Some movies just get a reputation. There’s scuttlebutt and gossip about them. Cost overruns. A director/star out of control. A budget that’s way too high; a pretentious, unwatchable, bad movie. Rottentomatoes.com tells the tale–a kiss-of-death score under 10. (I think 47 Ronin‘s at 11%). Sometimes you go to see it out of the same instinct that causes people to rubber-neck at traffic accidents. Or sometimes, you think ‘how bad can it be.’
But I’m not here to tell you that 47 Ronin isn’t all that bad, or that it’s nowhere near as terrible as you’ve probably heard. I’m here to tell you that it’s excellent. I found it a sombre, respectful, intelligent, and powerful telling of one of the great world myths. My wife and I saw 47 Ronin the day after we saw the new Hobbit movie. We liked 47 Ronin much much better. It wasn’t even all that close.
I don’t know anything about Japanese culture, history or myth. We saw the movie with my friend, Wayne, who knows a lot about Japan. He served a mission there, speaks and reads Japanese, loves the culture and has studied it. He knew about the legend of the 47 Ronin. To catch myself up on it this morning, I read this.
I know, you’re thinking, oh, he’s passing himself off as an expert on the basis of one Wikipedia article. That’s not at all what I mean. I don’t know how respectfully the movie treats the myth. It certainly felt respectful. All I can judge is the movie I saw. And I was very moved by it.
Okay, so there are two neighboring kingdoms/dukedoms, one led by Lord Asano (Min Tanaka), and one by the much younger Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano). But the Shogun leads the whole country–they both owe fealty to him, sort of like medieval kings owed fealty to the Holy Roman Emperor. (Sorry, using European terminology helps me get my head around this). Lord Asano has adopted a half-breed named Kai (Keanu Reeves), exceptionally well trained in the martial arts, but with no status in a rigidly hierarchical caste society. Asano’s head samurai (sort of his chief of security), Oishi (the marvelous Hiroyuki Sanada), respects Kai, and listens to him, but can’t allow him any higher place. Kai is also in love with Lord Asano’s only child, his daughter, Mika (Ko Shibisaki), and she’s in love with him, but completely unrequited, of course; there’s no possibility of any kind of formal alliance between them. Oh, yes, and Lord Kira has a concubine who is also a witch (Rinko Kikuchi). Anyway, she, the witch, bewitches a samurai loyal to Asano, and he threatens the shogun. Lord Asano is condemned to die, but allowed to commit seppuku instead. All his samurai lose their status; are condemned to live as ronin. Oishi is thrown into a pit as punishment, and Mika ordered to marry Lord Kira, to unite the two kingdoms. She’s allowed one year to mourn first, and then she must either marry, or kill herself.
So Oishi, allowed out of his punishment pit, has to find the other samurai (the 47), also find Kai, the half-breed, and lead a revolt against Kira. By killing Kira, he believes Lord Asano’s soul will be freed. He also knows that this action will put him in a state of rebellion against the Shogun, and that he will be required to forfeit his life afterwards. This price, he considers well worth paying.
The protagonist, in other words, is Oishi. The star of the movie is Hiroyuki Sanada. Keanu Reeves plays a secondary character. Kai supports Oishi’s rebellion. So how big a problem is this?
From the studio’s perspective, this is a 180 million dollar movie without a movie star. It’s an expensive action movie starring some Japanese dude no one’s ever heard of. It’s financial apocalypse. (It’s also the script the studio signed off on, but let that go).
Hiroyuki Sanada, though, is most emphatically not just some obscure Japanese dude. He’s a brilliant, charismatic actor. He’s the only Japanese actor ever to act with the RSC. He’s played the Fool in an acclaimed production of King Lear. He’s a superb actor, a major star in Japan. And he’s great in 47 Ronin. He carries the movie. I enjoyed his every scene. He’s terrific.
There was a time when Hollywood executives couldn’t imagine marketing an action movie starring Jackie Chan. When Jet Li was just some obscure Chinese guy. When Chow Yun Fat would never be considered for a major movie. So why not Hiroyuki Sanada? Why shouldn’t he headline a big action movie? Uh, do we need to use the E word? Ethnocentrism?
And let’s talk frankly about Keanu Reeves. I am perhaps alone among my theatre friends in this sense–I like Keanu Reeves. I think he’s a fine actor, with a limited range. He knows that, and only picks projects that are right for him. He’s a total pro, hard working and a decent guy. He was great in The Matrix, because he didn’t have to carry the movie–he had Laurence Fishburne and (gnaws at knuckle) Carrie-Ann Moss, both tremendously charismatic, and he had Hugo Weaving as one of the great movie villains ever, and, you know, all that Matrix-y bullet dodging coolness.
I think Reeves is great in 47 Ronin precisely because he doesn’t have to carry the movie. He has Sanada, a more talented, more charismatic actor to carry it for him. He gets to do what he’s best at–kick-butt martial arts and brooding despair.
Review have talked about how gloomy the movie is, how humorless. It’s not. It’s rich and colorful, and there’s plenty of comedy, especially from a great comic actor I’d never heard of, the rotund and charming Takato Yonemoto. When critics say it’s ‘gloomy,’ they’re talking about the ending.
So: spoiler time. Skip the next paragraph if you don’t want to know the ending.
The ending; my gosh, the ending. Oishi’s revolt works. Kira, the villain, is killed by our hero. Keanu kills the witch (but not before she transforms into a dragon–very cool effect). What next? The Shogun shows up, and has no choice. The 47 Ronin have to die. The only question is how. And the Shogun honors them by allowing them to commit seppuku. That’s the film’s triumphant, happy ending; a mass suicide. And it works. They’re allowed to die honorably, following the greatest tradition of their culture. I wiped away tears, but it was the right choice for this movie, telling this myth. And how many Hollywood movies get that ending?
Anyway, see it for yourself. I’m not kidding; it’s great. And you’ll get to see one of the world’s great actors give the performance of his career. Ably supported by Keanu Reeves. Ignore all the critics who hated it. They’re wrong about this movie. I’m right.