“47 Ronin,” directed by Carl Erik Rinsch and starring Keanu Reeves as Kai, a mysterious half-Japanese and half-British orphan reared by demons and rescued by Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) and Hiroyuki Sanada, as Oishi, the leader of Lord Asano’s samurai, is an enjoyable film based loosely on the historical events of the first years of the 18th century.
The historical Lord Kira was an older courtier of the shogun tasked with training the young Lord Asano (so, no daughter) and another young lord specifics of court etiquette. He apparently consistently insulted his charges, which led to Lord Asano’s attack. Kira was unharmed, but Lord Asano was required by the shogun to commit seppuku or face execution. After his ritual suicide, Lord Asano’s samurai became masterless ronin, whose vow to avenge their lord and their fulfillment of their vow is so famous in Japan that a huge number of fictionalized accounts of the event have been produced in literature, kabuki and bunraku (puppet) theatre, film and television.
In this version, the attack is the result of evil magic. Based on a screenplay by Chris Morgan (The “Fast and Furious” films) and Hossein Amini (“The Wings of the Dove (1997),” “The Four Feathers” (2002) and “Killshot” (2009), magic and the monsters and demons of Japanese legend exist as a backdrop for a more-or-less realistic world. Stephen Turnbull, a British academic at the University of Leeds and author of a number of books on the samurai in Japanese history for the Osprey military history publishers, acted as consultant for “47 Ronin.”
The cast is known in Japan and Mr. Sanada, especially, in the role of Oishi, is wonderful. Keanu Reeves, whose part is entirely new for this Western and Japanese collaboration, is well directed. He is perhaps, a trifle old for the part, but that is not too intrusive. He shows up well as the humble, monosyllabically named nonentity allowed to aid Lord Asano’s samurai only because of his tracking and fighting abilities, the legacy of his life before the daimyo took him in.
Mr. Reeves’s character does not take over the whole film; in fact he barely speaks throughout. The unlikely romance between Kai and Lord Asano’s daughter, Mika (Kou Shibasaki), intended no doubt to draw in the Western audience, is, thankfully, not too obtrusive (unlike that, for example, in the Liam Neeson-Julia Roberts film “Michael Collins.” Oishi is still really the center of the film as the once-powerful, now master-less, samurai leader and counselor brought as low as low as the lowest of the group – Kai – and who must humble himself to acquire Kai’s help.
That in the end Kai is accepted by Oishi, the other ronin and the shogun, given the respect due a human being, is probably more of a reward than the love of the princess would be in that society, but apparently marketing dictated. It could be worse.
Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) is nicely evil and self-serving, Rinko Kikuchi (“Norwegian Wood,” 2002) is great fun to watch as the witch/fox spirit with her hand in every turn of events. The special effects used for her supernatural manifestations and elsewhere are fantastic. Music by Ilan Eshkeri (BAFTA-nominated for his score for “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll,” 2010) is rousing.
The filmmakers were very respectful of the fact that this is much-loved Japanese story with a tradition of its own. The cast is almost solely Japanese, and even Mr. Reeves is, if not Japanese, part Asian. The unnaturalness of much of the dialogue – in part because the actors are not native speakers of English – brings to mind the complicated hierarchical levels of politeness in speech that real people would have used. The movie was filmed in part in Japan; they even had a calligrapher: Many details have been lovingly brought to life in this fun and refreshing film.
2 hours, 7 minutes; PG-13