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Film Trailer Review: 47 Ronin (2013)

Keanu Reeves grabs a samurai sword and fights dragons in this new samurai fantasy film.

The tale of the 47 Ronin is a classic in Japanese literature and it’s a true story that has been embellished a fair bit over time, there have been a few Japanese film adaptations of the story over the years as the tale is practically tailor made for movies. Now Hollywood has decided to make its own film adaptation with Keanu Reeves.

The true story took place during the eighteenth century in feudal Japan where 47 samurai retainers plotted to avenge the death of their master, when their lord was killed the men became ronin (samurai without a master or “wave men” which is the literal translation.) The ronin planned the assassination of the man who killed their master and waited patiently for two years until the right opportunity to strike presented itself, some of them even disguised themselves as beggars or drunks to avoid suspicion. After successfully accomplishing their mission the ronin were charged with murder and they committed seppuku (ritual suicide.) The tale is like something out of a movie or a book and it is surprising to learn that it really happened. In Japan the 47 Ronin are revered as heroes and the perfect devotees of the old Japanese Bushido way of life.

Hollywood loves crowd-pleasing action fantasy films with monsters and epic battles as they make a lot of money, it was therefore quite inevitable that their version of the 47 Ronin would be a fantasy action epic, the film has shape-shifting women who can turn into dragons and men who can shoot fireballs from their hands. The Japanese film adaptations were more realistic and could almost be described as biographical, the story is interesting enough on its own and doesn’t need to be dressed up with dragons and monsters. It is interesting how Hollywood has embellished the story so much more than the Japanese did to the point where the tale told in this film is mythic. This treatment of the source material mirrors how real life tales of derring-do in history often become legends as people embellish the story with more fantastic elements.

Reeves plays Kai, an outcast living in Japan who is shunned for his mixed-race heritage, the actor is well known for his mixed race heritage in real life and it makes his character here more authentic. He is recruited by the ronin led by Kuranosuke Oishi who is played by the veteran Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada. Film fans may remember him as the captain of the space craft in Sunshine and he is also well know for his role in Ringu. The actor also appeared in a few chop socky films during the eighties including Ninja in the Dragon’s Den so he has experience with action roles. Oishi and the other ronin seek revenge against Lord Kira who killed their master which forced them to become ronin outlaws. Lord Kira is played by Tadanobu Asano, another well known Japanese actor who appeared in Beat Takeshi’s classic Zatoichi and also starred in Thor as Hogun, a member of the Warriors Three. The film also stars Rinko Kikuchi, the first Japanese actress to be nominated for an Academy award in fifty years for her role in Babel. She will also no doubt become quite famous for her more recent role in Pacific Rim. Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa also appears as a Shogun and his casting in the film is great as the actor has excelled in action movie bad guy roles over the last twenty five years.

It’s a shame that Ken Watanabe doesn’t have a role in this as he is a good actor who could use some more Hollywood exposure. The film has inspired casting and it may help to make Sanada, Kikuchi and Asano better known to regular moviegoers. Keanu Reeves is not the most versatile actor but he can be decent if he is given the right role, in the trailer for this film he seems to have a permanent disgruntled expression on his face. This lack of emotional range may actually work here as he is playing a man who is annoyed and on a mission. Reeves is not afraid to take on unusual roles and play different characters which is admirable.

Hollywood samurai films set in feudal Japan are fairly uncommon and this gives 47 Ronin an advantage, the action fantasy genre is a crowded market but few films in the genre have a Japanese setting combined with magic and monsters. This combination may help the film stand out from the crowd and intrigue audiences. The trailer is effective and it takes time introducing the main characters particularly Kai who is obviously the big star. There is a nice balance between action and drama in the trailer too which is always welcome. It also provides just enough information about the plot without going into big spoilers and makes nice use of editing dissolves to soften the transitions between scenes.

47 Ronin has a cool blend of action, fantasy and a rather uncommon Japanese setting. The film also has a good cast, decent special effects based on the trailer and interesting costume design courtesy of Penny Rose.

The film will be released on December 26th, have a look at the trailer and share your thoughts.

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    It never bodes well for a film when its release date is delayed - much less when it's been pushed back a whole year, ostensibly to accommodate reshoots that would bump up Keanu Reeves' completely imaginary role in a Western blockbuster take on a classic, awe-inspiring tale right out of the Japanese history books. That way lies disaster and madness, one would think - and certainly the bland, monster-heavy trailers for 47 Ronin did the film no favours. Smack down your inner critic, however, and this epic fantasy flick - for that's what it is - turns out to be reasonably palatable fare. The bare bones of the true story are all there: the kindly Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) is ordered to commit seppuku - ritual suicide by disembowelment - when he almost mortally offends Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano - a nicely ironic name if ever there was one). This renders all the honourable samurai in Asano's service masterless i.e., ronin. Led by the noble Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), the loyal band of 47 ronin vow to avenge Asano - even though they have been ordered by their Shogun (top military commander) not to do so. What's less accurate, of course, is pretty much all the rest of it. Reeves plays Kai, a half-British, half-Japanese orphan who's taken in by Asano but treated like an outcast by everyone in the household - except, of course, for Asano's loving daughter Mika (Kou Shibasaki). Kira's nefarious plans have the support of Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi), a witch who can apparently take any form she likes: wolf, snake or dragon. It's all a bit nonsensical, especially when Kai tries to get swords for the ronin amongst some pretty creepy folk who have gone from society's outcasts to being part of what looks like a supernatural cult. In other words, 47 Ronin is a faintly ridiculous addition to the wealth of Chūshingura - fictionalised accounts of the 47 ronin tale - that already exist in Japan. It's the kind of big, dumb blockbuster in which the good guys literally live to die another day as long as the plot calls for it. These fearless ronin even survive when the villain is protected by a witch with crazy mystical powers! She can set an entire field on fire, create poisonous spiders and turn into a dragon! And the ronin - at least 47 of them - live anyway! It's crazy! That's what makes it all the more surprising when 47 Ronin turns out to be... well, actually not half-bad. Once you've accepted the sillier aspects of the film for what they are, it's easy to get swept along by its very earnest drama and spectacle. Reeves' storyline is a made-up jumble of nonsense, but is played very straight - this is, in effect, Sad Keanu: The Movie - and it just about works. Casting Reeves as the outsider allows him to do what he does best: play the role with stony-faced reserve, whether he's levelling up by battling demons in cage matches or pining moodily after Mika. Kai's restrained love story with Mika is fairly predictable stuff, with the girl fading a little too much into the background (don't expect any bloodletting from Shibasaki, Battle Royale fans), but it's salvaged by the rather non-Hollywood way in which it all ends. For all that Reeves takes centre stage in the publicity campaign, the film belongs just as much to Sanada's Oishi. He undertakes a more arduous emotional journey: one that takes him from grudging to full-hearted acceptance of Kai's worth as a warrior and comrade. His relationship with his family is more fully examined than Kai's unwavering loyalty to the Asano clan. As Oishi plots his course of action, one that will bring him shame for disobeying the Shogun even as he avenges his master, he warns his wife and son Chikara (Jin Akanishi) to disavow him. Their reactions provide some of the most emotionally resonant moments in the entire film. All things considered, the title of the film is a bit of a misnomer - it would more accurately be called 2 Ronin, subtitled Oishi And Kai's Excellent Adventure - and it suffers from a lamentable lack of humour and historical accuracy. But it's not a complete travesty. Tucked away beneath a layer of mystical beasts and witches lies a story with enough heart, nobility and soul to survive even the oddest twists and turns.