Recommendation — 47 Ronin

Original blog post here.

A scene from 47 Ronin, several samurai standing in front of a sunset.
47 Ronin: Universal.

The story of the forty-seven ronin is one of the most famous Japanese folktales, to the point that it’s one of the — if not the number one — most widely-adapted historical stories in Japanese Pop Culture (and Actual Culture).

While the fictionalised, romantic accounts are the best-known version of the story, the forty-seven ronin were real people. In brief: in 1701, a dispute two between two nobleman serving the Shogun at Edo Castle (Edo being the previous name of Tokyo): Asano and Kira escalated to the point that Asano attacked Kira for reasons that an unclear but generally held to be Kira’s fault.

A panoraic shot of Tokyo in the mid-1860s.
A panorama of Edo circa 1865, during the period of Japan’s opening to foreign contact.
By Italian-British photographer Felice Beato. via Wikipedia. Public domain.

This was viewed as a sufficiently egregious breach of protocol that Asano was compelled to commit seppuku (I’m not going to link that, but it’s the method of ritual suicide samurai famously used to atone for disgrace).

Subsequently, Asano’s samurai retainers were dismissed and made ronin and commanded not to pursue revenge against Kira, while Kira was granted control of Asano’s territory.

At the end of 1702, Asano’s former retainers attacked and killed Kira in Edo and promptly turned themselves in.

The authorities were initially unsure of how to respond to the forty-seven honourably carrying out the revenge demanded by their service to Asano, but doing so against the express command of the Shogun.

Notably, that they brutally murdered a man in his own home does not apparently figure into the discussion…

Ultimately, all but one of the ronin (who, depending on the version of the story, was not present for the actual murder either due to being sent back to Ako with news of Kira’s death, or due to losing his nerve and running away) were allowed to honourably commit seppuku, rather than being executed as common criminals.

And that became one of the most popular and important stories in Japanese history.

A scene from the story of the forty-seven ronin. The ronin attacking Lord Kira's mansion.
A depiction of the attack on Kira’s mansion by the ronin. A piece by famous Japanese artist Hokusai. Image via Wikipedia. Public domain.

47 Ronin the movie more or less follow the basic events of the plot, just in the most movie-y, unnecessarily over-stylised manner possible.

To a certain extent, it’s a welcome change of pace from the typical Europeanesque Fantasy setting/story, especially for a big budget Hollywood movie. On the other hand, the studio clearly couldn’t quite help itself from Hollywoodifying what is ultimately the quintessentially Japanese story.

It quickly becomes apparent that the historical story is going to be going off the rails to a degree not seen since Ozzy Osbourne’s 1980 hit single

For example, the opening scene of the movie is Lord Asano and his samurai hunting what is apparently a kirin, in a scene that I’m pretty sure owes its inspiration to Princess Mononoke

I couldn’t get a good screenshot of it, so here’s the full scene provided by Fandango‘s Movieclips channel.

In the story, Asano attacks Kira because Kira’s a jerk. In the movie, he attacks Kira because Kira’s sexy witch minion (girlfriend?) puts a spell on him that makes him think Kira is attacking his daughter.

Also, she’s a dragon and/or a kitsune.

So, basically, it’s not a history movie. It’s a Fantasy movie. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but there are a couple of aspects of this approach that likely ended up sabotaging the movie’s chances at success, especially in Japan (more on that later).

Like fellow similarly-misguided, but ultimately largely-adequate mythological epic Gods of Egypt, 47 Ronin faced a controversy over its casting decisions.

The short version is that people weren’t thrilled that Keanu Reeves was going to be starring in an adaptation of what is, again, the quintessential Japanese story.

As I recall, the controversy never quite reached the same level as the controversy around Gods of Egypt, I think due in part to the fact that Keanu is generally pretty beloved on the Internet.

A screenshot of the Google homepage, listing suggestions to complete the phrase "Keanu Reeves is".
Screencap of suggestions via Google.ca.

If you can’t read that, the list of suggestions to complete the phrase “Keanu Reeves is” on Google includes “a good person”, “too good for this world”, “awesome”, and “the nicest man in Hollywood”.

I expect that there’s more goodwill towards Keanu than anyone involved with Gods of Egypt. It almost certainly also helped that there doesn’t seem to be any indication that anybody involved with 47 Ronin reacted anywhere near as badly to the controversy as the cast and crew of Gods of Egypt did.

I think it also helped, at least slightly, that Keanu is of Asian descent (though not, to my knowledge, Japanese), and most of the rest of the cast is Japanese — the most recongiseable actors to audiences outside Japan probably being Tadanobu Asano (ironically playing Lord Kira) and Hiroyuki Sanada — even if you don’t recognise those names, you’ve probably know who they are.

