Sunday, January 26, 2014

Review of "47 RONIN"

Strictly speaking, this is not a Japanese movie. First of all, it is not produced by a Japanese film company and was done by Universal Studios in Hollywood. Secondly, despite the cast being largely Japanese and the theme of the story being a famous Japanese true story, the entire film's dialogue was in English. Under such circumstances, I would not have bothered writing a review for this movie here on the Dorama World blog. The most I would have done is to post this review on my other blog which covers a wider range of topics outside of J-ent. Then again, if you look at the second reason I cited, this is also why I decided to share my thoughts on this film which was the last I watched in 2013. It may not be a true-blue Japanese film but owing to the strong Japanese elements embedded within, I think it is worth featuring the film here after all.

I am no Japanese history expert but it will be useful to share some basic information about the 47 Ronin before I discuss the film further. Do correct me if I've cited anything wrongly.

On 14 December of the 15th year of the Genroku era (30 January 1703), a group of 47 masterless samurais headed to the house of Kira Kozukenosuke to take revenge against the latter for causing the demise of their master Asano Naganori of Akaho. However, after completing their mission, the 47 ronin were ordered by the shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi to commit suicide since taking revenge for their lords was banned at that time. Over the years, many drama and movie adaptations have been made based on this event and the word "Chushingura" has been used widely in such productions. However, there is talk that there were actually only 46 who participated in this mission to kill Kira and the missing person Terasaka Nobuyuki was said to have escaped before the shogun ordered the ronins to kill themselves. Another school of thought was that he was told to leave after getting permission from his peers or he was assigned to carry out some secret mission by the leader of the group Oishi Kuranosuke. That is why there is a difference in how people see the ronins as 46 (if they view Terasaka as a betrayer) or 47 (if they include Terasaka in the group even though he did not commit suicide in the end) and this difference was probably why the film showed one of the ronins getting away without having to kill himself.

Now, you may ask, where exactly does Keanu Reeves fit in? The thing is, 47 RONIN is based loosely on the actual 47 Ronin / Chushingura concept but it is not a perfect replication of the story. As such, you have newly-added characters like Keanu's lead character Kai who is of mixed blood i.e. a British father and Japanese mother and was shunned and despised for his non-Japanese looks. Having been abandoned by his mother in the forest, Kai was raised by the goblins for a while before he was taken home by Lord Asano who met him during a hunting trip. His training by the goblins and stint of living in the forest allowed Kai to see the supernatural  as well. None of the samurais in Lord Asano's household treated Kai like a human due to his background and weird powers except for his daughter Mika (Shibasaki Kou). By the way, the character Mika is also fictitious because in the actual 47 Ronin story, Lady Asano refers to Lord Asano's wife and there is no mention of him having a daughter. Inevitably, this arrangement of putting Kai and Mika at such proximity led to them developing feelings for each other even though the possibility of them being together is close to non-existent. It's not just the social class difference which is the problem but the fact that Kai took part in the revenge mission also meant that he had to commit suicide as punishment for violating the shogun's rules.

If not for the fact that Kai is included in this movie, I think Mizuki's (Kikuchi Rinko) existence would not have been justifiable as well. She's a fox spirit who changes form at will and knows sorcery which she uses to help Kira to achieve his aims. If there is no Mizuki, the 47 Ronin would have defeated Kira on their own abilities rather than depend on Kai to fight Mizuki. As such, if Kai never existed, this movie could have jolly well turned into one with an all-male cast since Mika and Mizuki could have little impact on the story line and would not been included into the lineup. I also found it weird that the movie failed to explain why Mizuki wanted to help Kira. Was it for love, the thirst for power or some personal agenda? I think the lack of explanation in this regard made Mizuki a rather one-dimensional character.

