Review: 47 RONIN Is A Classic Display Of Hollywood Ignorance

James Marsh, Asian Editor
Keanu Reeves can do little more than observe from the sidelines as first-time director Carl Rinsch desecrates one of Japan's most revered historical epics with an inexplicable parade of sorcery and monsters..and other, you know...Asian stuff.

The revenge of the 47 ronin is a real event that took place at the beginning of the 18th Century in Tokugawa-era Japan. While the details of the story have been adapted and retold through many different art forms innumerable times in the three centuries since, the central tale remains a stirring and beloved story of loyalty and honour.

In the widely accepted version of events, the evil Lord Kira provokes the stoic Lord Asano repeatedly into attacking him, disgracing himself and his house in the process. Asano is ordered to commit seppuku, and his land is handed over to Kira. Now rendered masterless "ronin", Asano's samurai guards are disgraced and banished, but 47 of his most loyal men vow to avenge their master - an act they know will bring about their own deaths.

In Universal's new version of 47 Ronin, written by Chris Morgan (Wanted, Fast 5) and Hossein Amini (Drive, Snow White and the Huntsman), the villainous Lord Kira (Asano Tadanobu) uses witchcraft in order to bring about Asano's death and immediately takes control of his land and moves in on Asano's beautiful daughter, Mika (Shibasaki Ko). Mika, however, only has eyes for Kai (Keanu Reeves) - a mysterious half-breed possibly spawned by forest demons - who is excluded from society by everyone except the benevolent Asano and his family.

When Asano's men are banished, General Oishi (Sanada Hiroyuki) and a small faction of other disgraced ronin hide out in the forest and plot their revenge. If they do not act within a year, the Shogun has permitted Kira to marry Mika and formally take control of their kingdom. Having lost their swords, the 46 ronin are rendered powerless, until Kai offers his help.

47 Ronin reportedly cost somewhere in the region of $170 million to produce, and much of that ridiculous budget is up there on the screen. Shot mostly on location in Hungary, the film features some impressive sets, garishly colourful costumes and an abundance of perfectly satisfactory CGI work. Production design is not a problem for first-timer Rinsch, where 47 Ronin fails spectacularly is in its handling of the material.

Watching the film, there is no clear evidence that anybody involved, not least the film's scriptwriters, ever set foot in Japan. In fact it feels like their research consisted solely of hazy recollections of seeing Kurosawa's Ran once in college, before skimming through a couple of Miyazaki films. Chock full of fantastical monsters, black magic, evil witches and malevolent dragons, 47 Ronin feels more like "Clash of the Titans in kimonos" than any previously filmed version of the story.

Respected Japanese actors Sanada Hiroyuki and Asano Tadanobu often look uncomfortable and embarrassed, not for performing in a second language, but because of the ham-fisted way a revered chapter of their nation's history is being turned into a sub-par Lord of the Rings adventure. 

The film's two lead actresses fair little better. Shibasaki Ko will always be remembered by western audiences as the murderously seductive Mitsuko from Fukasaku Kinji's Battle Royale. She has since gone on to build a respectable career as a leading lady back home, but here she has nothing to do but whimper and scream while the men fight over her like a trophy. Kikuchi Rinko, on the other hand, who has become Hollywood's go-to Asian actress ever since her Oscar-nominated turn in Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel, is frankly awful as the scheming witch manipulating Lord Kira from behind the scenes. Seducing men with her black magic, or transforming into a hokey CGI fox, it's a potentially excellent role with which Kikuchi could have a great deal of fun, but she simply isn't up to the task of being threatening and sexy at the same time. My suspicions are that Shibasaki Ko would have been a much more promising choice.

Throughout everything, Keanu Reeves' Kai is either sidelined or elaborately excluded. A construct of this film, his character is repeatedly victimised and persecuted for his mixed ethnicity and rumours abound that he was in fact sired by the demons who haunt the forests where he was found as a child. Lord Asano took him in, raised him and trained him to fight, but much of the film is taken up with Kai's efforts to win the respect and trust of the other 46 ronin. Most of the time, however, Reeves looks lost, unconvincing as a warrior, victim or potential saviour.

Taken as pure preposterous fantasy, there is some B-grade fun to be had from 47 Ronin, and audiences unfamiliar or disinterested with the original story or its importance could conceivably have a good time. However, anyone with more than a passing knowledge of Japan, its history, or even just its epic back catalogue of samurai cinema will struggle to see the film as little more than a baffling fairground attraction devised by a boardroom of ignorant bean counters. 
Around the Internet:
  • doonga

    According to the following review, the problem with 47 Ronin is that it's too CLOSE to the original to work as a Hollywood movie!
    http://japanvisitor.blogspot.j...

