After seeing the trailer for “47 Ronin” over the last few months, I expected a sword-and-sorcery movie based on the true story of The Forty-seven Ronin (samurai without a master) who plotted the murder of the feudal lord who murdered their feudal lord and allowed to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) as their punishment in eighteenth-century Japan. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this was a quite different movie. If all the fantasy elements were remove, the movie closely follows one of the most famous Japanese stories about honor and revenge.
Most Hollywood movies based on Japanese samurai culture have a “white samurai,” a foreigner who learns bushido (the way of the warrior), to lead the other samurai into battle against the enemy. “The Last Samurai” (2003) with Tom Cruise as an American cavalryman captured by the samurai was a perfect example of this. Of course, the inspiration for the novel, “Shogun,” came from James Clavell reading a line in his daughter’s textbook: “in 1600, an Englishman went to Japan and became a samurai”.
A boy runs out of the demon-infested forest to collapse in a creek. Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), leader of the samurais, tries to drown the boy because he saw a demon. But Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) has compassion on the half-English/half-Japanese boy, Kai, bringing him into his household and raising him with his daughter, Mika. Many years pass. Kai (Keanu Reeves) is an outcast in Japanese society because of his mixed heritage and demonic background, held in contempt by the samurai and beloved by Mika (Kou Shibasaki).
Kai leads Lord Asano and the samurais on the hunt of an eight-eyed beast that rampages through the countryside. After killing the beast with the sword of a fallen samurai, he notices a nearby white fox with different colored eyes. The fox is a trickster in Japanese culture, which later becomes the witch, Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi). Kai, the white samurai, steps aside and Oishi becomes the main focus of the movie.
That’s an unexpected twist.
Lord Asano attacks his unarmed rival, Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), while under the influence of witchcraft. The shogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) orders him to commit seppuku for violating the peace. Oishi and his samurai become ronin, exiled into the countryside, and forbidden from plotting vengeance. The shogun gives Lord Kira the lands of Lord Asano, and Mika in marriage after she completes the one-year period of mourning.
Oishi seeks out Kai’s assistance against the witch and gathers the ronin in secret after being released from prison. Overcoming the deep mistrust by the ronin, Kai earns his place to fight and die with them as a ronin and not as a white samurai.
The final battle begins after the ronin infiltrates Lord Kira’s stronghold during preparations for his marriage to Mika. After Lord Kira and his witch are dead, the 47 ronin return his head to the shogun, accept their death sentence for disobeying the shogun, and earned the privilege to commit seppuku as samurai because of their loyalty to their dead master.
One of the big surprises was how bloodless the movie was. Most recent Japanese movies with samurai swords have elaborate blood spray from a fire hose for comedic effect. If someone loses their head, the ceiling gets splattered with blood. If someone plunges a knife into their stomach, the floor gets drenched in blood. None of that in “47 Ronin” as the camera cuts away at the last moment as someone gets killed.
Despite the sword-and-socery fantasy elements, this is probably one of the finest Japanese movies to come out of Hollywood in a long time.