The historically based story of the 47 Ronin is one of the great tales of Japanese history. Two lords are in a power struggle at the royal court. One is finally driven to assault the other. This violates court etiquette, so the offending lord is forced by the shogun to commit seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment). The other lord receives no punishment. The death of their lord to whom they have sworn fealty means his samurai become ronin, a position without status and of great shame.
The ronin are cautioned by the shogun not to seek revenge on the other lord. There are a number of reasons that they must delay such plans anyway. It is bad enough that they have been lowered to ronin status, but they are further shunned for not avenging their master. It turns out they they were just biding their time. After two years of planning, laying low, and defusing suspicion they finally make their move.
The story has been memorialized in plays, operas, at least six films, and a variety of television shows. The films include a notorious two-part version by Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu) and Hiroshi Inagaki’s more well-known Chushingura. This background is a way of providing context for this modern adaptation that, in classic Hollywood style, jettisons almost everything that is historic, interesting, and noble about the tale. This time out, the story isn’t really about honor and obligation, which is relayed through the planning and tension that builds during the two-year wait. Instead, 47 Ronin is about magic, the fantastic, a witch, and CGI monsters that adorn a muddled and confused plot.
The protagonist is Kai (Reeves), a half-breed waif found and adopted by Lord Asano (Tanaka). The lord’s samurai fear and shun Kai, believing that he is half devil child. As he grows up slightly feral in Asano’s palace, Kai’s ally and developing love interest is Mika (Shibasaki), the lord’s only child. Eventually, as in the original tale, the shogun (Tagawa) comes visiting, as does the evil Lord Kira (Asano). In the palace, using magic, his witch companion (the alluring Kikuchi) tricks Asano into assaulting Kira. The shogun not only insists that Asano commit seppuku but also that after a year of mourning, Mika will marry Kira. The evil lord immediately sends Kai off to be sold into slavery and has Ôishi, the leader of Asano’s samurai, thrown into a pit where he languishes for a year.
When Ôishi emerges, seemingly none the worse for wear, he begins to assemble the remaining ronin to finally exact their revenge on Kira, despite the shogun’s warning. The very first thing he does is seek out Kai to join their cause. Instead of two years of scheming and planning, this plotting is relatively rushed. There is a premature attempt to murder Kira that turns out to be a carefully laid trap, which almost all the ronin mysteriously survive.
The film moves so slowly that snails pass it, with dialogue so predictable that one could be shouting out lines before they are spoken. The final action sequence, which the whole film builds toward, is relatively brief and abrupt. It’s perplexing how this elaborate, multimillion-dollar historical epic ended up assigned to first-time director Carl Rinsch, especially given how clearly overwhelmed he is by the task. The greater mystery is how the 50-year-old Reeves ended up cast as a much younger Japanese half-breed in this mangling of a classic.
(As a side note, Gedde Watanabe plays the leader of a traveling troupe of performers. This was notably and perhaps sadly disconcerting at the Alamo Drafthouse where I saw it. The month’s coming-attractions trailer features what will always be Watanabe’s defining moment as Long Duk Dong falling out of a tree in Sixteen Candles, screaming, “Ohhh, sexy girlfriend … Bonzai!!”)