Film Review: 47 Ronin

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Riding Shogun 

Warning: This review discusses the film’s plot, including the ending.

“I don’t know who or what you are” says the racist one time master of Keanu Reeves to the newly emancipated fighter in 47 Ronin. It’s good to know that audience confusion extends to the film’s characters. This is a big budget curio with an identity crisis. A film that’s neither Arthur or Martha as far as samurai movies and fantasy odysseys are concerned.

Lazy shorthand would be Krull masturbates Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but that only hints at the tired staples: a Princess to be rescued, an outlaw who returns to save the kingdom with his not so merry men. We haven’t touched on the mysticism, black magic and the movie’s veneration of revenge and death, an uncritical treatment of that bedrock of Japanese culture that made the Second World War in the Pacific one of attrition, and perhaps we shouldn’t…but we will, obviously.

Fundamentally this is a movie with very serious problems, only some of which relate to its celebration of altruistic suicide. After a mercifully short prologue, in which a young English boy escapes from a magical wood and is taken in by a thoughtful provincial overlord who treats him like sub-human scum, calling him “half-breed”, the film takes an interminably long time to get going, like this review – around 40 minutes in all; dead time that could have been substantially reduced with judicious editing.

During this null period we wonder how an English teen grew up to be an American, apparently the only one in Japan, while exposed to no one but the indigenous population. We’re also curious as to why Keanu’s master refuses to countenance the inexpressive lead’s warnings of witches and the threat they may pose to his sovereign power when they live in an era of mythical beasts; a world in which spirits and demons are known to exist.

This offensive stupidity proves costly of course and soon Keanu and his old master are in exile, Reeves love interest (since childhood – why do adolescent crushes always endure in the movies?) is pledged to marry the old Lord’s usurper and revenge is unhelpfully forbidden by a priest whose sole plot function seems to be creating obstacles that don’t really exist.

Once the delayed second act gets underway 47 Ronin is fatally undermined by fleeting and surprisingly, considering old hand Stuart Baird cut the picture, messy action, coupled with a leading man who’s so distant it’s as though he’s already thinking ahead to his next movie. A personable hero and a single well-orchestrated fight would have made it less of a slog, but instead we’re treated to stilted, folkloric dialogue and a lot of talk about honour; talk that’s a poor substitute for memorable chat and character building asides.

Yet odd and often boring though it all is, nothing can prepare you for the ending in which all our principle characters, bar a Princess we never cared for, kill themselves to satisfy the decree of that aforementioned priest that they’ve committed some kind of crime against Japan’s feudal code and can only be redeemed in death.

That’s a bitter pill to swallow, assuming you give two fucks about Keanu and his retinue, but it’s even harder to believe that all of this guff is allegedly based on a true story. Whether there were witches who transformed into dragons and a forrest of dead children originally we may never know, but what’s certain is that Japanese culture’s death drive emerges as a noble and honourable tradition. That tradition, celebrating the idea that revenge is a prerequisite for transcendence, is an odd underpinning for a modern blockbuster. What would Nelson Mandela have made of that I wonder? If only we could ask him.

Directed by: Carl Rinsch

Country: US

Year: 2013

Running Time: 119 mins

Certificate: 12A for making a samurai movie that even the Japanese won't pay to see.

7 Responses

  1. Brian says:

    Though agreeing with the gist of your review, your comment regarding what Nelson Mandela would have thought of the film was even more idiotic than parts of the film. Yes, it’s a shame Mandela never reviewed films. I have often wondered what he would have thought of the Die Hard movies. And your comments regarding the mass seppuku make no sense. What did you want? A happy ending where the lovers ride off into the sunset? This is how the true tale ended. Maybe it doesn’t conform to modern ideas but that was rather the point wasn’t it? I wonder if Mandela or Martin Luther King saw the Mizoguchi or Inagaki versions of the story and what they thought of them? I guess we will never know. What a shame.

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      Slight sense of humour failure there, Brian. However, it was a joke was a serious point, namely that venerating revenge and death as proud and noble traditions is, in my humble opinion, idiotic. In other words, I question the movies’ values. As ol’ Nelson represents the opposite philosophy, perhaps because he didn’t live in a country obsessed with death, he seemed to me a good, topical example of the opposing world view. As for the movie sticking to the true story, well the filmmakers didn’t mind embellishing it with, er, magic, fantasy creatures and what looked like a new species of humanoid, so you’ll forgive me if I thought that there was scope to change the facts. Given how dull the characters were maybe suicide was the best thing, and it’s a hell of a critique of the flick, but having sat through a very boring movie it seemed like a poor pay off. I met Nelson Mandela once and he told me that his favourite Die Hard movie is the original, with the third as runner up. He didn’t care for the second, disliked the forth and said the last one caused a marked deterioration in his health.

  2. […] Ed Whitfield of The Ooh Tray says he enjoyed it more than when he “masturbates.” […]

  3. Steph says:

    I’ve yet to find a critic that actually has an ounce of knowledge about Japanese culture and history. Yes, the tale is real and yes, they were permitted to die honourably by seppuku at the end, instead of being hanged as criminals. No, it was not a priest that forbade revenge (as far as I can remember from the film, it was the Emperor).
    As for why nobody believed Keanu, historically, for a half-breed to be taken in by a daimyo was more than a half-breed could expect in the first place. That was the attitude.
    The head of the ronin (forgot his name) states that their death will be imminent whether they succeed or fail due to the Emperor forbidding revenge, therefore I can only assume that Hollywood has made you accustomed to ‘happy endings’.

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      Oh no, 47 Ronin delivered there. Keanu’s suicide was a real crowd pleaser. I only wish he’d done the same at the end of the Matrix trilogy.

  4. Brian says:

    Ah so that was an attempt at humor. If you say so. But yes you are right, why couldn’t they change the ending since they changed other aspects of the film so that it served as a positive lesson to our children. We should probably do the same for The Alamo where a group of fanatical men sacrificed their lives so that the USA could follow its expansionary, racist and illegal concepts of Manifest Destiny. Crockett, Bowie and company in the new version should come to realize how wrong headed their politics are and just abandon the fort and go home. A much better lesson for the kids in our modern age. Btw – the film does make one change that should make you happy – in the real story Oishi’s son was not pardoned by the Shogun but was in fact forced to commit seppuku as well.

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      You should have stuck a comma between “ah” and “so”, else it reads as casual racism. As you’re inclined toward being wilfully literal, that too is a joke. Though by an extraordinary coincidence it’s what I actually think.

      You have very weird ideas about historical reverence. You don’t seem to mind if a story’s embellished with fantasy elements as long as they don’t change the ending. Yes, *that would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it? Even the filmmakers aren’t making any claims for this as a serious piece of folklore, hence the “inspired by” tag, rather than “based on”, though you might have got that from the dragon and the ghosts even if they hadn’t told you. Anyway, the key point here is about tone. It’s one thing to fill your movie with nonsense and shit but another to be po-faced with it. If this was a serious slice of Japanese history of course it would be stupid to change the ending, but I don’t think it would have made any difference to this movie, except perhaps improving it. After all, whatever the trace elements of history lightly sprinkled on this idiotic flick, celebrating revenge and suicide is pretty stupid. If the filmmakers try to sell the idea that it isn’t I’m entitled to say it is, because even if Japanese culture venerates death I don’t think the rest of the world need join in. Sorry if that bothers you (though not really, obviously).