Independent of 47 Ronin’s quality, let’s marvel that the film was even given a wide release to begin with. It’s a big-budgeted fantasy action film set against a mystical rendition of historical Japan with almost entirely Japanese roles and little indication of catering to American audiences. Getting more diversity up on the box office marquee takes a lot of effort and to coincide with an initial Christmastime release date took a big leap of faith from Universal Pictures. No matter what, I have a lot of respect for the people who decided to push 47 Ronin to a full national release.
That said, it’s no surprise that 47 Ronin flopped, but it’s not entirely deserved. The big problem is that it was released on Christmas, following the same pattern set by similar fantasies like The Fellowship of the Ring. I won’t pretend that 47 Ronin is in the same class artistically, but it’s a film that could fill a lazy afternoon with a few smiles.
Yesterday, with the temperature finally peaking over 60 degrees and my DVD player whirring, I was lulled into the fantasy just fine. It’s a pretty film that moves forward with deliberate respect to its source material, paying attention to the different politics and social mores of the Japanese hierarchy of lords and shoguns. Not quite the kind of material you spend the holidays with, but something I’m happy to have spent an afternoon off with.
47 Ronin features, as promised by the title, a group of disgraced samurai who fight to regain their honor after a rival lord disgraces their master. That straightforward plot serves as a sort of philosophical guide for the film. None of the actions will be particularly complex, the characters will speak their minds directly, and the fight scenes will come and go.
If 47 Ronin aspired to anything else, then that might be a poor finish line. But the movie is just so darn pretty and everyone devoted to their one-dimension that criticizing it feels like getting angry at a dog for not being able to hold a knife well. No one does somber devotion as well as Keanu Reeves and he’s given plenty of room for that kind of forcefully directed here with a number of colorful action scenes. He’s joined by Hiroyuki Sanada, increased exposure here and in Helix should show that he is able elevate genre material with considerable authority. Plus, any appearance by the intense Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa makes me happy.
All of their singular dimensions are bolstered by a film that sometimes looks like a lush oil painting and takes full advantage of its fantastic setting. An opening hunt for a demonic beast feels like a deleted scene from a Miyazaki film. This is followed by a violent duel between two colorful and magnificently armored warriors in a stone pavilion of leaves. There are glorious sights, such as the floating city shapes like flowers, and a few weird touches like the hair of a witch turning into the legs of a spider as she poisons a man from far away. If you don’t like the visuals on-screen just stick around, a new environment will be coming up in just a moment.
The biggest problem with the film is that it wears its devotion to the idea of a mythical Japan so openly that it occasionally goes into near-parody. Reeves, in one unfortunate plot point, enacts the trials of many a video game character when he goes to a race of lizard-like mystics to claim a power-up for his sword. I suppose we’ve gotten to the point where video game culture is so expansive that this is a fitting trope, but this is less a mythical view of Japan and more one of the few bits of Americanized othering of the culture. It’s also unfortunate that so much devotion is given to the culture and visuals that the story still revolves around the white chosen one, who just so happens to have powers no one else does, and that this great assembled collection of foreign actors is unable to work in Japanese.
I understand those are likely concessions that had to be made to get the film released, but they still make me depressed. Imagine if 47 Ronin had disappeared completely into its inspiration with the talent and devotion already on display to share this unique bit of culture in the world. We might have had something unique instead of temporarily satisfying. I’ll take satisfaction, but hope we push for more.
Directed by Carl Rinsch.
Screenplay written by Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini.
Starring Keanu Reeves and Hiroyuki Sanada.