Keanu Reeves and the 47 Ronin

What does Keanu Reeves have to do with the famous Japanese legend of the 47 Ronin? Everything. He has everything to do with it. Hitting the big screens Christmas day 2013, a movie by the title of “47 Ronin” promises to dazzle and impress. But will it deliver? The original (and true) story sure does. But how closely will this movie stay to the original legend of the 47 Ronin? Wait, what is their story, anyway?

47 Ronin 2013

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Judging from the trailer, this movie could either be pretty awesome, or a cheesy and lame disappointment. Judging from the fact that it has two of my favorite Japanese actors in it (Tadanobu Asano and Hiroyuki Sanada), my hopes are higher than normal for this film. Plus Keanu Reeves ain’t too bad either. He’s just inherently entertaining to me. “Whoa!”

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Regardless of whether or not this is your first exposure to the story of the 47 Ronin, you can probably guess that the movie isn’t going to be telling the story exactly as it happened. Historians are pretty sure that demons and beastly creatures were not involved in this 18th century tale.

So what is the true story of the 47 Ronin? Well, thanks to my studying Japanese classics in college (and using the internet to refresh my memory) I am fully capable of guiding you through this classic Japanese tale in the most entertaining of ways. Let’s continue.

Chushingura

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Fictionalized accounts of the 47 Ronin are known as Chushingura. In fact, it’s one of the most well known historical events in Japan. The original tale took place at the start of the 18th century and is considered a famous example of samurai bushido, honor, and revenge.

But the basic story that all Chushingura is based on tells the tale of a group of samurai who were left leaderless (thus becoming ronin, aka samurai without masters) after their lord, Asano Naganori, was ordered to commit suicide. Asano was ordered to do this after assaulting a court official named Kira Yoshinaka.

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After waiting and planning for almost two years, the ronin avenged their master’s honor by assassinating Kira. But since the ronin committed the crime of murder by killing Kira, they were also obligated to commit suicide. Since then the story has been told and retold, embodying the Japanese ideals of loyalty, sacrifice, persistence, and honor.

The Chushingura that spawned from this tale took many forms, including kabuki and bunraku. Because of early censorship laws which forbade portrayal of current events, the names of the characters from the tale were changed. Everybody knew who they were talking about though, so this was kind of silly.

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Photo by Life To Reset

The story is still very popular today, and every December 14, Sengakuji Temple holds a festival commemorating the event. All of the stories and plays and movies I’ve seen concerning the story really don’t do it justice in my opinion though. Since the Keanu Reeves movie is going to stray very far from the truth, I know that it won’t really do it true justice either. So below, I’ve laid out the real story as we know it in a concise and easily digestible manner.

Gimme the Deets

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Everything up to this now was just the basics. If you only wanted to familiarize yourself with the big picture, the above info will suffice. From this point I’ll be explaining more details as to the happenings of the 47 Ronin. If you don’t care about all the exciting details, feel free to skip right to the end and just leave a comment about the movie. I wouldn’t encourage that though, because this story is actually really cool and totally worth reading.

Okay, so we have two guys – Asano and Kamei. Asano is a daimyo, and Kamei is a lord. They’re hanging out with this Kira guy who is a powerful Edo official, i.e. above both of them. Kira was supposed to teach Asano and Kamei proper court etiquette but was kind of being an asshat about it. He allegedly became upset with them because they did not offer good enough gifts to him / did not bribe him sufficiently.

Others think that Kira treated them poorly, insulted them, or just flat out failed to teach them properly, but the general consensus was that Kira was being super lousy and offended both Asano and Kamei.

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Asano was being all level headed and taking this in stride, but Kamei was pretty pissed off up to the point where he was planning to kill Kira. Kamei’s counselors took notice of this and quickly offered Kira a large bribe which then prompted Kira to be much nicer to Kamei, and Kamei changed his mind about wanting to murder Kira to death. Slicing averted. Whew.

