A while back I wrote a post about Keanu Reeves and the new 47 Ronin movie he was in. Over Christmas break I saw this movie, filled with high hopes but very low expectations. It had some of my favorite actors, and the Japanese story the film is based on is one of my favorites. But how does it stack up? Does the movie do the story of the 47 Ronin justice?
Brief Plot Recap
**I’ll try to keep this as spoiler free as possible, but I’m going to assume that you’ve at least read my previous post on the movie or are familiar with the story of the 47 Ronin. If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to have anything potentially be ruined, read on with care**
So the three main characters of the film are played by some entertaining actors. The main bad guy, Kira, is played by Tadonobu Asano and the main good guy, Oishi, is played by Hiroyuki Sanada. These are two of my all time favorite Japanese actors (which I wrote about a little while ago) so it was really cool to see them in the same film.
But, of course, the main star is a Hollywood star, Keanu Reeves. Keanu plays the character known as Kai, the “half breed” who ends up being the hero of the story, and also the one that gets the girl (of course).
For those unfamiliar, the basic story behind the 47 Ronin tells of a group of 47 masterless samurai in 18th century Japan who avenge the death of their master. Their master was disgraced, and their land and honor taken from them. They follow the code of the bushido to avenge their master’s death and as a consequence, all of them die. It is one of Japan’s greatest tales.
In the original tale, Oishi leads the ronin in their revenge, but in this Hollywood adaptation, he more or less shares that responsibility with Keanu Reeve’s character Kai, who in turn takes most of the limelight. The movie also introduces exciting supernatural fantasy elements, such as demons.
“Do people like our movie?” “No… no they don’t.”
Like I said before, I went into the film with high hopes and low expectations. My expectations were not exceeded. My favorite parts about the movie were probably all the neat colors and interesting costumes. The movie itself just wasn’t that exciting.
I was really disappointed because the actual tale of the 47 Ronin is just so darn cool. I was hoping that with an all-star cast and the introduction of cool fantasy elements, they’d really be able to make a great movie adaptation here. Unfortunately they did not.
Critics really dislike the film and the general consensus is that they were just disappointed, especially given the names and talent involved. Tadanobu Asano and Hiroyuki Sanada are both great actors. People have mixed feelings about Keanu, but I’ve always liked the guy. Unfortunately the scripting for 47 Ronin left them all with unexciting, relatively one dimensional roles to play.
The film was also widely reported as a financial failure with estimated losses hovering around the $175 million mark. That’s like, really, really bad.
Here are some Rotten Tomato quotes I think best sum up the reception of the movie.
Solemn as a funeral march, humorless as your junior high principal, as Japanese as a grocery-store California roll, Keanu Reeves’s let’s-mope-about-and-kill-ourselves samurai drama has exactly three things going for it.
–Alan Scherstuhl, Village Voice
With a better hand this could have been something glorious and grand. As it is, 47 Ronin is solid B-movie entertainment with a $175 million budget.
–Kristy Puchko, CinemaBlend.com
47 Ronin is murky, muddled and leaden, although it’s not quite the unmitigated disaster it’s been cracked up to be.
–Xan Brooks, Observer [UK]
Mildly entertaining and gorgeous to look at, 47 Ronin has little beneath the surface to recommend it. There are a few good fights, though.
–Roth Cornet, IGN Movies
Japanese Demons in the Film
One of the most exciting potentials of this film was its inclusion of mythological creatures. I was curious how they would handle these in the film, and after viewing it, I think they did a relatively unimpressive job. We’ve written about Japanese creatures before, so I was interested in exploring how the portrayal of them in this film compared with what’s traditional.
See the resemblance?
The main creatures included in the film are a witch (possibly a kitsune) and some tengu. The witch lady is never called a kitsune (magical foxes that can take on human form), but it is first shown as a fox, so that was my first impression of it.
The kitsune witch has become Kira’s sidekick. Kitsune are commonly portrayed as lovers as well as tricksters, so this fits in with the movie’s portrayal. The witch is playing tricks on everyone to further her and Kira’s agenda. It’s unclear in the movie if they’re actually lovers, but at the very least, they are companions. Who’s really in control between the two of them is unclear.
While the witch in the film uses magic and kitsune are magical creatures, the witch’s magic seems a bit out of the realm of the traditional kitsune. The witch in the film also transforms into different forms and creatures, such as a dragon. This leads me to believe that she wasn’t actually a kitsune, or the directors just took some real liberties with how kitsune behave.
All in all, the transformations didn’t make a lot of sense (assuming she was a kitsune). That being said, what do you expect from Hollywood, after all?
Keanu Reeve’s character is raised by tengu in the film. Traditional tengu are incredibly popular supernatural creatures found in Japanese folklore, art, theater, and literature. They’re one of the best known mythological creatures in Japan and are sometimes even worshiped as Shinto kami. Tengu were originally thought to be birdlike, and they are traditionally depicted with both human and avian characteristics.
The earliest tengu were pictured with beaks, but this feature has since modernized into an unnaturally long nose, which is undoubtedly their defining characteristic today.
Buddhist dogma long held that the tengu were disruptive demons who brought both violence and death. However, their image gradually softened into protective, if still dangerous, spirits of the mountains and forests.
Their main role in the film is to provide weapons to the 47 ronin after Kai and Oishi prove themselves. The way the tengu look in the film is unlike any depiction I’d ever seen of them and I was confused as to why they would alter them in this way.
As you can see from the photo below, the tengu from the movie does not look like a traditional tengu. None of their typical features or characteristics are reflected in the film. Its face is totally different. Why would they alter its nose? The tengu’s most recognizable feature? Beats me.
Can you spot the differences?
Other than that, I felt like the film’s depiction of tengu was surprisingly accurate. Tengu have been described as creatures associated with war and were known to possess great knowledge in the art of skilled combat. Legend also tells of a famous warrior called Minamoto no Yoshitsune whose father was assassinated by the Taira clan. One day he encountered some mountain tengu and they taught him the art of swordsmanship to assist in his vengeance against the Taira.
This all fits in well with the tengu raising Kai and teaching him how to fight like a supernatural being. It also makes decent sense that they would be able to provide the ronin in the film with weapons after they passed a goofy test. Overall, I was pleased with the movie’s depiction of tengu. It’s what’s on the inside that counts, right?
All in All
“What’d you say about my movie?”
Throughout this review of The 47 Ronin, I think I’ve been pretty nice. I’d like to sum it up by saying that this movie is not worth your money. Since the best parts of the film (in my opinion) are the visuals, it would probably be best experienced on a cinema screen, but I don’t think it’s worth the admission.
I also think that the more you know about the original 47 Ronin story and the more you know about Japan and Japanese myth, the more you will enjoy this film. If you don’t know much about the original tale or are totally clueless concerning Japanese folklore/myth, some parts of the movie might be a bit confusing.
The movie is entertaining enough for one viewing, but really, it’s not a good film. If you don’t expect much, you’ll be able to enjoy it for what it is, even if it’s not much more than pretty colors and nifty visuals. The fight scenes ain’t too bad either.
Final Verdict: 4 Mr. Andersons