Intro & Synopsis
The most interesting feature to the story of 47 Ronin, is separating fact from fiction. Aside from the movie adaptation starring Keanu Reeves, 47 Ronin is a Japanese tale that dates back to the 18th century, centered on the theme of loyalty. This tenent of "Bushido", an ethical code that was defined and lived by the Samurai (Japanese warrior), becomes the driving force which progresses the storyline. After the execution of their master, 47 samurai find themselves masterless ("Ronin"), and nowhere to call home. Knowing that this vulnerability within their clan could attract nearby warlords to usurp their kingdom, the 47 ronin vow to slay the rival clan leader who staged the event that led to their master's wrongful persecution.
The original story of 47 Ronin was told with actual events and some imbellishment of the feats descbribed of the samurai involved; however, the movie 47 Ronin, is a retelling of the tale with additional fantasy elements. In this version, certain characters can change physical appearance at will, mystical creatures are added, and the prospect of an alienated protagonist becoming the hero is introduced. Keanu stars as Kai, a "half-breed" mixed of human and demon descent. Torn between two worlds, Kai struggles to find acceptance among humanity, while overcoming his past as a child raised among demons. The death of his master becomes his salvation, as he finds both purpose and identity in the act of revenge. The 47 Ronin becomes a legend of how a few stood before many, proving that resolve is the greatest test of any warrior.
Costume design was the first aspect of this movie that immediately grabbed my attention. I was awed not only by the variation in costumes, but the fact that each design uniquely contributed to the role of each character, including the extras in the movie. For example, the palace guards of the clan that the 47 roinin belonged to, wore bright orange and red retainer armor with yellow and golden trim that glowed in the sunlight. These rich colors were complimented with the contrast of darker tones seen in backdrops of buildings or night time environments. As a result, I felt that the physicality of extras in the movie felt very real-and less CGI'd-and that each person had purpose to be on the screen. Very rarely do I see movies with extravagant costume design where colors and detail are so carefully placed. Movies like Curse of the Golden Flower, Hero, and Anna and the King, are a few examples that come to mind when attempting this effect. As for the main characters, the costume change from regal samurai armor to ragged robes, illustrates not only the outcast of the 47 ronin, but the affect it had on their social identity.
CGI was another concern I initially had for the movie after watching the trailer. I was glad to see that this device was used only to convey certain character abilities-like being able to change physical form-and not as a replacement for substance in the movie. As much as I loved the Rohan calvary charge in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, it was blatantly obvious that CGI could not duplicate the live scene of the British calvary charge in the 1970 release of Waterloo, starring Rod Steiger as Napoleon.
I was also suspicious of the movie being filled with unnecessary mystical creatures that would serve as character fillers and a distraction to the plot. The first image that came to my mind after watching the trailer, was the famous flute-playing goat scene from Frank Miller's adaptation of 300. I'm pleased to say that there's nothing of the sort in 47 Ronin, but rather the enhancement of special effects that could not have been better illustrated without CGI. Similar to costume design, the appearance of buildings and environments felt real and not tarnished by the embellishment of CGI as well.
What Could Have Been Better
The first gripe I have with the movie was the pacing. I felt that for the most part, the meat of the movie was saved towards the middle and the end. In a way, I had to remind myself that this is reminiscent of glorified samurai movies of the 70's and 80's like The Seven Samurai, Ran, and the TV series, Shogun. So for all I know, I could be overlooking an intentional plot design by the director. At the same time, I can't excuse the feeling of a fragmented piecing of the building tension with Keanu's character development, as well as reaching the climax of the movie. Kai's "half-breed" quality seemed only relevant at the beginning of the movie in plot progression, but towards the middle and end, this idea was an after thought. The result felt like unwanted exposition and a distraction to the idea of urgency in seeking revenge.
The only other issue I had with the movie was the supposed romance between Kai and his master's daughter, Mika (acted by Ko Shibasaki). Again, like Kai's struggle with his identity, his supposed love for Mika felt forced, weightless, and left little to no impression. In any tale about revenge, one would think that the potential danger of losing a loved one would impact the story, so much that the characters affected may feel devastated. I did not get this feeling with Kai and Mika's relationship, but rather the inflated desire for unrequited love. For a story that is centered on loyalty through revenge, love feels like an after thought and is easily displaced in 47 Ronin.
When I left the theatre I immediately thought to myself the question that I knew friends and co-workers would ask: so how was the movie? My response is that I felt like I went back in time to watch an adventure movies from the 90's. Simply put, it was a good movie. For those who want a score, I would give it a 7 out of 10 (10 being great). Living in an era where I feel like recent movie success or failure is attributed to overly hyped trailers or blockbuster hits, I was pleasantly surprised with the production of this movie. I recall seeing its announcement a couple years back, and then its rumored cancellation due to a swelling pre-production budget. So naturally, I was surprised to hear of its guaranteed arrival. Costume design, plot progression, and having a varied cast, all contributed to my analogy of movies I recall watching in the 90's. 47 Ronin is what some refer to as a "popcorn movie", one that is worth watching once, and debating its worth to put on the shelf. I personally am anticipating its Blue-Ray release, and would highly recommend watching to start off the new year.
Thanks for reading another review from MSP and I hope you have the pleasure of checking out this beloved anime.
This is Manny, or "ThatCosplayGuy" signing off.