  • Howard

    Just got back from the theater. Movie was entertaining and my mom cried, thumbs up! Also Keanu > Tom Cruise. Keanu knows about tengus, u don't wanna fuck w/tengus.

  • ricksomchai

    Welcome back to Twitch I guess lmao guys its just a movie lol Abraham Vampire hunter anyone ... I think its just for fun some of you guys are taking it so seriously, I will still watch this for sure :)

  • colinjames71

    THANK YOU

  • Stanley Kristiansen

    I strongly suspect the original event was greatly embelished in the story. Recogog nzing this you will understand it is NOT history any more then this version is, in other eords dude it is just a story.

  • Teddy Tinsley

    Everybody's a critic, It's a movie, who cares as long as it's entertaining. The true story ended with the Ronin being allowed a honorable death by self disembowelment, where's the fun in that. I want to see flying, super human swordplay and mythical beings using supernatural powers. Now that's entertainment.

  • Isn't this based off the anime series?

  • Michael Reid

    No it was a real incident

  • I get that 47 Ronin was an actual historical event, but the movie is based on the Anime series which is Hugely popular in Japan.

  • So 'hugely popular' that it's not even listed on the Anime News Network and googling '47 Ronin Anime' turns up nothing other than an animated prequel created by the producers of this movie. And which is not credited as a source on the IMDB at all, which it would have to be if it were an adaptation. You're going to need to prove a source for that claim, given that the makers are saying it's an original work and I can't find any evidence AT ALL of the series you say it's based on.

  • So you're assuming when someone says "anime" it means motion pictures... that's pretty ignorant... 47 Ronin along with most animated anime series start off as graphic novels. Holy shit people.

  • HAHAHAHAHAHA! Anime BY DEFINITION means 'motion pictures'. Graphic novels are manga. 'Ignorant', indeed, but it aint me. And, again, there is NO SOURCE MATERIAL whatsoever credited on this, it's presented as a fully original story in the credits.

    So, again, if you're going to say this is an adaptation of a manga, you're going to need to provide a source. There's nothing in the credits. Nothing in the trades. Nothing anywhere that appears to agree with you. And also, though I've just started looking, I see no recent manga adaptation of this story that include the fantasy elements of the film at all.

  • Nobody

    I only saw a test screening but figured no post-production work could fix the mess I watched. I actually thought Hiroyuki Sanada was the only Japanese actor who wasn't really bad in here. I'm not sure about Ko Shibasaki being better than Kikuchi in the witch role. Both suffered horrendously from having to act in English and unfortunately end up with cringe-worthy performances.

  • Rage72

    HIro Sanada is great in everything he does.

  • FlixtheCat

    Great review. Not looking forward to this, I must admit.

  • Myles Haruki Nelson

    In terms of a movie not as an adaptation is it any good?

  • Dave Baxter

    The movie IS an adaptation. Why the F**K should there be any "terms" wherein it wasn't?

  • That One Guy

    I thought the last paragraph sums it up quite well.
    "Taken as pure preposterous fantasy, there is some B-grade fun to be had from 47 Ronin, and audiences unfamiliar or disinterested with the original story or its importance could conceivably have a good time."

  • Howard

    I don't care about japanese history/cinema. I just wanna see Keanu slash some eggrolls. Looks like fun.

  • Goldie_Hawn_Golden_Shower

    I laughed because you said eggrolls. Eggrolls is such a funny word and even funnier when describing a certain ethnicity. You say you don't care but are interested in Asian stuff, that counts, which is why you wanna see the movie. Eggrolls are so good though I'm not sure if it taste like people though. Have you seen the movie, "Alive?"

  • And you win the most ignorant / borderline racist comment of the day award.

  • TapewormBike

    I mean, this more or less feels like another attempt at making a new epic based on some public domain story, like "Snow White and The Thor" or "Jack the Giant Dissapointment". Historical accuracy shmistorical shmaccuracy. I take it that the author did not have fun, but I still wish I could learn a bit about the movie safe from the comparison to the adapted material.

  • Dave Baxter

    Snow White, Thor, and Jack were all measured agaunst their source material, and fared accordingly. Why should this be any different?

  • marshy00

    You read the review, right? The CGI is solid, performances mostly disappointing, but there's fun to be had if you don't care about the ruined source material. What else do you need to know? Oh yeah, the 3D is crap.

