The Ronin, The Shogun And The Outcast – 47 Ronin

8 01 2014

47 Ronin (2013 - Universal Pictures)

I love Japanese culture as you can probably tell from my extensive knowledge particularly in their film industry as well as Video Games. I love the setting of it all, the beauty in their gardens as well as the historical culture particularly that of the Samurai. But for all this interest, the tale of the 47 Ronin is one I don’t know that much about. The tale of the Forty-Seven Ronin is one of the most famous in the country’s history:

“Described by Japanese historians as a ‘National Legend’, the revenge of the 47 Ronin took place in Japan and is the ultimate expression of the samurai code of honour, Bushido. The story began on April 21st 1701, when Lord Asano Naganori, the Daimyo of the Ako Domain was forced to commit ritual suicide for attacking Kira Yoshinaka in Edo Castle, a rude and arrogant Master of Ceremony under the Tokugawa Shogunate. The loyal 47 Ronin took over a year to planned their raid on Kira’s mansion. On a snowy December night, they strike on Kira’s home, taking everyone by surprise.  After killing Kira, they went to their Master’s Grave, and turned themselves in to the authorities. For committing such a vendetta, the 47 Ronin were requested by the Shogun to commit seppuku, ritual self-disembowelment. During the Meiji era, the rapid modernization of Japan forces people to return to their cultural roots and values, giving tremendous popularity of the 47 Ronin’s tale.” – 47


While waiting for the film to come out though, I have heard almost nothing but bad press about it. While there was initial excitement about another film on such a famous and popular story, after other people looked into the new film, their initial thoughts were that of disappointment. I of course did not understand as I had not any full understanding of the original legend.


The film opens with a small tale of a child being discovered with marks upon his head. A local lord takes pity on him while everyone else in his clan believe him to be a demon. The boy strikes a friendship with the local lord’s daughter Mika (Kō Shibasaki) and waits for the day that he can repay them both. Many years later, after being trained in samurai culture but still living as an outcast, the Halfling (as he is called) boy named Kai (Keanu Reeves) saves the life of one of the villagers by taking down a giant beast that was being hunted. Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) uses the creature as an offering for the Shogun who makes a visit later that evening. When the Shogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) arrives, Kai spots a woman in the crowd he believes to be a witch. He goes to Lord Asano’s head samurai Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) to tell him this, but Oishi does not take interest believing that Kai must be a demon if he can spot a witch.


The following day a tournament is held in the honour of the shogun. The Shogun’s master of ceremonies, Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) is in attendance and presents his fighter, a giant man all clad in steel to fight Lord Asano’s fighter, who has been bewitched. Kai secretly takes the fighters place until he is discovered. He is forced into taking a beating. That night Lord Kira tells his witch servant Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi) to possess Lord Asano, this works and Lord Asano, blind to his daughter’s distress attacks a defenceless Lord Kira. Kira survives but is forced by the Shogun to commit Seppuku. His now Master less Samurai become Ronin and are forced to depart from the land and Kai is sold into Slavery. Kira is made head of the land and Mika is forced to marry him in one years’ time. Oishi meanwhile is forced into a pit by Kira.


One year passes and Oishi is finally released from the pit. He heads home and makes plans to get his revenge on Kira. He tells his son Chikara (Jin Akanishi) to go and amass his former warriors and meet him by a river in a few days’ time. Oishi meanwhile travels to a Dutch port to get Kai back. Kai shows great skill in fighting many strange beasts at the pirate port. Oishi enters a fight with him and tells him of what is about to happen. Oishi and Kai manage to escape the port and meet up with the other Ronin. The group split up, Chikara goes to find information from the drunken guards near Kira’s palace. A few others head off to find more men while Oishi and Kai go to get more swords. Their search leads them to going to find the Tengu, a mystical group who hides in the forest, the ones who trained Kai and raised him. Kai and Oishi go in the temple and Oishi’s will is tested as Kai confronts the head of the order and takes his sword. As a reward, his men get the swords they need.


