I went into 47 Ronin wanting to geek out on some samurai action. As a practitioner of Iaido, I like to see sword play done right. I’m also a big fan of fantasy, and based on the trailer, I did expect that element to be strong. Sure, this portrayal of the 47 Ronin is only loosely related to the traditional story, but I’m cool with that. It’s almost a shame that the screen writers tethered their cart to a well known tale, because I think the world could use more fantasy epics adorned with the rich cultural trappings of feudal Japan. A story liberated from the traditional structure entirely might have spread its wings a little more. If The Lord of the Rings can put magic and monsters in a world inspired by a version of Medieval Britain, then why not give the same treatment to the knights and dragons of the East?
Overall I was entertained. The mash up of witchcraft, demon monks, monsters, and the samurai code of honor is a chemistry that mostly works, and the film is beautiful to look at. The costumes are gorgeous*, the sets, cinematography and effects all feel cohesive and immersive, and the pace is brisk. Clocking in at just over two hours, it might have been a little too brisk, because where 47 Ronin falls flat for me is in the acting and character development.
The shape-shifting witch, (the true villain of the story) has some of the coolest effects, and could have been a thrilling character. Her concept and design were great. But I couldn’t take the character seriously, as she was totally undermined by bad casting and weak acting. And Kai, the mysterious half-breed sort-of-central hero played by Keanu Reeves, suffers from a similar lack of depth and development. He feels grafted onto the story as a plot device, a cynical way to give Western audiences a Caucasian to relate to.
The canvas may be 3D, but most of the dialog felt 2D to me. I read in Variety that the lines for the Japanese actors were simplified because they had to read the English phonetically, but at times it feels like they did the same thing for Keanu.
Hiroyuki Sanada makes up for a lot of this in the role of Oishi, arguably the main character, even though you won’t find his face on the posters. I’ve enjoyed his acting in everything I’ve seen him in so far (check out The Twilight Samurai for something more authentic) and he really carries this version of 47 Ronin on his back. The story of his quest for revenge feels like it has some weight. The risk and cost to his family actually resonates, but isn’t given enough time at center stage because we’re distracted by a forbidden love subplot between Kai and the daimyo’s daughter Mika. This love story is an element that ends up lacking that same resonance, in spite of overwrought attempts to invoke passion simply by viewing the relationship through a lens tinted with the beauty and poetry of old Japan.
Forgive my harping on the comparison, but if the Hobbit movies are too long (and I think they are, much as I loved the LOTR trilogy) then 47 Ronin may well be too short. Other unfulfilled potentials included the story of how Kai trains and acquires his sword skills on the Dutch island of Djema where we get a brief look at a cool character tattooed with a skull face. Unfortunately, this guy is just another element that teases us in the poster and trailer, but gets little screen time.
After reading the awesome novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet by David Mitchell, I was hungry to see more of Djema, and hoping that the filmmakers might exploit the potential for bringing out some of Kai’s backstory there, or at least digging into the rich juxtaposition of cultures offered by the Dutch island, but no. Didn’t happen. By the way, if you want a story that blends samurai culture and Japanese history with subtle sorcery, do yourself a favor and read that book. It does a much better job in the romance department as well.
By the end of the film Kai’s character is as much of an enigma as when we first met him crashing out of the forest with claw scars on his head. An unsatisfying journey to be sure. But I do have to give the filmmakers some credit for keeping to the traditional ending, and guaranteeing that there won’t be a sequel.
*Beautiful as some of the clothes and armor were, they did lack the feel of things broken in by use. For a close up look at some authentic samurai armor, here’s a gallery of photos my wife took at the Samurai Arms and Armor exhibit at the Boston MFA earlier this year.