Friday, October 10, 2014

Film Friday: 47 Ronin (2013)

47 Ronin bombed... to put it mildly. Generally, films need to make twice their budget to cover all their costs. 47 Ronin cost $175 million to make, but made only $150 million worldwide. In the US, it grossed just over $20 million. Clearly, audiences stayed away in droves. But why? Was it because the movie sucked? Well, not really. You might find this interesting.

When 47 Ronin was marketed in the US, it was presented as Keanu Reeves leads a small army of samurai against a magical army of demons. Kind of a samurai version of The Matrix. Indeed, it had all the hallmarks of anime. In reality, however, this film is definitely not any of that. What this film is, is a retelling of the classic story of The 47 Ronin with hints of magic added for flavor.
Perhaps a brief history lesson is in order? The 47 Ronin (known as Chushingura in Japan) is a tale from Japanese history which defines the ethos of the samurai warrior code (Bushido). The story takes place in 18th Century Japan and it centers around 47 samurai who find themselves unemployed when their lord is forced to kill himself. Their lord had been tricked into this by a court official who made it appear their lord had done something shameful. This resulted in the emperor ordering the lord to kill himself and forbidding the samurai who guarded him from seeking revenge.
The result of this was that these 47 samurai became what was known as Ronin... lord-less samurai. This is a shameful thing because it means they have failed to protect their lord or that they bear his shame as well, neither of which is a good thing. Thus, their status in society has collapsed from the top (samurai) to the bottom (mercenary). It’s a bit like being forced out of the SEALs to find yourself working as a mall cop.

Despite being forbidden from seeking revenge under pain of death, these Ronin felt such a strong sense of duty to their beloved dead lord that they planned to avenge his death against the emperor’s orders. To that end, they waited one year. Then they met up, infiltrated the castle of the offender, and killed him. More importantly, once they had satisfied their need to fulfill their duty, they satisfied their honor by gathering in the courtyard and committing ritual suicide to comply with the emperor’s order.
Their example of duty over all else and the importance of honor over life defines the Bushido code by which the samurai lived and, consequently, this story became central to the mythos of the samurai warrior. In fact, this story is so central that it's been told many times in many forms, including plays, wood prints, dramas and films. And here it is again.

As I said above, Keanu’s 47 Ronin sounded like anime when it was marketed. It was sold as some battle for survival against a supernatural army. But that’s not at all what the film is about. To the contrary, the film was simply a retelling of the 47 Ronin story. So needless to say, that was the first huge problem audiences encountered – misguided expectations.
The second problem was that this film has the typical pacing you find in samurai films, which is much slower that modern audience like. It deals with the same themes of honor and duty, which also don’t resonate with modern audiences. The characters tend to be one-dimensional because they are obsessed with their mission. The dialog is minimalist, but philosophical, both of which run contrary to general audience preferences. And finally, the action is very, very deliberate and precise. This is not shiny Transformers; here, a single perfect sword strike has much greater value than a loud, obnoxious fight scene. The result was that this film was anathema to modern audiences.
So it sucked, right? Well, no, not at all. If you enjoy samurai films like those by Kurosawa or others, then you may very well enjoy this film. I love samurai films and have seen dozen and dozens... but they are an acquired taste. They tend to be slow and contemplative. They offer little dialog and less explanation. They are not action packed. What they offer though, is a beautiful look into the psyche of Japan just as some of our best Westerns offer a beautiful look into the American psyche. I doubt very many people in the current theater-going world will enjoy such films. But there are a great many fans of the genre.
On the issue of magic, by the way, the film added three magical elements to the traditional story. Reeves is a half-breed who may or may not be part demon. This, however, ultimately means nothing to the story except as a vehicle to get Reeves into the film. The film also has a dragon, but the fight scene with the dragon lasts about two minutes only. The biggest addition is that the evil lord employs a shape-shifting witch to carry out his dirty work. As with the others, this has limited impact on the story. Indeed, each of these elements, while no doubt reviled by purists, struck me as adding tiny amounts of flavor to the story and made it feel even more "cultural"... so to speak. Each is consistent with Japanese fantasy, each fit into the film rather than making the film fit around them, and none of the three took the story beyond its natural boundaries. So while this made the story more fantasy than history, it left its essence entirely intact while giving you some nice surprises.

All told, I recommend this film if you are into samurai films. I thought it was well done, well shot and well told. The actors were good. The dialog was decent. The story was well-known, but also added fresh elements. I would rate this as an above-average samurai film. But if that isn’t your thing, then by all means, stay away because the film offers nothing beyond that... this is a niche film, and that's why it bombed at the theater.

Thoughts?

17 comments:

Kit said...

When I saw the trailers I thought, "Big, dumb Mummy Returns-style action flick."

Apparently, it was more.

Anonymous said...

Thoughts.

I never bothered to watch it when it came out, the marketing didn't sell it too me. At first I thought it was a Samurai film so it interested me, then it looked to be a live action anime with Neo thrown in for no good reason.

Reading the review makes me interested again, I'll keep an eye out for it.

Scott.

shawn said...

Spot on review Andrew.

