A film review by Craig J. Koban January 3, 2014 

47 RONIN jjj

2013, PG-13, 119 mins.


Keanu Reeves as Kai  /  Hiroyuki Sanada as Kuranosuke Ôishi  /  Kou Shibasaki as Mika  /  Tadanobu Asano as Lord Kira  /  Rinko Kikuchi as Mizuki  /  Min Tanaka as Lord Asano  /  Jin Akanishi as Chikara  /  Masayoshi Haneda as Yasuno  /  Hiroshi Sogabe as Hazama  /  Takato Yonemoto as Basho

Directed by Carl Rinsch  /  Written by Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini


47 RONIN is one of those troubled films that, as far as I can tell, does not really show all of its production woes in the final product. 

Originally set to be released in November of 2012, the film was postponed to February of 2013 and then subsequently put off again until December so that re-shoots, visual effects, and a 3D upconversion could be completed in a satisfactory manner.  To make matters worse, the production budget swelled north of $200 million, which is a huge expense, especially considering the relative novice behind the camera (director Carl Erik Rinsch makes his feature film debut here).  Despite all of this, 47 RONIN certainly shows its cost on screen at times and, for the most part, it’s a reasonably effective and enjoyable marriage of history, folklore, and fantasy.  

The film’s title, of course, is taken from a fact-based story of a group of masterless samurai (or “ronin”) from 18th Century Japan that attempt to avenge the murder of their master.  This iconic tale has been told countless times before and through many interpretive lenses, but none have gone to the lengths of 47 RONIN when it comes to infusing as much mystical elements into the fray (like, for example, witches, giants, and a slew of other monstrous creations).  Some ronin purists out there will, no doubt, cry a resounding foul at the film’s taking of a sacred historical event and infusing aspects of the supernatural in it (47 RONIN at times plays less like THE LAST SAMURAI and more like a poor man’s LORD OF THE RINGS), but the resulting film has a kind of audacious creative ambition in its attempts to be daringly different.  Even when the divergent elements of the film don’t gel very well together, it still scores points for at least trying to go against the grain of so many other samurai pictures. 



Set 300 years in the past in feudal Japan, 47 RONIN introduces us to a kingdom ruled over by an evil lord, Kira (Tadanobu Asano), who works in cahoots with a vile and nefarious witch Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi, in high camp mode) to take total control over the lands and people.  When his master is forced into committed seppuku (suicide) after being placed under a spell that led to him nearly killing one of his guests, samurai Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) is left as a ronin and banished from his kingdom, which in turn is left under the treacherous rule of Kira.  In order to fully cement his control and power, Lord Kira wishes to marry Mika (Ko Shibasaki), the daughter of the aforementioned killed leader who does not really want anything to do with a forced marriage.  Can ya blame her? 

In the meantime, Oishi plots a scheme for ultimate vengeance against Lord Kira, during which time he turns to Kai (Keanu Reeves) to assist him with his plan.  Kai has lived a life of a “half breed” outcast with secrets of his own that have always led to him feeling like a downtrodden loner, yet his love for Mika more than convinces him to assist Oishi to reclaim the honor of his fallen master.  As they form a strong partnership, Oishi and Kai also rally together the remaining other ronin that also have been banished since their master’s untimely death.  Gathering resources, their wits, a collective willingness to right a very dastardly wrong, these 47 ronin plan an intrepid, but highly dangerous final assault on Lord Kira’s fortress, but it soon becomes apparent that their mission will not come without ample bloodshed. 

47 RONIN may seem like a really, really odd filmmaking endeavor on paper – a 3D fantasy, set in 18th Century Japan, and shot in Hungary and England – but the resulting film nevertheless looks pretty sensational.  The sumptuous costume design by Penny Rose immediately sets us within the film’s time period and setting, and the production design by Jan Roelfs contains enough artfully ornate sets and detailed craftsmanship that further helps give verisimilitude to the film’s era.   As for the more fantastical trimmings in the film, 47 RONIN has some fun with envisioning its creatures, like witches that can shape shift into cloudlike apparitions, or dragons that gracefully float through the air, or ravenous giants that seem hell bent of killing just about anything around them.  The film’s historical setting, at times, seems in direct conflict with the story’s own fantasy underpinnings, but there’s no denying that 47 RONIN has a rich visual tapestry and texture with genuine moments of awe and beauty. 

47 RONIN, alas, does suffer from some rather nagging and obvious faults, like a romantic subplot between Reeves’ Kai and Shibaski’s Mika that never rally generates any substantial heat or chemistry.  It is not assisted at all by the fact that Reeves is forced to speak groan-inducing melodramatic platitudes – in his quintessential Reeves-ian timber - like, “I will search for you through 1000 worlds and 10, 000 lifetimes” (ouch).  There’s rarely a moment when their romance feels like it serves the larger needs of this story forward, other than, of course, serving the need of being an obvious and rather mechanical plot device.  Reeves’ Kai is also a vague abstraction as a character in the film.  He’s given top billing and was featured in most of the film’s pre-release advertising, but Kai is mostly a secondary character to Sanada’s Oishi, who is intrinsically a far more compelling persona in the film.  There are times when I felt that Kai could have been excised from the film altogether, but the need for an American name to help sell this film stateside clearly was a mitigating factor here. 

47 RONIN perhaps takes itself a bit too seriously – make that very seriously – considering its seismic tonal shifts from self-sacrificing samurai action-drama to a sword and sorcery swashbuckler.  Very little effort is made to inject some much needed humor into the proceedings, and only Rinko Kikuchi as the devilishly malevolent witch seems to understand the absurdity of the film around her (she plays her part suitably broad).  Then there’s the film’s rather shoddy 3D upconversion, which seems more like a shady effort on the studio’s part to help recuperate the film’s already absorbent budget with high, surcharged tickets.  Considering the relative dark and murky palate that the film has at times, the multi-dimensional upgrade here seems counterproductive.  

Still, I find myself recommending this film in the end, with reservations and despite its foibles.  47 RONIN is an endlessly handsome production with a sprawling, old-fashioned sensation of classically scaled intrigue.  The action beats in the film are all helmed by Rinsch with a clarity that too many modern films lack (the climatic battle between Kai and the ronin inside his massive lair is agreeably well orchestrated and executed).  I also liked the fierce nobility that Hiroyuki Sanada brings to his performance as a fallen ronin that yearns to achieve ultimate comeuppance.  Not everyone will appreciate the film’s peculiar blend of solemn history and eye-popping fantasy, but the manner that 47 RONIN revisits a legendary incident from Japan’s distant past has a commendable nerve about it.  Is this whole enterprise on screen here reflective of its near quarter of a billion dollar price tag?  Maybe not.  Is the film as criminally awful and wasteful as many other critics have taken great pains to tell you?  Not in the slightest.

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