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Monday, December 30, 2013

47 Ronin

I have some good films (as well as a best of the year roundup) to talk about soon but first...

This review is also up at Channel 24 

 What it's about

Based on the old Japanese legend, a small band of outlawed Samurai seek revenge against the vicious shogun who killed their master and stole his kingdom away from him.

What we thought

You wait all year for a Japanese-based American film to come along when suddenly two come along at once. While Emperor lulls its audience to sleep over at the art circuit, 47 Ronin takes an ancient Japanese legend and smacks its own audience over the head with it hard enough for the overall effect to be much the same.

47 Ronin has none of Emperor's good intentions or historic interest, but it is also a look at a culture with which most Western audiences would only be, at best, vaguely acquainted and one that presumably is wildly different from the one in which most modern day Japanese live. As such, the fascinatingly alien nature of a culture where mythological creatures are taken for granted and honour is the highest currency in the land is easily the strongest selling point of the film, as are some wonderful set designs and brilliantly colourful costumes.

In terms of the story itself, it's easy to see why so primal a legend has lived on through the ages but with the enduring nature of the story comes the fact that it has been told countless different times in Japan and has some very obvious David and Goliath counterparts in Western culture as well, it needs to really set itself apart from the pack. Unfortunately, though I was entirely ignorant of the 47 Ronin legend until after seeing this film and I haven't seen any of the other adaptations of the story, the film still felt like it spent most of its time failing to live up to a classic story.

Much of the blame of the failing of the film has been laid at the feet of Keanu Reeves but unfairly at that. He has never exactly been the most versatile of actors but he's always been immensely likeable and he can be very good when the role plays to his strengths, which 47 Ronin clearly does. His role as a “halfbreed” in a culture that, as depicted in the film, was fundamentally racist, is both a new and controversial element to the story and one that allows Reeves to play up to both his strengths as someone who is good at looking out of sorts with what is going on around him (“whoa?”) and at being very, very good at kicking some serious ass.

Reeves himself really isn't the problem with the film, but in many ways his character's mixed heritage clearly is. In terms of the story itself, having one of the Ronin be of mixed race simply adds another interesting, if utterly unnecessary layer to the story and the idea that this is a film about an American single-handedly saving an alien culture is complete nonsense as Reeves' Kai plays second fiddle to Hiyoki Sanada's Oishi in terms of heroism. What is true though, is that the very need to have an American actor front and centre of the film speaks immediately to the film's single greatest flaw: it is a film of two worlds that never, ever reconcile themselves into a single working whole.

We have a decidedly Japanese story that taps deeply into Japanese culture and is one that is presumably held in great esteem by Japanese people but it has been warped and reconfigured to try and fit into a noticeably American aesthetic – specifically that of the Hollywood Blockbuster.

What results is a film that seems entirely unsure of its own identity, even less sure of what tone its going for and most unsure of all about why the hell it's been forced into using some particularly awful 3D gimmickry that dulls the colours, darkens the already dark and makes the action scenes hard to follow. It's preposterous where it should be profound, serious when it should be funny and sombre when it should be exuberant.

And then there is the decision to have its mostly Japanese cast talk in English and, though they're clearly trying their best, only Sanada really holds his own – though even he has to deal with some overly ripe and clumsy dialogue. The film was pretty much screwed from the outset but having the film be in Japanese with English subtitles would at least have alleviated this particular problem.

47 Ronin has some decent action scenes (though do try and see it in glorious 2D, this is pretty much the anti-Gravity (heh) in terms of 3D suitability) and the culture is fascinating but the film was simply always a bad idea to the bone.

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