Asano on the other hand was still getting pooped on by Kira at every turn, even more so now that Kamei’s camp had offered up a bribe whereas Asano had done no such thing. The last straw was when Kira straight up insulted Asano, calling him a “country boar with no manners.” Asano lost his composure and attacked Kira with a dagger.

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In Edo castle, doing so much as just drawing a weapon was strictly forbidden, so actually attacking somebody like this was unheard of. Asano struck out once, causing a small wound to Kira’s face, then struck again, missing and hitting a pillar.

Kira’s wound wasn’t serious at all, but still, he was pretty ticked off. Therefore Asano was ordered to kill himself, his goods and lands were to be confiscated, and his retainers were made to be ronin. Womp wommmp.

The Ronin’s Revenge Plan Forms

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Originally Asano had somewhere around 300 some men, but only 47 refused to let this transgression go unpunished. They banded together and vowed to avenge their master’s death, even though revenge was strictly prohibited in a case such as this. They knew they would be punished severely for doing anything to harm Kira, but they had their master’s honor to avenge, so they didn’t care.

The leader of these ronin was known as Oishi. Oishi really thought the whole situation through, and he had a pretty good plan laid out for revenge. Immediately after Asano was forced to commit suicide was when Kira was most afraid of backlash from the now masterless retainers. Knowing this, Oishi just started going to brothels and taverns, getting wasted and acting as though he just didn’t give a crap about anyone or anything.

Oishi knew he was being spied on by Kira’s men, so he even went so far as to divorce his wife of 20 years and send her away with the children. He did this so that no harm would come to them when the ronin finally took their revenge. Kind of sucks for his wife and kids, but at least they were safe.

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Oishi started acting even more odd after this, whoring it up, getting trashed, and acting like a fool in public. This was all part of his plan to throw off Kira and his spies.

After about a year and a half of nothing happening, Kira was pretty confident that he was safe. Some of the ronin became workmen and merchants in Edo, gaining access to Kira’s house and getting a good feel for the place. One guy even married the daughter of the builder of the house just to obtain the house’s design plans. Talk about dedication.

The Assassination

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The ronin eventually learned of a secret courtyard entrance. They broke into Kira’s house and killed any of his retainers that got in the way. Eventually they found Kira, and offered him a proposal.

Oishi was very calm and composed. He got down on his knees and respectfully addressed Kira. He told Kira who they were and what they had come to do. He said that Kira should die as a true samurai should – by killing himself. Oishi said that he would personally be Kira’s second, and even offered him the same dagger that Asano used to kill himself almost two years prior.

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However, Kira was being a total coward. Kira refused to say anything and just crouched there, trembling in fear. Finally, Oishi and company just pinned Kira down and cut off his head with the dagger. The lesson we learned today is that you should always choose door number one.

The ronin then extinguished all the lamps and fires in the house, leaving with Kira’s head.

The Aftermath

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The story spread quickly, even as the ronin traveled to their lord’s grave ten kilometers away. Everyone was praising and cheering them on, some even going so far as to offer them refreshments on their way. Sounds like most everyone hated Kira just as much as they did.

At Asano’s grave, they cleaned up Kira’s head and set it down next to the dagger in front of the headstone. After offering prayers and giving the abbot of the temple all their remaining money, they turned themselves in.

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The ronin had followed the precepts of bushido by avenging the death of their lord, but they had also defied the Shogunate by exacting a revenge which had been strictly prohibited. Also, an overwhelming amount of the general public was in support of what the ronin had done and even sent in petitions. The government wasn’t quite sure what to do with them.

In the end, the ronin were sentenced to death. They were given the honor of committing ritualistic suicide instead of being executed as criminals. Not exactly a happy compromise, but the ronin were sure they were going to die at the end of this anyway, so it’s about the best they could have hoped for.

