Thousands flock to the graves of the 47 Ronin in Sengaku-ji, a Buddhist temple located in Tokyo, Japan on Dec 14 every year, in remembrance of possibly the most notable example of bushidō, the samurai‘s code of honor, to salute 47 samurai who, like the 300 Spartans before them, placed “duty and justice before fear of death”.
Those 47 heroic departed may well roll in their graves from the liberties taken in Hollywood’s version of 47 Ronin by including fictional characters, demons and spirits into the historical event. But young, foreign audiences will probably enjoy these fantasy elements as well as the breathtakingly cinematic 3D oriental backdrop of 1700s Japan, with its ethereal bamboo forests and exquisite palaces of Far Eastern grandeur.
Keanu Reevesleads the cast as Kai, a young “half-breed” who has just escaped a group of supernatural monks who have raised him from birth and taught him various fighting techniques, including superhuman speed.
Young Kai is found outside the magical Tengu Forest barely alive by Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada of Ring and TV series Lost), lead samurai of the feudal lord Asano (Min Tanaka) who rules over the Ako province.
Lord Asano stops Oishi from decapitating the “demon boy” and allows Kai to live under his charge, where he continues to grow up among the samurai, despite being ostracized, remaining an outsider. However, he also grows up with Mika (Kō Shibasaki), Lord Asano’s daughter, and develops a love connection with her in the film.
Meanwhile, Tadanobu Asano (Hogun in Thor and Thor: The Dark World) plays the ambitious Lord Kira of Nagato, lord of Ako’s rival province and main antagonist in the movie, who plots against Lord Asano to usurp his position and take over his land. The conniving enemy even colludes with an evil shape-shifting witch played by Rinko Kikuchi (Cheiko Wataya in Babel) and sends the seductive siren with dual-colored eyes to spy on Lord Asano.
When Lord Asano is provoked into slashing Lord Kira, Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), lord of the provinces and master of all Japan, sentences the aggressor to a honourable death of seppuku (Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment). Bereft of a master, all his samurai are degraded and known as rōnin, exiled and shunned by the rest of society. Even Mika has to suffer the ignominy of being betrothed to the man who caused her father’s death.
What follows is a plan for revenge that takes a painstaking 2 years to engineer historically.
Unlike his previous roles as Neo in The Matrix trilogy and John Constantine in Constantine, Reeves is no Messianic superhero in 47 Ronin, even though his character, Kai, eventually proves his valor to Oishi and joins, as part of the 47, in exacting revenge on Lord Kira.
Instead, the story plays out with much accuracy to history, if you discount Reeves’ dealing with the film’s fictional demons and spirits (enhanced to perfection in 3D), whom he encounters considerably more often than its actual historical characters.
The Canadian actor’s introverted demeanour also proves to be an asset to the film as he portrays an outsider who turns inwards due to lack of respect among his peers to a sympathetic effect.
Then there’s his trademark ever-wounded gaze, which also adds to the forbidden love subplot of him being left broken and lost after losing Mika while the subtleties in his acting also showcased the grace and savage beauty of ancient Japan and its samurai to its fullest.
A world of intense brutality and a strong social class system, 18th century Japan was obsessed with honorable death, even with justifiable reasons, and withheld information due to a difference in social class that was stereotypical of the past are portrayed fully here.
Death itself in the film is almost always portrayed as decapitation by the samuraisword, the katana, while defiance of any direct command, which is what the 47 did in exacting revenge when it was prohibited by the Shogun himself, is often accompanied by seppuku.
Release date: Dec 19
Runtime: 119 minutes
Censorship rating: PG13 – Violence
Director: Carl Erik Rinsch
Main actors: Keanu Reeves, Rinko Kikuchi, Tadanobu Asano, Hiroyuki Sanada
Photos courtesy of Universal Pictures and Frank Connor