When Kenji Mizoguchi made a four-hour event film out of the Japanese folk tale about the 47 Ronin in 1941, it was something of an event, and tapped deeply into the “Japanese-ness” of the story. It was a national-pride tale of honor and revenge, and while it ended with mass seppuku (is it possible to spoil the ending of an ancient epic?), it still felt glorious and proud and inspiring. When Kon Ichikawa tried to remake the movie in 1994, it was, according to those who saw it, a more modest affair with more impressive photography, although possessed of a much more meditative pace and a much shallower action movie message pushed up behind its once-classical honorifics.
Now it's time for Americans to have a crack at the story, complete with a new slew of CGI monsters, demons, and witches, and a Caucasian actor at the film's center. As you may predict, the film has none of the epic nationalism, classical class, or actual storytelling acumen that makes the folk tale so very alluring to an entire nation of people. Indeed, Carl Rinsch's new version of 47 Ronin, like so many American movies before it, equates the notion of “epic” with dull and usual action set pieces, so-good-they're-uninteresting special effects, a few stentorian platitudes, and a bloated ultra-fantasy hodgepodge of meaningless foreign-looking non-iconography. One may be able to enjoy the complex production design, and I can find no fault in the elaborate costumes on display, but 47 Ronin feels less like a new opportunity to explore a Japanese national epic using modern tools, and more like “Nondescript Fantasy Film #253.”
The main character of the folk tale was a samurai named Oishi, played in this version by Hiroyuki Sanada, who was banished from his kingdom after the treachery of a royal usurper forced Oishi's master to kill himself. Oishi and his team, the 47 ronin, are scattered, eventually reunite, and form a plan to get revenge. Exciting old-world stuff. In this film, the main character is not Oishi, but a new character named Kai, played by Keanu Reeves. Kai is a shamed “half-breed” demon who has long stories of his own, including a forbidden romance with a princess, a reconciliation with his demon brethren, and fights with an ogre and a deer monster. The revenge plot is mixed in there, but it's undercut by plotline after plotline involving Kai's much less interesting story.
One cannot accuse 47 Ronin of not, at least, trying to be visually original. There are monsters and fights that seem striking from a design perspective, and some of the settings are actually genuinely eye-catching; there's a chase throughout a set of crowded pirate ships that was maddeningly brief, and some of the demon caves were drippy and atmospheric. There is some integrity to its design ambitions; I prefer the somewhat exotic pseudo-Japanese fantasy iconography over the overdone Mallory-and-Tolkien-inspired D&D wizard aesthetics of so many lost teenage afternoons.
But I wish it amounted to more than just another string of pretty, brainless visuals. It's a bunch of somewhat impressive effects, and some barely-more-graceful-than-average filmmaking, in the service of a pretty lame story that almost labors to keep its Japanese source material intact. When notions of honor crack through the swirling haze of action, it almost feels out of place. It seems like some producers got scared halfway through, and elected to dampen the Japanese patriotism for fear of alienating American audiences. There is a final spoken narration at the film's end which mentions that the story we've just seen is pertinent to “Japanese culture.” The story is well-known. This movie will not be.
And why oh why did the filmmakers have to include a white man? Why does the Japanese national epic star an actor who was born in Beirut, and was raised in America and Canada? Reeves is a capable action star, and can indeed convincing do battle with an ogre. But after a while, you'll wish you were spending more time with the slinky witch played by Rinko Kikuchi. She's actually Japanese.
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.