps overcome the movie’s other limitations.  Sets and costumes are one of the film’s strengths.

Those familiar with the story as it happened will probably dislike this fictionalized version from writers Chris Morgan, Hossein Amini and Walter Hamada.  Adding a witch and tengu to the story detract from a tale that’s quite interesting in that it is very much about honor and loyalty, but not about bushido, as many believe.

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