  • servus

    What "revelations" in this review weren't immediately evident from the trailers that have been going around for months? The feigned shock at Hollywood (or any other movie making empire such as Bollywood) botching history in making a fictional piece of entertainment is extremely funny. Big entertainment doesn't give a damn and never has about accuracy with a handful of exceptions (e.g. Kubrick's obsession with costumes in Barry Lyndon).

  • marshy00

    I'm pretty sure you're making the same point as me.

  • mgazo

    i am really looking forward to seeing Asano Tadanobu on the big screen here in the states. stating he often looks uncomfortable and embarrassed, is pretty harsh. i would say your projecting some personal hangup on actors you wish where above being in this film. basically, you think he's such a poor actor, he is incapable of doing his job due to the wretched source material and is a gigantic sellout. some real hostility there. your review actually made me want to see it more. thanks.

  • marshy00

    Ummm, you're welcome I guess.

  • No, he's saying Asano is a good actor caught in a crap movie and good enough to be aware of that and uncomfortable as a result.

  • Szmigiel

    If you are going make a vageish asian fantasy inspired by Samurai legends and cinema, why crap all over a well known story like the "47 Ronin"? To those saying it is not meant to be a history lesson just mindless entertainment, then why choose a well known story based on historical events in Japan as the name of your movie. Why not just call it "The Ronin"? or "Legend of the Ronin"? Or "Charge of the Ronin Brigade"?

    It is like the Japanese making a movie called "The Alamo" about a Samurai leading James Bowie and Davy Crockett and the Texans against Santa Anna and his army of demons from hell.

  • Sebastian Ossa

    sounds like they were trying to do a pseudo Asian, 300 type movie.

  • Jay

    Actually, the story of the 47 Ronin is a folktale that was popularized in the 19th century by a Dutch author, whose story became popular in Japan in the early 20th century, and is largely believed to have never happened, as the given dates don't even remotely match up to actual historical records.

  • Richard Valentine

    You're not too bright. Do some more research Jay. You are definitely way off base.

  • Michael Reid

    You are way off base "largely believed to have never happened " by who exactly ?
    The Ako Incident as its known is one of the most famous stories in Japanese History .
    The first version of the play known as Chushingura was performed within weeks of the Ronin being executed or ordered to commit Seppuku ,only set 300 years earlier as it was against Tokugawa law to dramatize or chronicle any current events .
    A Dutch envoy first related the story in the West a few years after it happened in the early 18th century .
    The first written account in English came in the late 19th century ,authored by an Englishman .
    It is not a "folk tale " Chushingura is the play loosely based on the real event known as the Ako Incident ,and its been filmed as a tv movie /drama and as an actual theatrical film at least 200 times since the first version in 1910 .

  • servus

    Interesting side note from wikipedia about Japanese adaptations of the story: "Among both films and television programs, some are quite faithful to the Chūshingura, while others incorporate unrelated material or alter details. In addition, gaiden dramatize events and characters not in the Chūshingura." (from the Forty-Seven Ronin page at Wikipedia)

    Apparently some Japanese versions fudge and disregard history as well. I remember Japanese film aficionados getting all bent out of shape in 2004 over a Japanese anime "inspired" by Kurosawa's "7 Samurai" entitled "Samurai 7" that featured, amongst other things, a cyborg. Obviously, the discarding of any respect to source material by entertainment industries (regardless of the nationality of that industry) is cross-cultural!

    -It's also amusing that Lone Wolf and Cub has been praised for "Historical Accuracy" despite being completely fictitious.

    -The Scots didn't fare well in Hollywood either in movies like "Braveheart."
    You'll have to excuse me while I admire the "realism" of Zatoichi as he chops a house down.

  • marshy00

    Nice!

  • Hiroaki Johnson

    That Alamo movie sounds like fun. But what if we mixed it up, how about the Mexicans were trying to contain a zombie outbreak, and if the Alamo doesn't fall in time, the entire continent is likely doomed.

  • Mike

    Perfect.

  • Mike

    Also, get the right director on it and I would totally watch that.

  • Here's an idea - do a film about PEARL HARBOR, but make it so that the Americans get a happy ending out of it... Oh, and along the way have two of the characters have sex in a room full of parachutes!

    Oh, wait...

  • Ard Vijn

    Thanks Jason. You made me spill my coffee.

  • EXACTLY RIGHT.

  • One of the amazing things about this to me is that the studio clearly thought they had enough 'Asian stuff' for this to be a hit in Japan. They released it there first, hoping to ride a wave of positive response leading up to the US release. It tanked.

