In feudal era Japan a destitute, western, half-breed demon/boy is raised by a samurai clan at the behest of their compassionate leader. Years later the treacherous connivings of a rival clan leader and demoness result in The Shogun ordering the compassionate nobleman to commit seppuku. Later still the grown boy/demon leads 47 of the now masterless samurai, ronin, to take revenge for their fallen leader, pitting them against armies, monsters and dragons.
We all know that Hollywood loves taking liberties with the details of true events, but 47 Ronin may take the prize, at least in recent times. I mean, the story outline is about right, at the beginning of the 1700s there was indeed an instance of 47 ronin planning then taking revenge for an unjust plot against their fallen master, this in fact is one of the most famous stories in Japan that illustrates their famed spirit of Bushido; Hollywood just went and added a love story, supernatural entities and Keanu Reeves.
It’s easy to mock, but cynicism aside placing historical characters into a fantasy setting is something writers, artists and filmmakers have been doing for quite some time, especially so in the Asian entertainment mediums, and to someone with a keen eye it’s easy to see that this re-telling of the 47 Ronin story wears it’s inspirations on its sleeve, from a visual point of view anyway.
It’s general aesthetic flip-flops between two distinct styles, that intricately designed assault of impossibly vibrant colours popularised by the films of Zhang Yimou, such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers, and the autumnal grime of more earthy samurai flicks like 13 Assassins. This is accompanied with the creature design and action stylings remarkably similar the fantasy output of the animation houses Madhouse and Studio Ghibli, more specifically the films Ninja Scroll and Princess Mononoke.
If you’re going to steal, steal from the best, right? The problem is that while impressing with all this visual finery, it does bring to mind all these other films; films which, unfortunately, 47 Ronin can’t hold a torch to.
It’s too long for the slight story and where there could have been a great deal of character building with all these ronin knocking about, we are instead given an empty love story in which Keanu, in full poe-faced glory, tells us how in love he is without ever giving any outward emotive evidence of such; that being said, this IS an action film, and as an action film it is quite a bit of fun, but it could have been ten times as much fun if not for the intense stripping back of its violence and the consequences of such bloody conflict, with the sole purpose of bringing down its certification (12A/PG13!).
The Japanese cast, including Hiroyuki Sanada (The Wolverine, The Twilight Samurai) and Tadanobu Asano (Thor, Ichi the Killer), are an impressive collection and do a decent job with what they’re given, but as mentioned, this is a Keanu Reeves vehicle, and while he cuts a fine jib, looking cool in his feudal Japanese get-up, holding a sword, he doesn’t do much of anything else.
47 Ronin looks gorgeous, like a true live action anime, with only a few instanced of noticeably bad CG, and there is some fun to be had, especially for fans of Asian cinema and comics, but it’s more The Warrior’s Way or Bunraku than Hero or Ninja Scroll, which I think is a pretty good barometer for predicting your potential enjoyment.
C grade – for storytelling
B+ grade – for visuals
B- grade – for acting
C+ grade – for action
Overall grade – C+