At Kira’s palace, Mika is being prepared for her marriage but gets repeatedly tested by Mizuki and Kira. Kira heads off to a temple to pray as the Ronin plan their attack on Kira. They travel to Kira’s encampment and launch a surprise attack. It proves to be a trick though as Kira is Mizuki in disguise. Thinking that the Ronin are now dead, Kira goes ahead with his wedding. The Ronin manage to survive the encounter but with some loses. The Ronin decide to use their deaths as a surprise and plan a new attack on Kira’s castle. At the cover on nightfall, the Ronin secretly enter the castle and are mostly successful in taking out the perimeter guards, until one of them manages to get a stray shot off. The palace falls into battle. Oishi’s men are successful in taking out the Kira’s fighter and Oishi engages Kira. Kai rescues Mika and manages to kill Mizuki. Oishi meanwhile beheads Kira. The Ronin travel back to their home and surrender to The Shogun. The shogun says though that because they did what any Samurai would do despite disobeying him that they may die with honour by committing Seppuku. They begin the ritual but the Shogun allows Chikara to live and become the new lord of the region. Kai meanwhile says that he will wait in the afterlife for Mika.


While the film may not live up to the original legend, it is my understanding from research that I have done that almost no film on the legend lives up to the original story. What is noticeable though is that the film does follow the original story with elements of fantasy included. The film is therefore adding elements to make the story interesting to other audiences. In my opinion, the only chance of making a thorough adaptation true to the original story, the film would have to be made in Japan. Several have, but in order to please the rest of the world, it would need more of an international release. From a western point of view though, the film is made alongside the original tale but with elements that would appeal to those who request more than just reality, and due to the film’s ancient, mythical setting, there is some allowance at least for the western audience for some elements of mythological beasts.


In terms of the film itself, so not much look upon the legend itself, I find myself comparing it in some respects to films like 13 Assassins and Zulu. Films on an epic scale such as these, it is easy to see the detail that has been put into those films compared to this where it appears to be almost minimal. The characters for instance in traditional Japanese epic’s such as Seven Samurai and 13 Assassins have a great amount of detail into each and every character in the main troupe. Now while of course it would take forever to do the same with the whole company of the 47 Ronin, but as only a few of them appear to have any character at all, it’s a shame we can’t see more of them, not even from the 12 main men in the company. If you were to take a look at this films detail on par with Zulu you can see that Zulu manages to keep large amounts of detail in its characters, though many but allows room for it.


Though while it is very minimal on its characters, 47 Ronin’s main characters are a nice mix. But I do think that this film could have been improved greatly if it was a Japanese Language speaking film as it would look more authentic than them all speaking English, which I think is a definite weakness. Keanu reeves character holds a pivotal point but I think his character is only there to justify the western nature of the film. He is not the only one though as I think that the tattooed guy in the Dutch port, who appears in all the posters, only appears very briefly and I was expecting him to suddenly turn up, but he didn’t.

Keanu Reeves and Tattoo Man

The main draw in the film’s cast though are in the form of Lord Kira and Oishi. Oishi is a respectable samurai and a respectable samurai who holds up the codes of the samurai as displayed in the film with great authenticity despite not going that much into detail with it. He is very enjoyable throughout the film and you feel a level of safety around him. in many respects, Oishi is the real main focus of the plot, over Keanu Reeves’s Character. Lord Kira though plays the part of a rotter really well. His part is that of a devious and deceitful villain who wants nothing more than power and he is much of a schemer when he does this. This part is excellently played by Tadanobu Asano. Alongside him you also have the brilliant Rinko Kikuchi as the witch Mizuki. As a character she is as rotten as Kira, but this is not a bad thing as that is their part, they are the kind of character whose end you very much look forward too, as is their part.

Hiroyuki Sanada, Tadanobu Asano, Rinko Kikuchi

The film’s special effects are well done and work well in tandem bringing the creatures in the film to life. Such other effects are used mostly for the creatures but also for the effects that could not be done by real life. It shows great respect to more recent Japanese film makers, particularly Takeshi Miike who only uses CGI if it is humanly impossible, such as can be seen in 13 Assassins.


While maybe not holding up to the original legend completely, 47 Ronin is actually a very enjoyable film. While the story is scattered and somewhat quick to go from point A to point G, it is a story that does have a level of detail in showing the ancient culture if only a tiny bit. As a fantasy film though, I think it rivals many others but as it is trying to go in tandem to an original legend, it suffers as a result. If it were its own story it could have been very different, but don’t just write it off as a generic fantasy film as this film does more than those. Though in my opinion if you want to see a film that shows more of a foreign culture, I would highly recommend you see 13 Assassins or Seven Samurai instead.




2 responses

24 01 2014

Good review. It was an alright watch, but honestly, nothing all that special to begin with. Just fine for a little fantasy, sword and sorcery and that’s about it.

25 01 2014


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