Changes Brought About as Result

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Not only did this act avenge their master’s death, but it also served to re-establish the Asanos’ lordship. Hundreds of samurai who served under Asano had been left jobless and were unable to find employment having served under a disgraced family. The revenge of the 47 Ronin unsullied the Asano name and many found employment again after the 47 Ronin ended their lives.

There are some critics of the 47 Ronin, though. Some do not believe they did everything the way that they should have. Some call it a good story of revenge, but not the best example of bushido. Regardless, I still think the story is pretty awesome and it’s one of the most entertaining Japanese classics I’ve ever run across, at least.

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In the 47 Ronin film coming out this year, Keanu will be playing a made up character who was not present in the original tale. When the main character is made up, it’s a pretty good indicator of how not close to the original the story it will be. Tadanobu Asano is playing Kira, and Hiroyuki Sanada will be playing Oishi. I’m pretty excited for Sanada to be Oishi, but it kind of sucks that Tadanobu Asano got stuck being Kira the pompous ass. Oh well, still cool he’s in the movie.


So after reading the true tale, are you looking forward to Keanu’s version of the 47 Ronin? What about the actions of the 47 Ronin themselves? Justified? I mean, if they didn’t do all this we wouldn’t have so many plays, stories, and blockbuster Hollywood movies based on it!

Think of the sequel opportunities! Who else is thinking of an “Ocean’s 11″ series sort of thing where we go “48 Ronin”, “49 Ronin”, and then the made-for-TV final sequel, the “49 and a Half Ronin” starring Charlie Sheen? Okay, maybe not. The whole cast would have to commit seppuku then, and then who would avenge them??

  • Eudaimonia

    It’s probably because you can’t tell apart potential holywood blockbuster bs movies full of fight scenes and well-polished visualy but all empty inside… from actually good movies. Don’t worry, you might (if you develop a taste for good movies someday) change your mind, though judging by your “lovely” message i wouldn’t bet on that.

  • Hinoema

    Thank you! I was starting to think i was the only person who didn’t automatically fell that this was just another typical Hollywood display of intentional blindness. If you don’t want to actually tell a story, don’t tell a story. Reeves’ character has no point in the story other than to shift the POV to a whiter character. That’s like them trying to whitewash Anansi Boys… thank goodness Niel Gaiman said no.

  • Admiral Awesome

    whoa, we got a bad ass here commenting on nearly week old article. Maybe you want to take that stick out of your ass before you go trying to flame people. I don’t even know why you decided to put such a nonconstructive, waste of space comment. Please don’t return to this site.

  • acme64

    So, a guy attacks a lord and all his goons get mad? That’s a terrible story. You’re supposed to respect your superiors. Kira might of been a jerk, but unless that’s against the law everyone else was in the wrong here. Or am i misunderstanding something?

  • acme64

    cutting edge of progressing culture? as in black face actors? as in non asian leads whenever possible? that hollywood?

  • acme64

    Ronin had the longest car chase ever filmed, i believe within a single take. Its a heist movie though.

  • Midnight Tea

    I’m talking about in the days of Hollywood’s inception in the early to mid decades of the 20th century. Of course by today’s standards it was still ludicrously racist and backwards, but for the time it was indeed the bleeding edge of progressive. Rashomon actually did much better in US theaters in 1951 than it did in the original Japanese release. By comparison to today, Hollywood has almost completely lost their status as a mecca for creative minds with dangerous ideas.

  • http://www.mangakania.de/ Mangakania

    Same thing was with the new “Karate Kid”. It could have been a nice movie, left alone the title. Why name it karate kid when they do kung fu?!? of course people will get upset :/
    So same story here. Name it “revenge of the 47″ or something like that and nobody will anticipate the original story from the 47 ronin

  • Tom P

    The previews looked more like “Ronin of the Caribbean.” I can’t imagine why Hollywood felt the need to take such a classic tale and Keanu it up. Surprised they didn’t try to get Tom Cruise in there as well.

