’47 Ronin’

As You’ve Never Experienced Before

Every few years the Japanese film industry fishes up a new rendition of the Forty-seven Ronin story. They do it because it sells. The most performed Kabuki is ‘Chuhshungura’, based on the Forty-seen Ronin and their revenge upon Kohzukenosuke Kira. I think I’ve watched upwards of 5 iterations of this story across movies TV series and even listened to a radio play. I may have even played a role on a school play where I was one of the guys holding back Lord Asano who tried to cut down the insolent Kira in the The Great Corridor of Pines of Edo Castle.

So not only is this story steeped in history, the fictional representation is steeped in its own history. Because we know the facts so well, we know who the 47 were, how they came to be the members of the revenge party, what they said when they committed ritual harakiri and where they are buried. I’ve even made my little pilgrimage to Sengakuji where their tombstones line up, and there’s even a museum there of the equipment they used on the night of the  revenge.

This movie allegedly draws inspiration from those events, but you sure coulda’ fooled me!

What’s Good About It

Maybe it’ a good thing that even a garbled version of this story gets out to the west. Rinko Kikuchi makes for a very fetching dragon.

The usual gripes aside, it’s nice to see that the cast of Japanese people are played by Japanese people. Even with the heavy accents, at least they get the mannerisms and body language and manners right. This is in stark contrast to ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ which had all the production design down but the main actors were natively Chinese, and so there was a massive dissonance with the body language and mannerism that made it really hard to watch. This film is the opposite. Surrounding the actors being convincingly Japanese is a production designed sword-and-sorcery Japan that is completely  bizzarro-world. Forget Keanu Reeves and his character, the ‘Japan’ in this film is completely out of this world.

What’s Bad About It

It’s pretty mind-warping, so it took about 20minutes for me to get used to the mimesis and vernacular of this film. The obvious difficulty of inserting a character Keanu Reeves can play into the ranks of the 47 presents the script with an inordinate amount of credibility issues. Call it the dances-with-wolves problem where you can’t sell a story about an exotic culture unless the main character is  white dude and he’s really good at what the other non-white dudes do because he’s either super-talented or he’s the chosen one.

Yeah, I know it’s a marketing problem.

Yeah, if people really wanted to know the original story they can watch one of the many historically accurate renditions with subtitles, straight from Japan. This is meant to be a sword-and-sorcery, dungeons-and-dragons sort of take on the story.

But it’s just *bad* BAD bad. B-a-a-a-a-a-ad to the bone.

What’s Interesting About It

It’s amazing what you can do if you don’t give two hoots about historic or geographical or cultural accuracy. Amazing!

It gives me immense insight into how Greeks must feel when they watch ‘Clash of the Titans’, ‘Wrath of the Titans’, ‘Troy’; or how Jewish people might feel when a hyper-Nordic Jesus goes around doing his Jesus thing in your average Hollywood film. There’s odd, there’s wrong, and then there’s Hollywood, which is odd and wrong in a league of its own.

Yeah, I knew I’d feel that going in, but still, it never hurts to spell out the things that bother you, and what exactly this all means.

Playing Oishi

In the tradition of Kabuki, the guy who plays Yoshio Kuranosuke Oishi has got the leading role. It’s the role where the star gets to do his thing; it’s the guy audiences have always flocked to see. So casting Hiroyuki Sanada for Oishi is actually quite classy. Of course, the Oishi in this film is given to rigid formulaic observances, indecision and prevarication, doubts and despair, living down to the stereotypes of a dutiful samurai held by Hollywood, and necessarily possesses an irrational faith in Keanu Reeves as if he knows that Keanu Reeves must be the chosen one to lead his sad lot to glory. Hamlet never suffers this badly.

This is indeed a different Oishi to the one we’ve come to love. The traditional Oishi is wise, patient, subtle, clever with the subterfuge, formidable with his resolve, never lost faith in his mission, carefully figured out who amongst the 200 or so Ronin from Ako, actually had the fortitude to go through with the deed and was meticulous in his planning. Instead, this Oishi is bumbling from moment to moment, making up his plans as he goes along, very much a victim of circumstance and hardly a navigator of his destiny.

It did remind me of the line, “our deeds will echo through time” from ‘Gladiator’. It’s true enough for Oishi and his cohorts – but sometimes the echo chamber is broken and the signal you get is really distorted. I wondered how Sanada kept a straight face through the entire venture (ordeal?). I guess it’s what you call professionalism. Sanada is an interesting actor. He’s invoking the name of Yukimura Sanada with his stage name.

What Are They Wearing?

I know I’m repeating myself but… what the hell was the wardrobe design doing in this film?

Lost in Asia

Keanu Reeves is in a strange career limbo where he is marketed heavily to Asia than he is back in the west. it is as if the Matrix persona of Neo has propelled him into a latter day Chuck Norris who may one day recover his standing in the west. He was in ‘The Man of Taichi’ playing a martial arts nut and evil head honcho in his directorial debut. Combined with this fiasco of a film, he seems he’s totally on the outer. The post-Matrix years have not been great for Keanu. I liked his crooked cop in ‘Street Kings’ and his turn in ‘Constantine’ was sort of interesting but not quite. But then it’s a rare script that can turn his wooden brand of acting into a credible characteriation. He may be lost in Asia for many more years to come. Or maybe this movie has completely sunk him as an action lead actor who can carry a film. He really should consider appearing in a Woody Allen movie.

 

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