The true story of the 47 Ronin is that of the samurai of the same number in the early 1700s who avenged their lord after he was compelled to commit Seppoku (suicide where in one stabs themselves in the stomach) and in turn did the same as the Japanese honor code, Bushido, dictates.
47 Ronin, the movie, is weird. In good ways and bad. Thankfully, the good is genuinely good and the bad is fascinatingly bad, so much so that it’s worth a recommendation just to see what happens when so much goes wrong in a movie ala Green Lantern or The Lone Ranger.
Feudal Japan. Everyone cares about their honor and their customs. No one questions falling on their own sword to satisfy the preservation of their society. Except for those who don’t, but they’re sleazy, self-absorbed, and easily manipulated. Despite living his life by the cultural honor of Japan, Keanu Reeves’ character can’t seem to rise above his status as a white guy who’s better than everyone in the film. Jealous of his awesomeness, the Samurai shun him as an outcast, that is until their master dies, framed for a crime so that a rival lord can claim his land, and the Samurai themselves become ronin, masterless and dishonored. In order to reclaim their honor as the proud Samurai they once were, fueled by Japanese custom in a world illustrated by their fables and culture, the 47 Ronin follow the white guy around.
There’s a sketch that’s been on Saturday Night Live every so often about two kids who go on public access TV for a talk show they’ve created, but they themselves are caricatures of what Americans think of Japanese culture. The character’s Japanese professor at one point calls them “Adorably racist”. I’d say that is a good representation of what this movie is. A western interpretation of Japanese culture that might have been a bit more interesting had it not been for the shoehorned white main protagonist (whose character was pushed to the forefront by producers afraid that the movie wouldn’t do well otherwise). It’s not that anything in this movie is directly racist (save for Japanese characters who are racist themselves), but that the stiff representation of certain characters, cultural practices, and tropes of Japanese films makes it difficult to separate the western influences on what is a Japanese story from the abundance of “I’ve seen this before, but better” moments throughout the film. Those who are fiercely honorable, seem to have no other discernible traits, and as a result are interchangeable blank slates. The Shogun is strict, never smiling, doling out the rule of law without remorse or sense of consequence. The sleazy backstabbers are impossibly sleazy. The women are either incapable or Lady Macbeth levels of evil. Keanu Reeves is the white guy.
To put it simply, the problem with this movie isn’t the style, it’s the substance. Everything looks really good. The costumes are colorful, the sets are all well designed and memorable (even if each is only briefly visited), and the special effects, though it varies in quality from scene to scene, never drop below passable. It’s the stiff characters and overall “seen it all, but better” feel from each scene that make the film so bland. Despite the fact that the film was shot in English, I actually found the dialogue endearing. It was easy to believe that the film was originally done in Japanese and dubbed in with what is half an effective translation and half lip synching dialogue, so easy in fact I wonder if it wasn’t written that way on purpose. After watching this movie I can only assume that the people involved on the story side of things saw Rashomon, The Last Samurai, and Attack on Titan to get the idea for what this movie should be. You want a good Keanu movie, you should see John Wick.
47 Ronin premieres Saturday, December 13th at 8:00pm on HBO!