(SPOILERS) 47 Ronin was pronounced D.O.A. well before it actually bombed at the box office. It’s rare for critics to push against the tide and come out in support of such fare, invariably because the warning signs of a troubled production tend to be an accurate yardstick for the quality of the finished movie. And so, 47 Ronin was dutifully slaughtered. I’d be hard-pressed to present the case that the picture is an unsung classic, a masterpiece waiting to be re-discovered and re-appraised, but it has certainly been given short shrift. As many column inches have gone into reviewing its insane budget as the picture itself. There is much to enjoy in this beautifully rendered, unusually solemn fantasy and its surprisingly reverent exploration of the themes of honour and revenge. It’s easy to admire the strange beast Universal threw their weight behind; a Japan-set Samurai tale featuring a single Hollywood star (who, at best, sporadically vies for lead protagonist duties) and a downbeat plot that only intermittently engages in the enormous action spectacle the title promises. If 47 Ronin doesn’t quite fly as a hugely expensive art film, it is nevertheless very far from your average blockbuster.
Given the rope afforded the movie (much of which was second-guessed down the production line, leading to turmoil and delays), one wonders that Universal didn’t go the whole hog and screen the picture in subtitled Japanese. It couldn’t have done worse at the box office, and it might even have garnered some cachet, along the lines of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Apocalypto. Reeves has said scenes were shot in Japanese first to familiarise the cast (it didn’t help much; their English is mostly starchy, although this broken formality isn’t completely at odds with the mood of the piece), but I doubt the studio will be stumping up for a different cut; not after the hit they took.
47 Ronin is just the latest of half a dozen pictures based on the 18th century historical account. As such one might expect less resistance to it manoeuvring from the straight and narrow of the original tale, even when it goes as far as embracing the magical trappings found here. After all, there remains embedded within the picture an air of veneration for place and time and culture. Yet the response in Japan was underwhelming, it seems because of perceived irreverence towards the material and the common complaint of indiscriminate Hollywoodisation. Which is entirely understandable, and legitimate, but isn’t automatically evidence of artistic failure (The Last Samurai, a lumpen tale of the white man showing the natives what honour is really all about through being the greatest warrior evah, was a huge hit in Japan but remains emblematic of the dubious white saviour trope).
In set up at least, Chris Morgan (the Fast and Furious franchise, so not the greatest harbinger of resonant story telling; his original script was big on the Black List, although that’s no indicator of anything either) and Hossein Amini (brought in for rewrites; despite some impressive credits as the main adaptor, he has a patchy record script doctoring the likes of Snow White and the Huntsman) don’t stray too far from the original. Shogun Tsunayoshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) sentences Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) to fall by suicide for attacking visiting Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano exemplifying grinning one-note villainy, not that he has many dramatic options). The Shogun forbids Asano’s main counsellor Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada, an increasingly familiar presence in the US with appearances in Lost, The Wolverine and, yes, The Last Samurai), from taking revenge and pronounces him and his men Ronin, masterless Samurai. Oishi orders his men to take no action, recognising “If we fight now we die” and that the repercussions for all those within Asano’s lands will be terrible. Kira is granted Asano’s realm, and his daughter Mika’s (Ko Shibasaki) hand in marriage, the latter to take place following a year’s mourning, in order to bind the peace. Kira duly throw Oishi down a pit, releasing him just prior to the nuptials (it’s unclear why Kira would let him go at all, less still allow him to live, given how shamelessly monstrous he is). Chastened by his failure and bent on revenge for his master’s death, Oishi sets out to gather his Ronin for this task.
Loosely, very loosely, that conforms to the classic story. But Keanu has also been impressed upon this template, and with him Asano’s daughter Mika. Kai’s addition is bound to the picture’s supernatural element too; Kira achieves his objectives through Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi of Babel and Pacific Rim; she’s having as much of a ball being bad as Asano, but to much better effect), a shape-shifting witch who sabotages events (she casts a spell on Asano’s champion) and induces Asano to attack Kira by conjuring a vision of Kira raping Mika (in the original, Asano loses his cool after being continually provoked by Kira). Kai and Mizuki are therefore equal and opposite invented forces, the conceits of a major studio with dreams of a fantasy film goldmine. The introductory passage suggests a greater complement of Keanu than is ultimately delivered; having “fled evil” Kai is taken in by Asano. He grows up a lower class citizen, derided for his half-Japanese half-English heredity (that Keanu, eh; who’d have thought it?); we are also privy to the burgeoning love between Kai and Mika, of your classic mismatched romance variety (“I’ve always loved you but you have your place and I have mine”).
