This contains slight spoilers.
I almost did not watch this, but I’m glad that I did. I actually thought that it was a pretty good fantasy movie and it inspired me to go back and research the actual 47 Ronin legend. It was pretty bold of the filmmakers to take a deeply revered story that is almost canon in Japan and make it a fantasy epic. Although there are clearly parallels to the Lord of the Rings, I had fun watching it.
To be fair, a lot of fantasy movies should just have the disclaimer “Inspired by Tolkien” scrolling across somewhere.
First, let’s tackle Keanu. I had a “Oh hey Keanu, haven’t seen you since 2006” moment. To be honest, I just saw The Day the Earth Stood Still on Sunday so the fact that it came out in 2008 doesn’t matter. Keanu and I haven’t seen each other since The Lake House…and maybe it was better that way. Reeves’ character Kai is an addition to the original myth of the 47 Ronin. There was no half-breed storyline. There also was not a love story or the addition of a witch, but that is beside the point.
Romantic plot lines forced into action movies give me the willies. Actually, romantic plot lines forced anywhere give me the willies. Usually, we can all expect the tired old formula of “Two hours of gun-slinging plus a half hour of a random girl thrown in for kicks with whom the main character falls in love within one minute to two days time.” In 47 Ronin, the romance was overkill especially because there were already enough mystical elements for an interesting story. Let’s just say that Keanu is better at playing Neo or an alien than romantic roles. I enjoyed The Lake House but seriously, there is a reason why 90 percent of the film is based on the fact that he is separate from Sandra Bullock and not actually acting with her. And I know someone will mention Speed, but that was more action/adventure and lightening does not strike twice.
47 Ronin is a story of bushido, a Japanese samurai code of honor. The two main players are Kira and Asano. Kira is preparing Asano and his kingdom to receive the shogun, but gets upset so he starts treating Asano harshly. Then he insults Asano. This is when Asano forgets his anger management training and pulls a dagger on Kira, wounding him. Even though Kira isn’t seriously hurt, Asano’s actions are against the law and he is ordered to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide, and his followers are to become ronin, or leaderless.
Oishi, Asano’s right hand man, gathers together 47 of the ronin and they pinky swear an oath to avenge Asano by killing Kira. They were some of the first gangsters because they know they’re going to be punished, but they just don’t care. Oishi divorces his wife to protect her and starts acting like he’s plumb crazy to throw Kira’s men off their guard. After two years of waiting and stalking, they finally get the chance to kill Kira. After the deed is done, they drop a mic, better known as Kira’s head, by Asano’s grave and turn themselves in. The ronin were sentenced to death but the shogun had them commit seppuku instead of dying as common criminals because they had followed bushido. One ronin returned later from his mission and was pardoned because of his youth. He lived his life and was buried with the other ronin when he died.
The Movie Myth
Our fearless leader Keanu grows up as an outcast after Asano and his men find him in the woods. He falls in love with Asano’s daughter Mika. When he’s older, Keanu and a hunting party have to kill some mythical beast so that the shogun can safely visit them (just pure visual fun, no reason why there’s a huge mythical beast stalking the territory.) Keanu, generous soul that he is, lets some other soldier claim credit for killing the beast.
To make a long story short, there are three major detractions from the myth:
1. Why Asano went after Kira with a dagger. The movie reason was weird and a little overdramatic which is probably why the movie included a witch to have it all make sense.
2. Keanu (in general) and the fact that he was raised by freakishly awesome mystical bird people.
3. Lastly, which ronin die at the end. I would have preferred that they kept the ending completely as it was because the actual history is a lot more tragic, but they left it close enough.
Of course there are other aspects: a ship fight that looks like it could have come out of Pirates of the Caribbean, the fact that Asano has a daughter, the witch and how her powers affect Kira’s plans and Japan, the mystical elements like Keanu’s lineage, the wicked dragon fight, and the romance. The fantasy elements were done well and the film is gorgeous. The costume design and the soundtrack are fantastic, plus I am a sucker for a well choreographed fight scene–it’s as satisfying as eating half of a Lindt chocolate.
Watching the movie on its own merits sans the legend makes for a fun time. I appreciate what the filmmakers were attempting to do. However, I suspect many people are probably upset at the ways that the movie tries to create an entirely separate space for itself outside of the legend which is why critics rated it poorly.
And maybe Keanu’s acting. Just maybe.