47 Ronin is a terribly trashy fantasy adventure – but sometimes that’s just what you need. While I can’t say much in favour of the screenplay, pacing and direction, I can say that I was unreasonably pleased with the entire experience. Don’t misunderstand: 47 Ronin firmly finds itself in the ‘so bad, it’s good’ category.
Inspired by Japan’s national legend of the real-life 47 Ronin – a famous example of the samurai code of honour – the story here follows a group of masterless samurai who fight to avenge the death of their Lord. Screenwriters Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini add some dubious fantastical elements to their telling of the story, such as an evil witch who can turn into a fox and the bird-like tengu of Japanese myth. Those looking for a gritty, historical take on the story won’t find it here.
At the centre of this setup is Kai (Keanu Reeves), a half-breed outcast who’s in love with Mika (Kou Shibasaki), Lord Asano’s daughter. Kai is sought out by Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), the leader of the ronin, in order to avenge the death of Lord Asano and rescue Mika from the clutches of nefarious Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano struggling to stop grinning in pompous regal attire).
It’s a straightforward tale of avenging treachery, sprinkled with liberal doses of witchcraft and demonic samurai. Hiroyuki Sanada’s Oishi is really the star of the movie, giving the role as much gravity and weight as he can. Keanu by comparison barely emotes in the role of Kai. This isn’t too detrimental however; Kai was created solely for the film and his story – rooted in folklore and romance – feels peripheral to the true heroics of Oishi’s ronin.
Still, the action (which the movie could have used a lot more of) is skilfully presented when there and the visual effects make the most of the grand $175 million budget. This is also evident in the colourful costumes and otherwise rich production design. Indeed, 47 Ronin is at least never a dull feast for the eyes.
The polish offsets the moustache-twirling dialogue, villainous overacting, bizarre scene transitions and lack of actual spoken Japanese. When Shang Tsung himself (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) showed up as the Shogun, I was half-expecting him to say ‘Fatality!’ – it certainly wouldn’t have been out of place!
47 Ronin is a guilty pleasure that wears its brand of serious silliness with oodles of Japanese pride.