The story of the forty-seven Ronin dates back to early 18th century Japan. The story is the most famous example of the bushido – or the Samurai code of honor. Feudal Japan was ruled by many different lords, or Shogun. There were also daimyo, lords who ruled over smaller city-states. The Daimyo had Samurai to help watch over his lands and people. This particular story tells of a group of samurai who were left leaderless (which turns a Samurai into a Ronin), after their Daimyo Asano Naganori was compelled to comit seppuku (which is a honorable ritual suicide) for assaulting a court official named Kira Yoshinaka. The Ronin avenged Naganori after waiting and planning for almost two years. In turn, these ronin were also obliged to commit seppuku for committing murder. The story has passed down through generations, becoming legend. It is used to describe the loyalty, sacrifice, persistence, and honor that all people should strive for. The story has been told in plays, books, and movies. Each year on December 14th, the Sengakuji Temple holds a festival commemorating the Ronin at their gravesites.
It’s an engaging old story, but since it’s been made into a movie at least 5 times before, how do you make it one more time, and make it watchable in this day and age? Well, you up the romance and fantasy elements, add some impressive visuals and throw in Keanu Reeves (who some people had forgotten about), and release it in 3D.
This version of the story follows a half-breed, Kai, who is found running through the woods – away from something – as a boy by Lord Asano and his Samurai. Oishi, the lead Samuari wants to kill the boy, as he is clearly (clearly) a demon, but Lord Asano (much to the delight of his daughter), takes pity on him, and allows him to live as a sevant in his home. Kai and the daughter, Mika, remain friends throughout their lives and Kai swears his loyalty to Lord Asano for the kindness he has been shown. He slays a crazy beast (a chimera-type deal that was trampling horses and what-not), but one of the other Samurai takes credit for it. Meanwhile, the Shogun is arriving for a tournament, at which Lord Asano’s champion will battle the visiting Lord Kira’s champion. Lord Kira is a bit of a dick and has eyes for Lord Asano’s daughter and his lands and his people. He also has a witch at his side.
The witch incapacitates Lord Asano’s champion, and Oishi’s son and Kai discover this just a bit too late. Kai makes the supremely poor decision to put on the champion’s armor and head out to the fight – which he loses, and is discovered.
The Shogun sentences him to death, but Mika throws herself in the way, and then Lord Asano looks bad and has to apologize, and apparently commit seppuku. At this point, Kira conveniently offers to marry Mika and keep watch over the lands. The shogun gives her a year to mourn. Kira banishes Asano’s Samurai, making them Ronin, and bitter and angry. Oishi is thrown into a pit, and the Ronin scatter.
A year later, Oishi is released as the wedding is being prepped. Oishi begins assembling his Ronin, starting with Kai. They then hatch a plan that they know will lead to their doom, but they are determined to avenge their master.
If you know the true story, you know how this movie will end, so there’s no surprise there. The added bits of the romance between Kai and Mika, the entire character of Kai, and the fantasy elements of the witch and the beasts are all fictionalized, and are really just there to up the visual aspects.
That being said, I think it was a wise decision. Telling this story straight would leave you with basically a Western-style vengeance story; and really, Westerns haven’t been doing that well lately. Adding the fantasy elements gives you a visual genre feast. Directed by Carl Rinsch, this is his first full-length feature. He had previously done some short movies. I really loved the visuals in this movie, especially in the quiet moments where nothing is happening. The staging and cinematography are beautiful. The cast is wonderful, considering there’s not that many characters you really get to know.
- Keanu Reeves plays Kai and does a serviceable job. Listen, we all know he’s Keanu Reeves, and we’re all aware of his range. The advantage is that now he seems to be aware of his range as well, and it fits this story well. He does a good job, the fighting bits look great, and I was happy to see him in this role.
- Hiroyuki Sanada, most recently seen in this summer’s Wolverine, plays Oishi. While Reeves is the star, the movie really belongs to Sanada and his character of Oishi. He’s very watchable and does a great job portraying a man willing to do anything for honor and loyalty.
- Ko Shibasaki plays Mika. She really is just the damsel in distress, which is disappointing, but she does have few moments of defiance that were interesting.
- Tandanobu Asano plays Lord Kira, and he is pretty devious and nasty through the whole movie. He’s played Hogun in both Thor movies, so he knows his way around a big genre movie. I especially love the bit where he refers to Asano’s daughter as his concubine – accidentally on purpose, then his little facial reaction afterwards. Hilarious.
- Min Tanaka plays Lord Asano, and he was very imposing. He plays his acceptance of Kai in an interesting way, as well as his non-acceptance of his daughter’s attachment to Kai. Also, when he removed his shirt to commit seppuku, he’s remarkably built for a man of his age.
- Jin Akanishi plays Oishi’s son, and really (spoiler alert) is the one to make it through the story. His journey from timid young man to Samurai is a small part of the story – but well done.
- Rinko Kikuchi plays the witch, and man, does she play the witch. She was in Pacific Rim this summer, and really seems way more at home in this movie as the bad guy, then as the good guy in that flick. She vamps her way through the role, chewing up the scenery while casting spells, having magic hair, creating poisonous spiders, and turning into a fox (but what does it say?). She was great.
- My favorite part was, of course, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as the Shogun. He was raised as a US Army brat and has been acting since 1987, he played a bailiff in the very first episode of Star Trek: TNG, and was insanely perfect as Shang Tsung in Mortal Combat in 1995. He was a major part of the perfection of Showdown in Little Tokyo, the best worst martial arts movie ever made. In this, he doesn’t do much but let the costuming do the work, and work it does.
Along those lines, the costuming in this movie is fantastic, as are all the sets. Like I said, visually very impressive. The story was good, the acting was fine, all in all, an enjoyable movie.
8 out of 10. Gained points for that dragon – a shame it was ruined in the trailer, but it was still pretty impressive. Lost points for everyone turning on Kai so quickly – really guys? He totally stepped in and tried to help out! Gained points for the Tengu, which of course reminded me of the Tengu in the Power Rangers movie, anyone else? No? Just me? That’s fine, I can live with that.
Bonus Video 1: Mortal Kombat, so awesome.
Bonus Video 2: Showdown in Little Tokyo, because I have to mention it every third blog-post or so…
Bonus Video 3: Cast Interviews: