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47 Ronin (2013)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

47 RONIN (2013)

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ko Shibasaki, Tadanobu Asano, Rinko Kikuchi

Written By: Chris Morgan (also story), Hossein Amini, Walter Hamada (story)

Directed By: Carl Rinsch

The Short Version

Hollywood finally tries its hand at one of Japan’s greatest stories.

There’s truth behind the story… but this is a fairy tale.  Treat it as such.

It’s a beautifully filmed, well acted fairy tale, at that.

But it’s not epic.

47 Ronin is an interesting take on a classic story, and worth having a look, given proper expectations.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


It’s not everyone’s taste, but there’s so much flavor when you try it… and then it’s gone, like a fairy tale.

Pairs Well With...


Served cold, like revenge.

“We are forty-seven.”

If there is a single story that identifies the soul of old Japan, it is that of the 47 Ronin.  It’s even true.

At the start of the 18th Century, through treachery and insult, a Japanese noble named Kira really did incite another named Asano to attack him in violation of the Shogun’s law, for which the Shogun ordered Asano to commit ritual suicide.  Asano’s lands became forfeit, and all of the Samurai who followed him were declared Ronin – masterless Samurai, a disgrace.  Forty-seven of these Ronin later banded together and exacted revenge upon Kira for the dishonor and death of their master, after which they themselves – save one – committed ritual suicide according to the ancient code of bushido.  Ever since, the 47 Ronin have collectively come to be considered some of Japan’s greatest heroes.

All of the above is real history.  Hopefully, everyone reading this has learned by now that dramatized movies are the very last place one should go looking for real history.  So it is with 47 Ronin, the first attempt by Big Hollywood to take on the Japanese tradition of Chushingura – fictionalizing that true story and peppering it with the stuff of legends.  In this case, the writers have made it a full on fairy tale, complete with an evil witch, a lovestruck princess, and a half-breed orphan raised by demons.

It’s a pretty damn good fairy tale, at that… so long as one remembers to treat it as such, and to understand that as a tale that amalgamates the traditions of both East and West, 47 Ronin does not fully conform to either one.

What does that mean, exactly?  Let’s break it down a bit.

The Characters.  Fairy tales are not populated by developing, multi-dimensional characters.  They are populated by archetypes and stereotypes, and so it is with 47 Ronin.  There is an Evil Witch, and she never behaves like anything other than an Evil Witch.  There is a Lovestruck Princess, and she never behaves like anything other than a Lovestruck Princess.  There’s an Evil Prince who usurps a Wise Ruler, and there are lots of Honorable Warriors.  Oh, and there’s a Kinda Funny Fat Guy.  I think you get the point by now.  Character depth is something that happens to other movies, but given the fairy tale style of this one, that’s perfectly okay.

With that said, once one gets past the Honorable Warriors and the Tengu (demons of Shinto lore), the archetypes chosen to populate this very Eastern story have a very Western bent to them.  The most obvious is the Half Breed, transparently inserted here so that the studios could cast an actor that most North Americans and Europeans would recognize; namely, Keanu Reeves.  But then there’s also the equally imaginary Lovestruck Princess who seems more like she belongs in an English folktale or maybe even a 19th Century novel, and there are more where she came from.  The addition of these characters and the retooling of others makes the dramatis personae more accessible to Western audiences and provides the story with an extra automatic subplot, but there is a purity cost to be paid.  For my own part, I’m good with it, but it also guarantees that almost no one gets the story they were expecting.

The Story.  With that said, just because a story isn’t quite what one expects, that doesn’t mean it’s unpredictable.  As with almost every fairy tale, there is nothing about the plot of 47 Ronin that can’t be seen coming from several miles out, even if you’ve never experienced this particular tale before.  If something about this story catches you by surprise, you probably stopped paying attention.

Unless that “something” happens to be the ending, which is one place where – very rightly – the writers have not decided to “go Western.”  We all know that Western fairy tales, especially the versions filmed by Hollywood, tend to end with the line “…and they lived happily ever after.”

