Sci-fi/Horror, 126 Minutes, 2007
The tale of the 47 Ronin is based on an actual event that took place in Japan early in the 18th century. It’s widely considered to be the most important example of the samurai’s code of Bushido. The tale describes how a feudal lord was unjustly forced to commit ritual suicide and how his former Samurai planned for almost two years to avenge him knowing that they would share, and accept, the same fate. It has come to epitomize the Japanese sense of loyalty, honor and duty and is one of the most adapted stories in Japanese culture. Some call it, the country’s “national legend”.
The movie honors the gravity of this cultural treasure by, you know, sprucing it up a bit. Firstly, they added a nice Caucasian man to be the hero. This was important because otherwise there would just be Japanese guys as heroes and, really, who could buy that? Secondly, they added a juicy love-story because it’s too unbelievable to have a Caucasian wandering around and not have the Japanese princess fall in love with him. Thirdly, they added a funny fat guy because, look at him: he’s so fat! Lastly they had to “villain up” the bad guy.
To make sure that the audience never has to work, the villain dresses exclusively in black and purple and sneers a lot. He lives in a blasted landscape full of sharp rocks and cliffs that looks like a flying-monkey nursery. He kidnaps princesses, attacks his own men and says mean things to nice people. If he had a mustache, he’d twirl it. If that’s not enough, he also employs a crazy witch-seductress who has tentacle hair, poisons old people and turns into monsters as a hobby.
There’s also a lot to like once you’re through groaning. As clichéd as the settings are, the cinematography is gorgeous. The villain decorated his lair with black, lifeless rock (probably to meet some union requirement), but everywhere else is opulent and stunningly colorful. Clouds of tree blossoms swirl across manicured gardens surrounding traditional Japanese architecture. The costuming is delicate and impressive as are the armor and weapon designs. The choreography is smooth and brings significant depth to the many combat scenes. The special effects may be overused, but are just as good as you’d expect from the insanely huge budget.
More importantly, and thankfully, there are some good performances holding this together. As fashionable as it may be to criticize Keanu Reeves [IMDB], I’ve always liked him. While I feel his role as the great white savior is insulting to the source material, he does well with it. Hiroyuki Sanada [IMDB], who plays the actual hero of the story, Ôishi, is very impressive and could have easily carried the film. Min Tanaka [IMDB], as the doomed Lord Asano, was also able bring significant skill to his sadly short-changed role.
I couldn’t help but liking the movie overall. Forgiving the cultural arrogance, it’s really quite a good adventure story. In many ways it reminded me, in unspecific ways, of classic pulp fantasy films that I loved as a kid. Movies like “Krull” [IMDB] or “Clash of the Titans” [IMDB] were able to weave their own realities and consequences around cool sword fights and monsters. Like this, they were clichéd as hell, but they were still a hell of lot of fun and so is this.