This week, after watching the 2013 film, 47 Ronin, starring Keanu Reeves, I had to wonder why Hollywood felt it necessary to take a powerful story, a great historical drama, and mess with it. And, of course, why they would put Keanu Reeves into a film about 18th century Japanese samurai. Or, for that matter, into any film.
I’m not an actor, so my appreciation of their talents is only as an outsider. But Reeves seems to be pretty much a one-dimensional character. It worked in the Matrix, albeit less so in the sequels, but in films like the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, he was awful. (the 1951 original remains so much better…). His breadth of emotional expression seems very limited: his face always shows an angry bewilderment.
Perhaps that flatness was thought well-suited to the stoicism expected of samurai culture. And in part it does work in the scenes of fighting and warrior bonding, but then there’s the whole love scene thing and he just doesn’t come across as the romantic lead when required.
Reeves plays a half-breed, a role not fully explained (why did the director, Carl Rinsch require a Western lead in a story that is purely Japanese?). Nor is the whole isolated-Japan-no-contact political situation fleshed out (which didn’t really alter until the Meijin era, almost two centuries later), which might explain somewhat better why Reeve’s character was shunned by the samurai (and that whole sold-into-slavery gladiator thing was a very odd inclusion, especially since slavery was banned in Japan in 1590).
But to be fair, what critics like and what the public likes are often at odds with one another. And personally, I am often entertained by films that critics panned. And 47 Ronin entertained me, despite my reservations about Reeves and the Hollywood accouterments. It’s a fun film, but it could have been a great film.
Hollywood hasn’t learned that colour, action and special effects can’t make up for good storytelling, solid acting, well-written dialogue and effective directing.
This film has some of that – aside from Reeves, the acting is good, albeit straight-jacketed by the emotionally restrained period. Just not quite enough to make it a great film. The story is confused; context isn’t clear and it seems to dart around without purpose at times. The special effects detracted me (as they often do in Hollywood films) from the story.
What Hollywood did to the historical Japanese story was not unique. Similar treatment has been given to western stories and ideas. The American Old West has been infused with fantasy and aliens, for example. Steampunk and dieselpunk tales are full of historical-fantasy mashups. Sometimes these work, sometimes not. I can’t fault the imagination to attempt them. But sometimes the mixture just doesn’t work. In 47 Ronin, itself a ‘chushingura‘ or fictionalized account of the story, I think it’s borderline.
Tossing in demons, witches, fantastical beasts and magic might work better if you don’t know the actual story of the ronin. It might seem more appropriate; another fantasical Asian story like Crouching Tiger. But I read about it decades ago – I still have a Tuttle paperback by John Allyn from 1984, and I saw the Kurosawa film even before then. I had in mind a hard-edged tale of loyalty, betrayal, and revenge, about honour and bushido – not demons and dragons.
The director tried to add a patina of authenticity by tossing in some Japanese folklore like the tengu – the long-nosed demon of Japanese mythology – and the kirin – the Japanese chimera. However, these are not fully explained in the film, so I doubt western audiences will grasp their significance (without context, the whole kirin hunting scene seems a pointless digression). We’re not generally well-educated in the mythology of other cultures, so the lizard-like tengu of the film would not strike us as odd – even though in Japan tengu are pictured as more bird-like, and have a role like the Coyote or trickster of western mythology.
The sets and costumes are wonderful; no expense spared. Very imaginative, well-crafted and believable. While some liberties were taken with colour and design to heighten the artistic value, they still convey a strong impression of feudal Japan. The fighting looks real, not exaggerated as you get in some Chinese films like Crouching Tiger- Hidden Dragon. It’s not a martial arts film per se, although it does have its moments.
The deep historical and cultural context is missing, however. The early 18th century was a renaissance period for Japan, a time of political, social upheaval. Arts flourished. Farmers rioted against unfair taxation. A growing divide separated the corrupt Tokugawa shogunate and the more honourable daimyos. A merchant class was developing, bringing down the walls of hereditary privilege. It was a time when values were being remade and old and new clashed.
The actual story has nothing to do with a forced marriage, magic, or halfbreed outcasts. The daimyo, Asano, was a young man, not an old one, and not at war with anyone. The insult to the family honour came not from another family, but from Lord Kira, a corrupt court official (not an incipient groom nor another family clan head) sent by the shogun to prepare Asano and other daimyos in the protocols for the shogun’s impending visit. Kira was miffed at not receiving sufficient ‘gifts’ – aka bribes – from Lord Asano, and insulted the daimyo. Honour at stake, Asano struck Kira, doing no damage. Asano’s punishment was seppuku.
Of his more than 300 samurai, only 47 went rogue – ronin. The two-year period between the death of Asano and Kira is also deeply interesting: the deception, the spying, the planning that took place is worthy of inclusion. It’s glossed over in the film, as if it all took place in short order.
Yes, I understand: chushingura are not historical depictions, but rather a dramatic reworking of the story to heighten some moral, ethical or cultural aspects. So I can’t fault Rinsch for not being accurate. Chushingura are a long and honoured tradition in Japan. Still, as the credits roll, you have to wonder what it all meant.
The ending, at least, is fairly historically correct (I won’t spoil it) aside from the two lovers, since they were from the start an artifice.
Rinsch’s tale comes across like a mix of Harry Potter and the Shogun series. Fun, lots of action, and good for an evening’s entertainment. But not the dramatic masterpiece I think the story could be.