I'm one of those who thought it would be Keanu and 47 Ronin taking on a demon army, but I also have seen and appreciated many a samurai flick so I did like this one too.

KRS said...

Keanu - oy ...

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, That's exactly what they sold it as. It almost looked like Japanese Jedi versus Mordor the way they sold it, but it's not that at all.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, The ads here totally made this look like live-action anime with Neo at the helm for no apparent reason. Check out the poster, even that is misleading. The poster highlights the magical elements, shows an explosion (which never happens), shows what looks to be like a monster but is really just a tattooed pirate who is in the film for all of 30 seconds, and looks like the film is about sex. None of that is true. This really is just a samurai film with some minor magic flavoring.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Shawn! I was really surprised. This really was a horrible case of mis-advertising.

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, He is out of place, but he's not bad. I would have liked it better if they had just stuck with a Japanese cast, but they wanted the big name to sell the film.

wulfscott said...

Another one I'll have to see.
Is "a beautiful look into the psyche of Japan just as some of our best Westerns offer a beautiful look into the American psyche" a reference to Seven Samurai / Magnificent Seven? With the Seven Samurai, you have a look into another culture, which inspired both imitation and new creativity to create another classic. The similarities and differences of the two are interesting. With 47 Ronin, I may understand more about Japan's cultural history and find parallels and differences in my own american cultural history. Or just consume a lot of popcorn during an enjoyable movie.
47 Ronin may not be to modern moviegoers tastes, but I never cared to see Transformers in the first place, and could not watch The Hobbit, the cgi took me right out of the film. This sounds much more to my taste.

AndrewPrice said...

wulfscott, Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven certainly are two of the best examples of each. They very much delve into the themes that define both cultures. I particularly love how Eli Wallach struggles to understand why the seven have done what they've done and why they come back.

This film (47 Ronin) does have a lot of CGI, particularly to make landscapes. So be aware of that. It didn't bother me, however, because it was rarely used to drive the action. I think you will enjoy the film.

ScottDS said...

Whoa... ;-)

This movie was on my radar only because people were expecting it to bomb... sadly, they were right. I'm not a big samurai guy but you've convinced me. I'll have to check it out one day.

And Keanu seems like a cool guy and several parties have expressed how nice and generous he is. Sure, he isn't Brando in the acting department but I'm disheartened to see so many people bash him. (Not here, but elsewhere.)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, He seems like a decent enough guy.

Let us know what you think when you watch it.

Gideon7 said...

The Magnificent Seven is a remake of Akira Kurosawa's 1954 film.

It's interesting how the eastern and western cultural ideas -- sacrifice, duty, and honor -- overlap. Perhaps it is because these concepts are universal.

AndrewPrice said...

Gideon, It is. But they also have very different feels and takes on sacrifice, duty and honor. The heroes in Samurai, for example, are much more reverent about their duties and their honor. The heroes in Seven are more reluctant in the sense of them constantly verbally disclaiming any sense of obligation even as they are clearly feeling that sense of obligation overwhelm them. It makes for an interesting contrast.

F.X. Gordon said...

Andrew,

We in the West embody these concepts very clearly and well-known: "Always Faithful" "Honor, Courage, Commitment"

Our "Samurai" are called United States Marines, and while not honorably serving a "lord" they serve the American people. How many stories do we hear that when the sounds of fire begin, the Marines rush towards the fight while other units set up defensive positions?

I believe we overlook those traits in our own people and culture that we admire in other cultures. Perhaps because we have history with just about every culture out there due to our melting pot nature.

As far as 47 Ronin go, I saw it when it hit Netflix or Amazon, one of those two. Enjoyed it but definitely understood why it didn't make a lot of money. Our Hollywood films these days seem to be aimed at 'action' films and/or anti-conservative beliefs. It takes a New Zealander (Jackson) to translate into film an Englishman's (Tolkein) opus. While I don't think politics infuses everything, there seems to be an inclination to pander in many films. Maybe it's always been that way, but when we have an aploitical film like Samurai, it is refreshing to sit back and reflect on what Gideon17 states, universal traits and how they are embodied in our society.

AndrewPrice said...

Gordon, I think a great many people embody those values every day in this country. I think they are actually bedrock values of our culture. But they aren't "cool" in Hollywood's current playbook because Hollywood's primary audience is mopey teenagers. That's who sees films in this country and whose opinions are driving film-making decisions. That's why you see whiny, conflicted stuff and so many slacker-superheroes rather than stuff with solid values and strong stories. It's sad, but that is who they generally see as their audience, and that's why they tried to sell 47 Ronin as something it is not and that's why I'm amazed they even made the film.

John Johnson said...

Sometimes it's not easy to be civilized. So let's just say that I avoid Americanized foreign culture movies like the plague. I guess I'm too old for these kind of moves. What I miss the most is the art of Sumo in communication. To speak in silence. It should be done by Japanese. Compare with dialogs in this remake. It's sheer horror to me. You'd understand if you knew that my late father was a sailer. Asia was his main destination and he brought back home the Japanese culture, which he passed on to me. When I see movies like this this installment, it's like being cut just for the fun of it.

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