Monday, December 30, 2013

47 Ronin Review

If there's one hobby of mine that not many people know about, it's that I have a soft spot for history. At it's core, history to me is just telling stories about events and people and the results of said events and people. It's just another form of telling stories and entertainment for me, which is why there are tons of movies that are based off of historical events. Some are more grounded with what actually happened historically speaking, while others tend to embellish some aspects about history to make a more entertaining movie. 47 Ronin is a Hollywood interpretation of a classic Japanese folktale, so with that alone, you should know exactly what to expect from "Hollywood's interpretation of Japanese history", for better or worse.

Instead of summarizing the movie, I think it'd be a lot easier just to sum up the legend that inspired the movie. Trust me, there's a valid reason behind doing that. The legend revolves around 47 ronin, or samurais without a master, that used to serve under a daimyo, or lord, named Asano, who ruled over the Ako Province. He was gravely insulted by Kira, a vassal of the shogun, and treated Asano poorly. Eventually, Asano tried to kill Kira in the shogun's palace for disgracing his honor, but failed. Because of his attack on Kira, the shogun ordered Asano to commit seppuku, or honorable suicide. When he died though, his samurai had no master to lead them and were led by a samurai named Oishi, who was one of Asano's officials, in a secret oath to avenge the death of their master, even though doing so would result in their death. The short of it is, their master was killed and they seek to avenge his death, fully aware that they would die in the process. It's a story about honor and doing what's right, no matter the consequence.

As cool as he looks, this guy is not in the movie. Seriously.
The American version of this story is a bit different, mostly by choosing to Westernize aspects of the story. The basic plot is still there with the ronin seeking revenge, but the rest of the movie is purely fictitious. There was no non Japanese ronin, and there certainly wasn't any love interest. I haven't seen any advertising for this movie, but from what people have told me, it's emphasized action and fantasy in its trailers, with some romance thrown in there also. Ironically enough, the three things that this movies focuses are are its biggest downfalls. There is only action at the climax, the fantasy aspect is barely used, and the love interest in unnecessary.

If you were expecting to see samurai attacking mythical Japanese creatures like kappa and tengu, then you're going to be very disappointing. The fights scenes are very few and far between, and they're just okay. They look like action scenes you would get from a half assed fantasy movie, like I, Frankenstein. Sure it looks pretty, but there's not much going for them. I'm actually a bit confused as to why the hell they decided on marketing this movie as an action movie, because it really isn't. I don't know exactly what to call this movie, but calling it an action movie would be one of the last things I'd call it. 

I did say that the fantasy part of this movie is barely used, but to its credit when it is used, it's pretty nice. It's actually not that unusual to see fantasy mixed into a movie like 47 Ronin, since interpretations of the story that use fantasy elements are common place in Japan. It's just that they're very underutilized here. For example, a main plot point involves Kai, played by Keanu Reeves, being called a "demon" for coming from a forest where tengu are said to lie. Well it turns out there are tengu in the forest and he actually has learned their mysterious and deadly powers, like movie super fast and becoming mist. That's cool, but does he ever use those powers in the movie? Nope. He uses them once when we first hear about it, and once at the very end against a dragon.

"I must break you."
Actually, let's stop for a second to actually talk about Keanu Reeves as Kai. If I can sum up what was wrong with this movie, everything eventually does point to him. Kai represents trying to Westernize this traditional Japanese tale. We're told that Kai is our main character, but it really revolves around Oishi enacting vengeance on Kira. Our moral is now one of accepting others no matter their differences, when it should be about doing what's right no matter what the cost and about honor. Hell, the final fight is literally Kai fighting a dragon to rescue a princess that he loves. That's about as Western as you can get in movies without replacing Keanu Reeves with Dwayne Johnson! This just really bothers me that this movie takes a good story and has it become weaker when trying to appeal to a Western audience. There was no reason for including these parts into the movie besides appealing more to Western audiences!

Getting back on track here, the movie's fantasy elements can be justified through Mizuki, a witch played by Rinko Kikuchi. Her entire character is etched in fantasy and visual effects, like having her hair turn into spider legs, summoning fire, turning into a fox, and yes, turning into a dragon. Every time I saw her onscreen, I immediately became interested in whatever she was doing. She's sly, she's cunning, and has the power to back it up. I wouldn't say she's the best part of the movie, but I will say that she justifies putting fantasy elements into it. 

Besides the love story, which is pointless and serves to change the moral and pad out the movie, there's really not much else to say about 47 Ronin. If this reviews comes off as if there's no real meat to it, then that's because this movie is really giving me nothing to work with. It has a good foundation, but it's built upon in odd and bizarre ways. This Japanese movie was Westernized with mixed results, some good and some bad. The core is still interesting, but the movie doesn't want to focus on honor and loyalty, and I have no idea what it's actual focus was. The movie is just a muddled mess, which is a shame too. Visually it's impressive and the actors are fine, but everything else is just underwhelming. 

When I heard about this movie a year ago, I was interested. I thought that this could be a really interesting and good movie. But now, it's just a jumbled mess of a movie. It's not bad or anything, but because of its lack of focus, it can't hit a general theme or mood. It's with a heavy heart that I give 47 Ronin a 3 out of 5; not bad, but not good either. 

The ronin deserve better than this, and so do we. 

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