47 Ronin

With an incredible cast and a budget to match Carl Rinsch’s 47 Ronin boasts a unique take on a traditional Japanese folk tale. Attempting to merge history and fantasy, and loosely based upon the historical event, it opens with a prologue introducing the story and outlining its significance.

The story begins with Kai, a half-Japanese half-English boy running away from something in the forest. Exhausted, he is found with strange claw marks on him by a band of samurai. One young samurai believes the boy to be a demon and attempts to kill him, only to be stopped by Lord Asano who contests that he is human and takes him into his care. Kai is looked after by the Lord’s daughter, Mika, with whom a forbidden relationship begins to blossom. However, as a ‘half-breed’ he is treated as an outcast and shunned despite his courage and honour, with Mika the only one to treat him as an equal.

Years later Lord Kira, a rival lord who covets Lord Asano’s lands, attempts to humiliate him at a tournament in front of the Shogun. Lord Asano’s champion is struck down by Lord Kira’s witch and in trying to save Lord Asano from embarrassment, Kai dons the samurai armour and competes. However, his helmet is knocked off and it is revealed that Lord Asano’s competitor is not a samurai, causing huge disgrace to Lord Asano, and so the Shogun banishes Kai.

That night Lord Kira’s witch causes Lord Asano to disgrace himself, and so Lord Asano is ordered to commit seppuku (suicide) by the Shogun in order to regain his honour. After his death, the samurai under Lord Asano are all made ronin and are banished and Lord Kira is given control of the lands and is set to marry Mika. The leader of the ronin, Oishi, seeks out Kira and, along with the other ronin, plans to exact their revenge.

In many ways the foundation of the film remains consistent with the historical event, adding a dose of supernatural with the dragon, tengu, and magic involved. The original legend’s powerful narrative  is well conveyed and John Mathieson’s cinematography luxurriates in the Japanese setting.

Magic at first may seem out of place in a samurai film, however when one considers the era in which the film is set and the nature of the monsters portrayed, it feels more natural in context. The transforming woman and tengu, which are traditional Japanese y?kai (mythical beings), could easily have given 47 Ronin a ‘samurai vs. monsters’ vibe, but Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini’s screenplay ensures a focus on the samurai’s need to avenge their master, with the magic taking a firm backseat. To a certain extent, this leaves the fantasy elements of the film under-developed and ultimately excisable, but with the benefit being a stronger emotional resonance with the characters, it arguably works in the film’s favour.

The music, though beautiful, does not have a Japanese feel, perhaps as the film seemed to switch genre so suddenly – traditional Japanese music would move it further from a fantasy film – or more cynically, because it might have been less palatable to mainstream audiences in the West, expecting the kind of score they’re used to for an action blockbuster.

The first monster which attacks the hunting party is very Ghibli-esque and has a distinctly Japanese feel about it. The CGI is spectacular for the Witch’s transformations, but it is somewhat lacking for other beasts and the dragon. Yet what is lacking in CGI is made up for in the costume department, adding a vibrancy to the film but not to the point of distraction. Some costumes, such as Lord Kira’s shiny silver ensemble and Lady Miki’s pink high collar kimono, seem strange as no other characters wear fantasy-inspired outfits; an unnecessary ‘fashion twist’ by Penny Rose and the costume department.

It isn’t immediately clear how it will pan out, but Kai’s importance of being half- Japanese in 47 Ronin is done well and not over-played. Reeves’ performance is believable as he carefully mimics the Japanese mannerisms necessary for his character’s station in society. The half-Japanese nature is important for the plot as without it, Kai would not have been banished in the first place. Though the story could have been written without Kai – the original forty-seven ronin were all Japanese – with him in it, it is important that his character looks visibly different to the other characters so that he is a clear outcast and suspicious to Oishi. When it is finally revealed why Kai was running in the woods and how he learnt to fight, we are simply told, instead of shown him growing up; it would have been a lot more interesting to see Kai’s childhood.

A completely unique take on the Ch?shingura tale, this account of the 47 Ronin creates a beautiful mix of legend and mythology, but without ever quite realizing the full potential which a film with such brilliant material, cast, and funding has.