47 Ronin becomes the final financial disaster of 2013, schizophrenic mess of a picture that manages to be offensive on several levels while not having the simple decency to be entertaining (either good or bad) and sits mired in the muck of mediocrity. An untested director was suddenly given stacks of cash to make a big budget effects movie, and quickly things fell apart. After the studio stepped in, things somehow got more confusing. In the end, the only people happy are people who get happy when dumb things happen.
The 47 Ronin is a classic tale of true Japanese history that has enough events going on that a straight adaptation would easily work as a mainstream film, and has before. In fact, the 47 Ronin has be adapted so often there is even a term for genre that is the various adaptations of the work – Chushingura. Due to censorship laws, the original plays featured altered names and events, and some retellings are stylized adaptations that mix myth and history. A 300-style adaptation is not out of the bounds of accepted reality, and I do not fault the film for trying that angle, it could have been interesting had it been applied correctly. Dragons, strange beasts, golems, witches, bird people, ogres, and magic swords are elements of many successful films. But it is not to be.
Reeves plays a half-Japanese half-British character who is raised by the Lord Asano, Kai is entirely made up and shoehorned into the story. From the narrative it’s clear Reeves wasn’t the original star and has had scenes added on, while Hiroyuki Sanada’s character Oishi is either ignored or suddenly the focus during random scenes. That disrupts an already cluttered tale simplified down for mainstream audiences, gives no characters enough development to give them dramatic weight, and many things simply happen for reasons never explained. The official story is new director Carl Rinsch originally had even less of Keanu Reeves, and was forced to do reshoots to beef of the role. The hints of studio interference are obvious – Reeves’ Kai suddenly had a love interest (the Princess Mika), was inserted into the final battle fighting a dragon (more on this in a bit), and spends a lot of the running time looking at other events.
The “Kai observing” scenes are sort of funny because many are badly framed, in one example he’s looking through banners that cover over a third of the screen, making him seem to be looking out of a tiny window. Other times he’s wearing “ninja” masks with the face part opened just enough to tell that it is Reeves and not one of the Japanese actors. A scene where Kai impersonates the demonstration fighter seemed switched to him in exchange for Oishi’s son Chikara Oishi (Jin Akanishi), who we are told is eager to impress his father. It also gives Princess Mika a change to go all Pocahontas as she saves Kai from beheading.
The result of the final battle of Kai vs the witch Mizuki in dragon form is that it takes all the emotional weight away from Oishi and his arc of revenge. It is Oishi who battles the evil Lord Kira, it is Oishi who leads the samurai that were betrayed and cast out on their revenge, it is Oishi’s friend and lord Asano that was betrayed and shamed. Oishi should be the centerpiece, and instead he’s delegated to costar. The subtraction removes more than what it missing, it removes everything that makes 47 Ronin a movie, now we’re just left with a collection of scenes that form a loose narrative.
Carl Rinsch was untested, this is not only his first big film, but his first film period, it is mind-boggling that he was given the reigns on such an expensive picture and then left alone long enough to leave it a mess. The reports of massive reshoots and director ousting are backed up by trade publications:
The studio was dissatisfied with the movie it saw coming together and seized control from Rinsch.
One individual with knowledge of the production said Rinsch, who during preproduction seemed creative and competent, struggled to control the filmmaking process. The studio then stepped in to oversee the project from Los Angeles, taking charge of the editorial development, including the cut of the film.
Marginalized in the initial sequences was Reeves, the lone actor well-known in the U.S. Universal opted to reshoot a major fight scene near the end of the film, as well as a few other scenes to sharpen the focus on Reeves’ character Kai.
Kai was not even present in the final battle scene, whereas the new scene pits Kai against a supernatural creature.
In addition, the studio added a love scene, close-ups and individual lines to boost Reeves’ presence.
Things seem so bad I’m not sure massive reshoots would have saved much of anything. But at least one person posted anonymously on reddit that the original cut was pretty good. It is a mystery that will likely never be solved, save someone well connected to the film leaking the workprint of the original cut. Hint, hint!
If you have a desire to see a strong female character, please look elsewhere. Mika is nothing more than a prize to be won, almost a literal Sexy Lamp. While the witch Mizuki is fully capable, her plans revolve around getting her boyfriend Lord Kira named Shogun instead of her own successes. Mizuki is the most interesting of the villains (Lord Kira does nothing but sneer and the armored golem doesn’t even speak), but she doesn’t get enough screentime and is wasted. I’d watch a whole movie about Rinko Kikuchi with crazy witch powers, but not 15 minutes of it trapped in a different movie. Oishi’s wife is crying in almost every one of the few scenes she’s in. Sure, 47 Ronin isn’t about women, but these characters are extra weak.
I wish 47 Ronin was more entertainingly ridiculous, but it wasn’t as dull as I feared it would be. The state of Asian-American actors in Hollywood films is best summed up not just by Keanu Reeves being thrown into a Japanese tale, but by Gedde Watanabe being one of the most recognizable faces. Really the only Asian character who gets a personality is Takato Yonemoto’s Basho, which is weird because he’s barely in the film. It shows that smart writing could create an array of memorable and charismatic parts had anyone bothered.
Unfortunately I think Hollywood will learn the wrong lessons from this, and shy away from Japanese-casted movies, instead of the lesson they should be learning, which is don’t give some random guy $175 million! 2013 saw three major Japanese-influenced films: 47 Ronin, Pacific Rim, and The Wolverine. One of those was a hit, one did disappointing but not blockbuster numbers, and one is currently failing spectacularly at the box office.
Rated 2/10 (ghost needs busting, spider needs squashing)
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