They’ve both had visible, but overall fairly minor roles in the MCU: Tadanobu Asano was Hogun in the Thor movies, and Hiroyuki Sanada was the Yakuza boss Hawkeye fights in Endgame.

I think most of the controversy was less because of Keanu’s casting specifically and more about Keanu being representative of the Japanese audience’s frustrations with an American trying to Americanise Japanese folklore.

It seems like Universal’s plan was for 47 Ronin do big business in Japan — most of the Japanese actors aren’t very well known outside of Japan, but most of them are apparently established names in Japanese cinema. So, yeah, not necessarily unreasonable to think there’d be a market for the movie.

Unfortunately, there was not, in fact, a market for this movie.

A briefcase full of money.
Figure 1: All the money 47 Ronin didn’t make.
Full disclosure: those should probably be yen, but I couldn’t find any stock pictures of money in yen.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The movie launched in Japan against Studio Ghibli’s Tale of Princess Kaguya (incidentally, also based on a well-known Japanese folktale) and Lupin III vs. Detective Conan.

It’s not exactly a shock that one of the best-received films from one of Japan’s most popular anime studios did big business in Japan.

Detective Conan (called Case Closed in North America, to avoid confusion with a certain literary barbarian) is apparently the fifth-best selling manga series of all time and Lupin III has been hugely and consistently popular for over 50 years.

Again, not a shock that a movie crossover between the two would do big business.

To reiterate a couple points: 47 Ronin is more a Fantasy movie than a historical drama movie, and it’s not a Japanese movie, it’s an American movie about Japan. Or least a lot of the Western cliches and stereotypes about Feudal Japan…

Mount Fuji
The visuals are probably the movie’s greatest strength.
Not exactly surprising given how much there is
to work with in Japanese architecture and geography.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There’s an unfortunate aspect of “Japan: Inscrutable, Exotic Land of Magic and Mysticism” in how Japan in presented in the movie. I don’t think the stylised approach to real-world history is necessarily a problem in itself — and some of the stylistic choices are admittedly pretty cool, at least visually. It is pretty hard to shake off the bad taste left by them still being pretty culturally and thematically unfortunate.

And, yeah, there is something at least a little uncomfortable about the fact that an American studio apparently decided the only way the make Japan interesting was by adding crazy CGI dragons, magic robot samurai, and Keanu Reeves, and make out Japan itself to be as magical and Fantastical as possible.

Apparently, the original pitch was for the movie to be a more straight-up historical story like Gladiator, leading to the studio pushing to make it more like Lord of the Rings, apparently.

Which is weird, because it’s not very much like Lord of the Rings. I assume that’s just shorthand for “Fantasy.”

I’m not exactly shocked the movie didn’t catch on in Japan. I’m also not shocked it didn’t really catch on anywhere else, either. It’s not a great movie.

Most of the actors are doing the best with the material they’ve got, though there are obvious problems with trying to make a movie with forty-seven main characters. Keanu and Hiroyuki Sanada’s characters are pretty much the only heroes we’re given a chance to care about.

The villains probably get the best performances. Lord Kira is an arrogant scumbag, and Rinko Kikuchi as Kira’s witch (girlfriend?) was clearly having fun being a cartoonishy evil creep.

On a practical level, the costume and set design are awesome. The Japanese music-influenced parts of the soundtrack are great. The script isn’t always great, but is at least serviceable. The CGI isn’t mind-blowingly great, but it’s never awful, either. The Fantasy aspects don’t always work, but at least they look cool most of the time.

Himeji Castle with some blossoming cherry trees in the foreground.
But, seriously, I love Japanese castles.
Photo by Nien Tran Dinh on Pexels.com

There’s not nearly enough action, especially with as much added Fantastical elements as there are. Especially especially because those added Fantastical elements seem tacked-on and don’t add a whole lot to the movie except some pretty cool sequences and some good-looking shots.

But, hey, the final assault of Lord Kira’s compound by the ronin is pretty cool. Sure, it’s way more dramatic than the real one. Sure, there’s explosions and magic and generally big budget movie-y craziness.

A scene from 47 Ronin: Hiroyuki Sanada as Oishi holding a sword.
Hiroyuki Sanada Needs to be in More Movies: The Movie.
47 Ronin: Universal.

Sure, it pretty much devolves into a boss fight straight out of a video game. But it’s probably the best example of the stylised, actiony Fantasy-esque approach of the movie actually succeeding. So there’s at least one memorable sequence in the movie.

Watching this movie, I couldn’t help thinking “Man, this would have made an awesome anime”.

There are some good ideas there. There are a lot of really cool visuals. Going completely off the rails with real-world history can work. Unfortunately, a big budget, Americanised movie churned out by a Hollywood studio wasn’t the way to do it…


Copyright 2022 J.B. Norman

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