  • d1g1t4Lnrg

    Have you ever known hollywood to make and accurate movie about anything? It is always changed to bring in/maximize there entertainment dollars. It does at least let some people know there were some who stood for bushido code against all tyrany. I think you have to look at the movie much like an Anime or a Cartoon based movie. They really should change the name though as this sort of CGI magical beings stuff is pretty sad. A samurai is a master of over ten or more different martial arts. This kira should have known better when he insulted a samurai.

  • JapanFan

    Last Samurai is actually racist in a completely different way than most of the idiots on this thread are whining about: Last Samurai is an interation of Japanese nationalist (i.e., Japanese supremacist) myths and tropes. For example, the main theme of the movie? “Everything bad in Japan comes from foreign influence.” Look at what happens to the movie’s villain, Omura: at the end, the “truly Japanese” Meiji Emperor casts him from his noble position – as if to say all the corruption and violence inherent in Omura’s character is somehow un-Japanese.

    Ironic, since the Meiji Emperor proceeded to lead Japan, as a nation, into a mass invasion and subjugation of Asia.

    The movie is less “exotic orientalism” and more “Japanese racial supremacy theory put onto film.”

  • JapanFan

    The movie is aimed at white people, and it is traditional in movie making to give the audience a “perspective” character. That’s not even getting into the racial issues of being “half white” in Japan and the intense racism a half white person faces in Japan TODAY.

    In terms of Japanese culture, the movie is actually INSANELY progressive – to see a 99% Japanese cast perform in English? And then to do so with a part-Chinese actor portraying a half-Japanese character? Do you know how much vile racism in Japan is aimed at half-whites, or how much is aimed at the Chinese in general? The mere fact that a group of Japanese people agreed to perform in a movie with a part-Chinese America IN THE FIRST PLACE is a HUGE step forward for the Japanese actors in question. (Hanahana Hanayuki gets SERIOUS respect from me for being in this movie for that very reason).

    That’s not even getting into the racist issues Japan has with English in the first place – my wife informed me that the general attitude in Japan was less “Why is Keeanu Reeves in it?” And more along the lines of, “Why is it in English?” The Japanese are more concerned with the Japanese cast being “race traitors” for performing in “the enemy’s language” (as former prime minister Mori so aptly described it recently) than they are with the historical accuracy of the film.

    So, you know, unless you’ve lived in Japan and have faced the intense racism inherent in the culture here, you know…stick to talking about racism in America. I would never, ever second guess your experiences in America, but it’s pretty obvious you have no knowledge whatsoever of race and racism in Japan.

    This movie is a HUGE step forward for the Japanese people involved. The fact that it APPEARS to be a step backwards for Hollywood should give you some idea of HOW FAR BEHIND Japan is in terms of race and racism.

  • JapanFan

    Jesus, did you guys delete my comment from this thread? Don’t be so spineless. I speak the truth: when have the Japanese bothered to give other cultures respect in their media? Why should we give a damn if this movie respects Japanese tradition?

    And furthermore, if you think the Japanese themselves treat their history with even a modicum of respect, you clearly know nothing whatsoever about life in Japan. There are at least two major video games IN STORES NOW that use historical characters as the basis for their gameplay – hell, a few years ago, they had a game that had historical characters BATTLING EACH OTHER WITH POKEMON.

    This movie is actually MORE Japanese for adding magic to the historical legend because THAT’S WHAT THE JAPANESE DO WITH THEIR OWN HISTORY. Jesus, does ANYONE on this thread – does anyone at TOFUGU for that matter – have ANY experience with Japan at all?