  • Rage72

    Sounds like the same thing happened with Pacific Rim too Todd, making a movie about kaiju and robots , thinking it would do well in Japan, and it also tanked over there.

  • Hiroaki Johnson

    And crushed in S.Kor and China. Who knows.

  • Strange Kaiju

    You sir sound like you have a Samurai sword stuck firmly in your ass as I read this review. No one is seeing this for a history lesson genius, it's obviously using the source material as inspiration only to create a fantasy film you pretentious douche.

  • marshy00

    Charming

  • Goldie_Hawn_Golden_Shower

    nobody is asking for a history lesson, you ding dong!!!! It's asking if it's a good movie and if you have a film called 47 Ronin, you better be at least accurate to the historical facts. So Shut your mouth!!!

  • laura nelli

    Ohhhh and now the critics are graduated on japanese history?. If i want to study history i go to the school non at theatre... And 47 ronin is inspired to the samurai legend,does not want to be a faithful representation.... I think it Will very good movie. I am italian ( forgive my english) and i know the history of the roman empire... The gladiator is not well, a out the real story, but is a good entertainment....oh perhaps you love russel crowe and hate keanu reeves? Is probably. Fortunately i go to de cinema without listening critics rewiew.... On imdb many goooood film are rating 7 or less... For example dangerous liason.. 7?????? And hunger game( a adolescent stupid movie) 8????? Mah.....

  • Gonzaburo

    She speaks the truth...this reviewer (Mudge) is usually very good but here he is WAY too concerned with showing his credentials by respecting Japanese history...I mean come on, Hollywood even disrespects and disregards American history, so what do you expect?

    Look, I am sure this film probably sucks, but not for the reason that it 'dissed' Japan.

    It was extremely obvious from the films' marketing that it was a fantasy romp with no basis in reality, let alone academic Japanese history. Also, Mudge should check out how accurate Japanese cinema itself is in it's portrayal of history. Or in fact the Japanese education system - and that about far more important issues such as wartime atrocities as opposed to frankly not very significant feudal infighting. Pot meet kettle.

    Also, he is more worked up about it than the largely Japanese cast...who are well known and successful actors all, none of whom are exactly jobbing in the roles like those Arab guys who have to play generic terrorists in Hollywood. If the reviewers indignation at disrespect of Japanese history/culture outdoes that of top Japanese performers such as Asano, then...

    Also, he seems annoyed that the film-makers have never set foot in Japan. So now it is necessary to do a masters in Japanese history or go backpacking for a year around Japan before lensing a fantasy pic with some Japanese motifs. Good idea: Please generalise it to all cultures and situations. I heard George Lucas hasn't been to a galaxy far far away neither.

    I love Japanese culture, but a lot of these reviewers seem to think that Hollywood is somehow 'racist' or discriminatory or disrespectful towards Japanese culture: maybe, but most other groups, from blacks to Latinos to Arabs fare much worse at the hands of film-makers. And Japanese cinema and entertainment is not exactly cosmopolitan itself.

    Relative to it's own standards and to other groups, Japan fares very well at Hollywood.

  • marshy00

    It appears you have me confused with James Mudge over at Beyond Hollywood, but hey, if you can't even be bothered to READ my name correctly from the top of the review you're criticising, you'll forgive me for not bothering to read the rest of your comment, which I'm sure is just as well informed and researched. Merry Christmas!

  • Ard Vijn

    From now on, I will refer to you as that filthy mudgeblood.

  • [A]

    congratulations for having 24 friends who upvoted your very stupid comment.

  • jack lanse

    Watched it, slept for maybe almost half the movie, Entertainment or no entertainment, it has tainted the Japanese Samurai Movie whatsoever to me....like the review said, it's probably good if you don't appreciate any aspects of Japanese Culture....that aside the director made a lot of pointless Cliche dialogues that made me to have goosebumps from hearing what the actors have to say....end of story it sucked~

  • TapewormBike

    I agree with the point mostly (except the imdb, because, who cares really) and it is hard not to hear your rant with a cute accent, so upvote for you:).

  • Goldie_Hawn_Golden_Shower

    Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, so do yourselves a favor and SHUT UP!!!!

  • servus

    "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion...SHUT UP!!!!" Irony anyone?

  • Goldie_Hawn_Golden_Shower

    Opinions about the movie? Irony in what?

  • laura nelli

    Ma vai affanculo ignorante

  • [A]

    Ouch...

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