Japanese tales – especially those involving Samurai – usually end with a very different sentence.

The Acting.  Now if the acting catches you by surprise, that’s something different, even though it shouldn’t be.  The performances here are “good” to “excellent” across the board, no exceptions.  The fact that everyone is playing an arche/stereotype puts some severe limits on artistic license, but within those boundaries, everyone performs admirably.  Indeed, Keanu Reeves’ reserved-but-occasionally-intense style is perfect for his role as a half breed born of two worlds and raised in a third who’s just trying to be accepted by a society that doesn’t trust him.  The other star likely to be recognized by Western audiences, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, provides admirable gravitas in the role of the Shogun.  But the real standout performances come from two other players who, while not total strangers to Hollywood, aren’t exactly household names.  Rinko Kikuchi laps up the role of the Evil Witch for all that it’s worth and then some, easily stealing every single frame of film upon which she appears in the most delightful of ways.  (When you think about the movie a week later, I bet hers is the first face you remember.)  Or if you prefer dramatic intensity to flash, there’s Hiroyuki Sanada to consider.  He plays the lead Ronin, Oishi – yes, the real star of this story is not the one played by Keanu – and he puts on a clinic in the process.  His body language and facial expressions speak volumes even when he’s not saying a word, and when he does speak, one cannot help but listen.  I have no trouble at all believing Sanada as a noble Samurai.

The Visuals and The Direction.  Visually, 47 Ronin is beautiful, carrying the slight semi-surrealism of a fairy tale without ever coming even close to going over the top.  The characters may be arche/stereotypes, but great attention has been paid to the details of their physical presentation, and that of the buildings and spaces they inhabit.  Indeed, one could suggest that their world is given more dimension than they themselves are, and it’s a gorgeous place to get lost in. 

As for the direction… that’s where 47 Ronin runs into some trouble.  Much criticism has been leveled at the studio for giving such a high end picture to a first time feature film director, and I do see the point there.  Beautiful though the world may be and solid as the story’s foundation is, 47 Ronin just doesn’t have that extra epic feel that I – and I suspect most everyone else – would expect from a big budget take on such a powerful and important tale.  When action sequences occur, they are, save perhaps for the final one, almost unbelievably short, and considering that the culture being showcased is that of the greatest swordsmen the world has ever seen, I was hoping for some more exciting fights.  Considering how cut and dried most other elements of the movie are, it would be very easy to damn 47 Ronin simply because of its less-than-epic direction…

…but I can’t bring myself to do that.  No, Carl Rinsch doesn’t deliver the awe like one imagines Peter Jackson might, but he doesn’t do a terrible job, either.  From the moment I heard that a big budget 47 Ronin was coming down the pipe, I’d been hoping for something amazing, but even though I didn’t get that, I did get something beautiful.  I’d have thought there’d be more blood in a movie with so many decapitations and ritual disembowelments (there is no blood at all save for red thumbprints on a pact), but it’s a fairy tale; I get it.  The heart of the story is still there, and I find that I didn’t mind the Westernizations that much.  Rinsch gets the character beats – some might call the “the boring parts” – every time he needs to, and while he never had me at the edge of my seat, he never had me bored, either, and I did cheer out loud a couple of times.  Playing armchair studio exec, would I have handed him this movie?  Probably not, but I still enjoy the results.

And that, I think, is the most important point here.  No, 47 Ronin is not the sweeping epic that most everyone wants it to be or that it deserves to be, but it’s still a damn good fairy tale as presented.  I enjoyed myself while I was watching it, and now that I’m a few hours removed, I still feel the same way.  It was and is worth seeing in a theatre, and I’ll probably pick up the blu ray when it hits stores in a few months, too.

Bottom line, 47 Ronin isn’t what most people hoped it would be, but it works very well for what is actually is.  Go ahead and take a chance; it’s worth your time.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, December, 2013

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