    Look, tell you what: go rent Onmyoji 2 and watch where the film portrays historical characters literally rock their way to the gate of heaven and personally meet Amaterasu herself – and then come back and tell me if you think we really, really need to treat Japanese legends with such reverence. In case you don’t know (because, again, no one here seems to know a thing about Japan) Amaterasu is considered the supreme deity of the Japanese pantheon, the deity from whom the emperors claim descent – and even SHE is fair game for throwing into a HISTORICAL movie about HISTORICAL people. If the most revered deity in their ENTIRE PANTHEON is ok to put in a fantasy movie, then I THINK a few foxes in the 47 Ronin is going to be ok.

    As if any one of you would raise this kind of stink with a movie about, say, India. Or China. Or any culture other than Japan. What is it about Japanese things that turns so many idiots into armchair anthropologists?

  • Japanfan

    Spike Spiegel was supposed to be a Chinese mafia member, so Keeanu Reeves would be one of the best possible actors for the role – he has done kung fu choreography (Spike was a disciple of Bruce Lee), he is part Chinese, and he has been to Mars. Wait, no, not that last one.

    In terms of Hollywood, getting a big-name, Asian-American actor to play Spike would be difficult, and it might not be profitable. I could see the Korean-American fellow who played Sulu in the new Star Trek as a decent Spike Spiegel, I guess (I’m sorry I don’t know his name; he was great as Sulu, though).

    But that’s not even getting into the fact that Spike Spiegel LOOKS WHITE, and so does his buddy Jet Black. And so does Faye Valentine. In fact, MOST anime characters have ambiguous racial features, and so most anime characters could really be portrayed by ANY light-skinned person, Asian or otherwise.

    So, um, you know, before you get self-righteous, have even the slightest clue about the subject at hand. Please? Just the tiniest clue?

  • FanJapan

    He may be coded white, but if he identifies as Asian-American personally, then fuck you for impressing your personal feelings on him. It is not your or my place to judge his race, and it’s unspeakably racist of you to suggest that he MUST be white and CAN ONLY be white because that’s what white people think he is.

    If you want a part-Asian role model, here he is: Keeanu Reeves, secretly Asian this whole time and no one knew. There’s a lesson here, a really seriously good lesson that we can draw from Keeanu’s life. Or, we can just be racist pricks and keep calling him “white” whether he likes it or not.

  • JapanFan

    He isn’t white, though. He is what he says he is. He is what he identifies as. No one has asked him all these years, “Are you white?” They just assumed. And, you know what? Maybe this whole time, Keeanu was desperate for a chance to say, “No, guys, I’m not really white.”

    And neither is the character in question white – you may or may not know this (and you probably don’t know, because Tofugu seriously draws a clueless crowd to its comments), but “half-Japanese” is not “white” in Japanese culture. It isn’t Japanese, either. It’s an entire, separate racial category, one that faces INTENSE and constant racial prejudice.

    Keeanu is actually portraying a seriously underrepresented racial minority, and the movie deserves some credit for choosing to have an all-Japanese cast with one part-Asian playing a racial minority character.

    I know, I know, “Half white isn’t a racial minority!” Not in America it isn’t, I guess (though “half” in America is still a pretty difficult identity to have), but it is in Japan. News flash: the racial and racist issues of America ARE NOT UNIVERSAL IN ALL COUNTRIES. This movie portrays a really under-represented aspect of CONTEMPORARY Japanese racism, and it really deserves some credit for having the guts to do that.

    Inserting a white character for no reason – yeah, that would have been cheap and racist. Inserting a “half” character played by a “part” Asian? Now that…that’s something.

    YOU might not think it’s something, but that’s because you are too blinded by your own ethnocentrism to understand that maybe – just MAYBE other cultures are slightly different from yours and face different issues. Japanese racism is VERY different from American racism. And this movie, in Japanese terms, in INSANELY progressive. Because, you may not want to admit this, and few Japanese people will, but Japan is decades upon decades behind the rest of the developed world in addressing race and racism. Yes, decades behind America. And, yes, if that sounds impossible – because, yes, America is pretty dang racist – that should give you an idea of how unspeakably racist Japan actually is.