In these scenes, Keanu is set up as the man apart, subject to revulsion from his peers (“I’d rather have been killed by that beast than saved by a half-breed” spits Masayoshi Haneda’s Yasuno, after Keanu saves him; of course, he will later proclaim his indebtedness and how wrong he was) but with an insight into dangers that others ignore (in particular, Oishi rejects his warnings of witchcraft, instead accusing him of being a demon). When Kai tries to do the honourable thing (taking the place of the champion in the duel) he is sentenced to death by the Shogun and only saved through the intervention of Mizuki. So Kai suffers for his nobility, nobility that puts the genuine Samurai to shame. This looks like it is paving the way the for your classic white saviour figure but, while it’s undeniable that Keanu gets all the coolest “Jedi” type moments, anyone hoping for a Neo-redux will be disappointed. In terms of screen presence he’s more your Morpheus.
The rejection of the half-breed has more than a whiff of western holier-than-thou, on the outside looking in, but it is well placed as a subversion of unconsidered mores and codes. The picture otherwise nurses an uncritical and stoic devotion to (barmy) paths of honour. It is, because that’s the way it is. Oishi explicitly shoulders the hero’s arc, not Kai; he must atone for his mistakes, make things right. His error, as Kai impresses upon him when he is released from slavery (although it looks very much as if he could release himself anytime he wishes), is not listening to his warnings, which is rather different from the historical account.
One of the criticisms of Oishi in the original story is that he spends more than two years in preparation, not wholly in keeping with the warrior’s code. 47 Ronin deals with this dealt with deftly and succinctly by giving Oishi no choice in the matter; he is imprisoned. An additional question mark hangs over the act of revenge itself; the tale has been argued to best symbolise loyalty rather than bushido (the samurai code of honour) per se, as revenge is not necessarily considered an appropriate motivation for the samurai (much as George Lucas had misgivings over the implications of the original title for Episode VI).
Despite there being 47, only two Ronin are presented with any flesh on their bones, and one of those (Kai) isn’t even a Ronin. Maybe the writers should just have added the 4 and 7 together for a more manageable number, although Peter Jackson has recently been unable to surmount the difficulties of distinguishing a baker’s dozen of dwarves. The only others of note are the aforementioned Yasuno, Chikara (Jin Akinishi, as Oishi’s son, released from suicide at the climax in order to continue the bloodline; let’s hope he has a high sperm count) and fatty Ronin (there’s always one) Basho (Takato Yonemoto).
Any failings of character apply across the board, however; these figures are little more than silhouettes, imbued with poses rather than depths of emotion. Oishi, as the leader, is granted the symbolic slaying of Lord Kira, and his motivation holds the only real weight, but the really memorable stuff goes to Keanu. There’s the fight with a giant at the sort of merchant port one might expect to meet Captain Jack. Later, Kai swiftly dispenses with a handful of Kira’s men while the other Ronin look on agape. Elsewhere there is a little more balance, but Oisihi’s thematically important moments still cannot compete with Kia’s cool moves, The need for weaponry leads the assembled warriors to Kai’s old haunt of the Tengu Forest (“You will find swords in the Sea of Trees”), where Kai must face the Tengu Master (voiced by Togo Igawa) who trained him. It’s an expertly staged and edited sequence, where Kai is called upon to use the magical powers he foreswore while Oishi is required (Luke in the Dagobah tree-like) to resist drawing his sword even when beset by visions of his men dying. So too, the climax. Oishi delivers the showdown with Kira, but Kai gets the more expansive and satisfying fight with Mizuki.
Keanu is looking as uncannily young as ever, despite having just turned 50. Okay, this started filming way back in 2011, but it’s tempting to think he and Johnny Depp must be attending the same Fountain of Youth. Perhaps, like Kai, he has an occult past. I’m a fan of Reeves, although it would be ludicrous to suggest he hasn’t been dreadfully miscast on more than one occasion. Here he is a good fit, despite the obvious point about him not being remotely Japanese; all containment, reserve, respectfulness and typically inscrutable expressions. The love story packs no punch, but that also fits the subdued emotional tone; I may be arguing too strongly for flaws as merits, but it would be misplaced to have the romance any more foregrounded. Reportedly, the reshoots that occurred a year after the picture wrapped boosted Reeves’ presence through close-ups and an added love scene; these elements don’t feel especially intrusive although a parting shot like “I will search for you through a 1,000 worlds and 10,000 lifetimes until I find you” would only pack any weight if we really cared about their doomed love (it’s hardly, “Stay alive! I will find you!”, but then the dialogue across the board is singularly unmemorable) Notably, Mika’s suggestion that “All that we can ask is that we leave having loved and been loved” is exactly not what this band’s code of honour would hold dear.
