Keanu Reeves has said that many of 47 Ronin’s scenes were filmed first in japanese, then in english. This is a logical step, considering there are about as many westerners in this movie as there are asians in Schindler’s List. But what if the japanese takes were kept and run through the editing room? What if, for that matter, Reeves had learnt to speak japanese instead of all the japanese actors speaking english?
47 Ronin takes a classic japanese legend of honour and loyalty and turns it into, well, pretty much a Hollywood special effects extravaganza. The characters speak in grave monotone. There is a lot of magic and witchcraft, and there’s also a fierce dragon that smiles more than it destroys. I say if a blade can deflect roaring dragon fire, the dragon needs some zippo fluid. And in a move that no doubt had its roots in convenience, the dialogue for this movie — set in Japan, filmed partly in Japan, and featuring a predominantly japanese cast — is in english. Terrible decision.
I am reminded of Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai, which featured samurais fighting the industrial revolution and the modernisation of Japan (when the Japanese were together, they spoke japanese). The samurais here dress the same, look the same, and in the case of Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), are even played by the same actors. And yet they are not the same samurais. They lack conviction. They lack honour and real depth of character. We understand their reason for wanting revenge, but we don’t believe it. Why should we care for any of them?
And then there’s the half-breed, Kai (Reeves), who grew up among demons, can manoeuvre and wield a sword like demons, but is otherwise completely human. Born of English sailors, he is told by his demon guru. I wonder what halves make up his whole. There’s a scene that requires him to swirl into a puff of cloud as he tries to fight his guru for possession of a magical sword that stands rigid between them. The visual effects make the action pretty. But why — when the 47 ronin later lay siege to the villain’s stronghold — doesn’t Kai use this same power to sneak past guards undetected?
The plot follows the legendary tale of the forty-seven ronin who swore revenge after their master was betrayed and forced to commit seppuku in the early 18th century. For almost 2 years they plotted and schemed, waiting for the right moment to strike Lord Kira, the man responsible for the betrayal. They were successful, but their murder landed them the same fate as their master. The most heroic part of this story is not their loyalty, or their methodical plan to seek vengeance; it’s that they knew, from the beginning, that only death lay ahead of them. The men in this movie also know that death awaits, but they are too preoccupied with the gallantry of swordplay and magic to be concerned with it. This isn’t a spoiler, it’s history: When the ronin face the blade at the end of the movie, we get a sense that they welcome death not because their master has been avenged, but because they have seen and done many wondrous things.
Indeed, the visual effects are wondrous. There is ingenuity in the design of this fantastical Japan. I felt breath with every shot. The colours are deep and the details are crisp. Some effects work subtly, others are in your face. They don’t always make sense — the evil witch, played by Rinko Kikuchi, has hair that could string you up by your ankles and tickle your armpits at the same time — but they are grand and beautiful.
It is a pity the same can’t be said of the screenplay, which is bogged down by needless exposition and words that even a 5-year old would not think to utter. It tells instead of shows, and I learnt very early on that a good screenplay should deliver its message without having to describe it. It is the blueprint of a movie. If the blueprint fails, the structure will be weak. And 47 Ronin’s structure is teetering on the edge, ready to implode at a moment’s notice. There is so much wrong here: The casting; the acting; the words; the inclusion of this western hero who speaks ominously and fights like a champion; the lack of japanese. Two wrongs don’t make a right. What good are five wrongs?
Best Moment | The initial siege of Lord Kira’s castle.
Worst Moment | Every scene involving the evil witch, and Kai’s love interest, Mika (Kou Shibasaki). Painful stuff.