    I mean, would you like to hear about the real estate agent who refused to rent to me because I’m not Japanese? Cuz we can talk about that. Or the businesses in my own town that refuse to serve me because I’m not Japanese.

  • Japanfan

    There are very, very few good Japanese actors working outside of Japan that can speak or act in English, though. You really don’t know much about Japanese cinema these days, because it is utter garbage. The fact that Hollywood managed to find enough decent Japanese actors in the first place is a HUGE step forward for the American industry, because frankly, there just aren’t that many.

    The REAL racism issue here is: why do casting directors go SO FAR out of their way to find real Japanese actors for a Japanese movie – when they would NEVER do the same for a Chinese or Korean one? Why is THIS movie special in that it needs an all Japanese cast (made up mostly of people who don’t speak English at all, let alone fluently enough to act).

    In other words, in ANY other situation, Hollywood would have gladly filled in the roles with any Asian they could find.

    Why not this one? Simple: if they had cast Japanese-Americans, Korean-Americans or Chinese Americans – or, God forbid, Filipinos, VietNamese, Cambodians, &c. – in this movie, then THE JAPANESE would have flat-out refused to watch it.

    The fact is that this movie is pandering to JAPANESE racists who would refuse to watch this movie if even a single character were played by a Korean. Weird how you don’t want to talk about the massive issues of Japanese racism surrounding this movie, focusing instead on the one, single part-white guy.

  • Japanfan

    And it’s weird how real people who wanted to advance real careers weren’t allowed to play the Japanese characters – there are tons of Korean-American actors who would have done a much better job playing a samurai than the guys in this movie – can Hanahana Hanayuki even speak English? But, no, this movie would have bombed in Japan if Hollywood dared to sully its Japanese racial purity with a Korean-American.

    This movie isn’t just problematic for its white character – it’s problematic for pandering to Japanese racist ideas, too.

  • JapanFan

    An Asian actor wouldn’t look half, though. In a Japanese setting, being “half” has HUGE plot implications and could be a VERY important plot point. And yes, I get that it doesn’t fit your American racial paradigm, but being white in Japan WILL make you an outcast.

    I haven’t seen the movie, but the whole 47 Ronin story is about social outcasts doing socially unacceptable things and then committing suicide to atone for it. Including a racial outcast, i.e. white person, who would just also happen to act as a “POV” character for the target audience is actually a pretty great idea.

    If you want to enjoy the movie through an Asian POV character, um, there are literally 47 for you to choose from. HanaHanaHanayuki and Rinko Kikuchi are right there, right there any time for you to celebrate.

    My question is: WHY do you insist on tearing down Keanu Reeves when you COULD instead be LIFTING UP the achievements of Kikuchi and Hanayuki? I get that you want to fight racism, but Jesus, you could try to fight racism by being POSITIVE and CELEBRATING Asians rather than trying to tear down a white guy who you DON’T EVEN KNOW if he identifies as white or not!

    I mean, seriously. I have been RAVING to my students here in Japan for WEEKS about Kikuchi – she is a HUGE Japanese success story – yet all you can do is whine about Keanu.

  • Christopher Stilson

    Wouldn’t that make it a fairly accurate representation of what many contemporary Japanese actually believed (and, indeed, of the attitudes that the military machine of Imperial Japan used to justify themselves in the following years)?

  • Sonny

    An excellent movie in my opinion. I felt inspired to look up the story of the 47 Ronin afterwards which I’m sure many people who hadn’t heard the story have now done. Sure, romantisising and embellishing the story of the lives of already great and brave warriors may seem offensive, but haven’t the Japanese been doing that since those men committed suicide?

    This movie brings the fantastic and inspiring actions of the 47 Ronin to the westerners who haven’t heard of it and reminds those who have of this story. More than a story, this movie helps to preserve the memory of those 47 brave men which means that even all these years later mankind can continue to remember the lessons which these heroic acts of honour at the expense of the lives of others have taught us.