The 47 Ronin is an excellent teaching example for writers, because it is a movie which excels in establishing what I call "dissonant themes." This is something I've struggled with in my writing and I think everyone aspiring to write should learn from. Writing is like cooking, you put a bunch of elements together in a movie, heat, stir, and serve. The mixture of these elements is what determines whether or not its edible. The 47 is not very edible, despite being made of quite a few yummy bits. It's because they are great tastes which don't taste great together.
The 47 Ronin is a movie based on a play based on historical events which have been adapted a thousand or so times. The (original) premise is that in Feudal Japan, a high-ranking lord embarrasses himself at court due to the actions of a rival lord. As a result, the Shogun of Japan orders him to commit suicide (seppuku).
|Keanu plays his role well--it's just a bad role.|
You with me so far?
The dead lord's retainers are made into ronin, or masterless samurai, and are really brassed off about it. The titular ronin enact a revenge scheme on the rival lord, wait a year so he doesn't suspect they've got his number, pounce, kill him, and then commit suicide. If you're upset I've described the plot, understand this is like Romeo and Juliet in Japan. There's a statute of limitations on these things and the 47 Ronin is a story which is centuries old.
The 47 Ronin work as a story because it's a straight forward tale with enough nuance to be interesting. The samurai feel wrong, they want revenge. On a different level, the samurai are acting as a bunch of murderous conspirators to a man who arguably doesn't deserve it. The fact some of the rival lord's servants are honorable men themselves further muddies the issue. In the end, it's one of the great works of art for balancing these factors.
|The action scenes are good in the movie. 4 stars. Well, maybe 3 and a half.|
This adaptation disrupts the balance.
The obvious person to blame for this is Keanu Reeve's character of Kai. A supernatural half-white/half-Japanese child is adopted by Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) when he's a child. This pisses off the future Ronin who consider him an abomination. Kai falls in love with Lord Asano's daughter (Ko Shibasaki), another impossible situation, and is stricken when Asano is killed. The thing is, I don't actually think the character of Kai or his romance are all that bad. Do they have any place in the 47 Ronin? Hell no. That doesn't mean they're automatically to be discounted. No, the problem is these two elements dilute the story.
The heart of the 47 Ronin is the revenge tale of the samurai on Lord Akira (Tadanobu Asano). It doesn't matter if the movie makes Lord Akira into an evil monster for the play, throwing moral ambiguity out the window, because that's been done plenty of times in the past. Unfortunately, introducing the dual issues of the samurai learning to accept Kai and the tacked on romance makes the whole thing difficult to care about. There's just too much going on to really get a decent grasp on everything.
Ironically, I think I might have enjoyed a movie about Kai the Outcast. A half-Japanese, half-English boy living in mystical Japan seems like it'd be an interesting story. Sort of a reversal of Kung Fu. The fact the Europeans are caricatured every bit as much as the samurai helps avoid any accusations of racism. As is, Kai just distracts from the samurai's own development and characterization. About the only person who seems to be having any fun is Rinko Kikuchi's Kitsune.
As for the samurai themselves, only a couple of them display any distinct traits. This is Kai's movie, which is problematic since the entire theme of the movie is "bushido is awesome" when it's manifestly not. This is a movie which is all about the equivalent of an Indian peasant who is bullied his entire life, joins the British army, and then has the honor of dying horribly in service of them. You can't really get behind Kai's desire to live and die as a samurai when he's a guy kicked around by samurai his entire life for being born different.
|Supernatural fox-women serial killers attacking women in bed. Best part of the movie!|
The movie is a visual treat, however, and the CGI is lovely as are the sets. Rinko Kikuchi is gorgeous and vamps it up tremendously. If it seems like I'm damning the movie with faint praise, I am. It's worth a rental but the saddest part of this adaptation is there's enough original story for a decent Medieval fantasy flick inside this tale without turning it into a really bad adaptation of a classic.