The script, by some lengths the least of the picture’s qualities, follows a straightforward linear through line of banishment, escape, gathering, arming and retribution (there’s a flashback or two, too; you’ve got to explain Keanu, right?) With a coda of tragedy/honorific sacrifice on top. Who knows what the original cut looked like (or if there was one), although the struggles with Universal, which may or may not have seen debutant Carl Rinsch locked out of the editing room, don’t transparently display the lasting scars that, say, the similarly fractious big budget initiation of a young David Fincher left on Alien 3. I compare the two as Rinsch was attached to what became Prometheus for a while. Whether that would have been less thorny to make is debatable, but it seems clear many wanted to cash in on the promise of The Gift (alternatively, the attention Rinsch got when he was attached to the Alien prequel may have piqued Universal’s interest).
It’s a dicey game studios never tire of, throwing a huge amount of money at a filmmaker who has never tested themselves on such a scale before. Then, of course, the suits have the temerity to demand changes when things don’t quite pan out as envisaged. In this case, and arguably with Alien 3 too, the studio got behind inherently anti-commercial material, at least in an obvious sense, almost as if they were throwing money away wilfully. Perhaps they saw great potential at the Japanese box office, but envisaging this as something akin to Lord of the Rings was only ever pie in the sky. There were reports Rinsch favoured the content becoming ever more Japanese, while the studio was of the reverse inclination (in their defence, if that was his intent, he was very silly to shoot in English at all). And it was their follow-the-herd stupidity, insisting on 3D, which caused the price to hit the stratosphere.
There are occasional confusions in the edit, albeit not in the action sequences themselves, as if a vital coverage has been lost and with it the geographical sense of interacting characters. This is particularly noticeable when Kai suddenly arrives to save Yasuno from the rampaging creature; until he’s in the scene you have no idea where he is in relation to it. Elsewhere, the unlikely conclusion drawn by the enemy that a few corpses signal the end of the Ronin beggars belief (this might simply be laid at the scriptwriters’ door, however). The inclusion of the Blu-ray’s deleted scenes in the finished cut might also have helped clarify some of the issues; Oishi’s sudden arrival at the port to release Kai has an instructive introduction, and there’s an excellent excised sequence where Mika attempts to poison Lord Kira.
Her character is so under-served that the pruning feels even more injudicious; given the picture ducks just under two hours, the scissors were probably out for anything tangential to the main thrust with an eye on maximum cinema screenings per day. Stuart Baird’s credit as editor, something of a renowned fix it man (and not such a great director) was surely an area in which Rinsch had no say. There are still other signs of a messy rethink by the studio; the voiceover introducing and ending the picture is a patronising mistake. That it’s courtesy of ADR man Ron Bottitta, rather than an illustrious Shakespearean type, is a sure indication that it resulted from studio nerves. The joke is that meddling of this sort almost never results in improvements, less still in financial success. In such cases the sensible response is surely to cut your losses rather than throw more cash down the khazi.
Visually, however, Rinsch, in tandem with cinematographer John Mathieson, has created a thing of beauty no amount of tampering can spoil. This is a richly textured piece, filled with deep, vivid colours, and one that uses the widescreen frame to its full luxuriant potential. Rinsch (or maybe Baird) doesn’t become distracted with frenzied editing, and the action is punctual and precise, deliberately not drawing scenes out beyond the point of coherence and patience. There’s also so much dry ice (or its modern equivalent) wafting about (I like dry ice!), you’d think Ridley made this in the mid-‘80s (rather than the auto-filter and whip crack editing of Scott’s last decade or two). Ilian Eshkeri’s score is effective enough, but not singularly memorable.
For a picture this costly, the CGI is noticeably variable. The fabulous creatures and non-humans are never less than absent looking, lacking physicality. On the other hand, everything about the rendering of Mizuki’s (and Kai’s) powers works beautifully. Her fox alter-ego, gravity resisting hair, matching the snake tendrils of the Medusa, floating across the ceiling of Asano’s room (Variety reported Mizuki was a later addition, but she’s easily one of the best aspects of the picture). Overall, the effects work complements Rinsch’s images, but they are unable to match his consistently sumptuous results.
It would be easy enough to fixate on the deficiencies with 47 Ronin; the characterisation; the failure to invest the quest with sufficient zeal and urgency; the demands made of a cast unaccustomed to English speaking; the derision-demanding presence of Keanu. And yet, what is attempted here, the measured tone and the reserve, very nearly work, pulled along by the immaculate design, staging and intent. A good indicator of the picture’s merits is that such a humour free exercise doesn’t invite mockery; rather there is respect for what it strives for and doesn’t quite achieve. Rinsch has produced a strange, unusual, offbeat visual feast, one that is distinctive and elaborate, filled with ornate imagery that exceeds the perfunctory nature of the script. Like last year’s Oblivion, this is more visual masterpiece than out-and-out marvel. But sometimes that’s enough. I don’t doubt Rinsch will make films in years to come that more than match his stylistic abilities.