December 30, 2013

Movie Review: 47 Ronin (2013)

The much delayed Japanese epic 47 Ronin has finally arrived in theaters and it has displeased the critics. Now, this does not automatically mean it is a bad movie, but it certainly doesn't help. Well, I went and saw it for myself and found myself not so much conflicted as merely entertained. There are things to like about this movie, but it also feels somewhat incomplete, unexplained, and decidedly not meant for everyone. Still, it is a mediocre experience that never quite pulls itself together.

I know that the story of the 47 Ronin is a true one that has been adapted and told many times over the years and in a variety of different mediums. I do not know the original story and this is just my first time seeing a version of the story told. This is clearly not the most realistic version of the story and I am fairly certain the first version told in English. It is an interesting tale of honesty, revenge, and standing up for what is right. What I am still trying to figure out is how the half -breed element fits in? Seems like a concession made for a Hollywood production and to get a recognizable name into the credits.

This take on the 47 Ronin sits at the crossroads of myth, fantasy, and reality. It is not a by the books take on the actual events, it is one that romanticizes them. It is an interesting choice to go with one that seems to celebrate an outsider and play up a romantic subplot, but I think I am getting ahead of myself.

The first thing we learn of is a half breed child escaping some evil in the forest only to be nearly killed as a local lord, Lord Asano (Min Tanaka). The child's life is spared and he grows up with the affections of Asano's daughter, Mika (Kko Shibasaki). Well, the Shogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) comes to the village and a samurai demonstration is put on. Things take a turn when it is revealed that Kai (Keanu Reeves) is behind the mask. This brings shame to Asano. At the same time, Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) and a witch (Rinko Kikuchi) are making a play to take over the village.

Lord Asano is forced to take his own life to allow the village to retain its honor. This results in the samurai being cast out as ronin (master-less samurai) and Kai being sold into slavery. This sounds rather disheartenng, but it is hardly the end of the story. Asano's lead samurai, Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), has a plan to defy the Shogun and avenge the shame brought upon their lord.

Visually, 47 Ronin looks pretty good. The effects are nicely executed and there is some nice cinematography. The problem is that the story never feels complete. Motivations are never really fleshed out beyond the obvious, Kai never gets a real story, and there is little chemistry between anyone. It is clear serious liberties are taken with the source material and this is meant to just be an entertainment and not an attempt at a depiction of the truth.

I left the theater torn. I really wanted to like the movie, but I could not. I did not hate it and would be lying if I said I was not entertained. I think what really got to me was that I could see all of the missed opportunities. This really could have been a great fantasy action film. The best part of the film was Rinko Kikuchi as the witch. She seemed to be having a blast with the character, just going to the edge of the ridiculous and refusing to back away.

The bottom line is that this is not a great movie, it is a very mediocre one. It has some things going for it and a lot against. It surely could have been better, but I am none the worse off for experiencing it. It is never boring and at least tries to feel Japanese. In the long run it is not likely to have much of an impact, positive or negative, it will fade into the sands of time with so many other similar movies.

Mildly Recommended.

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