If Kai was fighting a battle against the supernatural, the 47 Ronin would have been fighting evil personified in the form of Kira. Having to lie low after their lord's death, the crushing humiliation of being unable to protect their lord and being forced to live a wandering life without a purpose added on to the tough circumstances facing these warriors. Luckily for them, Oishi decided to rally his men again to head for this foolhardy mission which certainly means "death" either at the hands of Kira should they fail or the shogun should they succeed. To many people living in the modern age, it would have been very difficult to understand why these warriors had to give up their lives for their master who had already died. However, I think in that era where pride and honour mattered a lot, a samurai who couldn't protect his lord was seen as someone who didn't deserve to live at all. Despite being able to live on, the shame and being ostracised by others could be why the ronins decided to take part in the revenge mission to regain their honour. Maybe to them, being able to commit a honour suicide after avenging their lord would bring greater glory to their families and descendants rather than having to live the rest of their lives in shame and being known as a ronin.

Before I get to my issues about this film, I would like to pick up some of the noteworthy points this film did well in. First of all, I thought that the visual aspect of the film was great. For example, the use of very elaborate styles and vibrant colours in Akaho at the beginning of the film showed the prosperous side of the area but in stark contrast, Kira's place was situated in a somewhat treacherous area with cliffs and dull colours as if to reflect the evilness of its master. In addition, I remember this scene quite well where the 47 ronins were riding down a mountain side with a giant Buddha statute in its background and the surround scenery was indeed breathtaking. In this sense, I think the visuals deserve a big thumbs up.

Secondly, there is always this problem when Japanese actors attempt to speak Japanese and end up being incomprehensible due to the way they pronounce certain words. That has a lot to do with how the Japanese pronounce foreign words and break it up in katakana so I won't go into details here because it will become a lengthy discussion. Surprisingly, all the actors in this movie speak perfect English and I could understand them even without looking at the subtitles. Honestly speaking, I only expected Sanada Hiroyuki and Kikuchi Rinko to speak better than the rest because they've had extensive experience working in Hollywood so hearing everyone speak so well was indeed a surprise. I read in an interview of Keanu Reeves that the cast were made to film an English version of the scenes first before they shot the same in Japanese and they had lots of language training for their lines which probably explains why this was possible.

However, the film also suffers from an identity crisis which makes it neither here nor there. Like what I pointed out, the Japanese cast speak so perfect English that it feels really awkward. I appreciate their hard work in sounding so natural but this also works against them in a way because this film feels very Japanese in many ways but when you hear your familiar Japanese actors say English instead of Japanese, the gap can indeed make some viewers feel rather uncomfortable. Would the viewers feel less weird if they did not know these Japanese actors? Would this become less of an issue outside of Asia? The fact that the movie performed so badly in Japan was said to be due to this reason because the Japanese audience felt uncomfortable about the Japanese actors speaking English rather than Japanese. Of course, there should be Japanese subtitles for the English version as in most cases for all foreign films in Japan but if what Keanu Reeves said was true, there should have been a Japanese version which was also made. Why didn't the director allow both versions to be screened in Japan and let the audience choose which one they prefer? Perhaps that might have helped to boost the box office takings?

In addition, the movie feels like somewhere in between a true-blue Japanese film and a Hollywood blockbuster. I appreciate the huge budget spent on the visuals, the costumes, special effects but at the core of this movie is the story. I have no idea if the aim was to base the movie loosely on the 47 Ronin historical facts or do an exact replication of what happened during that era. Like what I pointed out above, the black magic subplot could have been omitted to make the film become more like a Japanese samurai film about honour and pride. However, the concepts of discrimination against a half-breed and the black magic seemed to have backfired and diverted the attention from the essence of the story. As such, I think it is a pity that the focus was lost and thus made the film suffer in a sense because it felt like it was having an identity crisis, ironically mirroring what Kai was going through.

In conclusion, I think the movie is not something which should be shunned at all costs. However, be fully aware of the potential pitfalls before watching it so that you can manage your expectations and not be disappointed in the end.

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