“47 Ronin” is based on a true tale about samurai who went to insane lengths to exact their revenge when their daimyo was disgraced. Masterless, they pretended they were drunkards and craftsmen, all in a bid to avenge their master’s honor. When the plan did go into effect, all but one of the samurai died, judged too young by the Emperor to commit seppuku. “47 Ronin” is very, very, very loosely based on the original tale, and features far more monsters, magic, Zombie Boys, and Keanu Reeves than the original source material.
The shame of it all is that the original 47 Ronin tale is an engaging story of fatalistic honor without any embellishment. But this is Hollywood after all, who associates Keanu with all things Asian – in the same way Tom Cruise somehow ended up being “The Last Samurai,” Reeves is thrust into Japanese folklore. The scriptwriters at least worked hard to make him fit with the cultural aspects of a mythical Japan – he was trained by the Tengu, the long-nosed bird people who supposedly taught martial arts in the mountains. Folklorists have sometimes associated Tengu with Westerners who may have settled in the mountains in Japan, so it makes as much sense as any other explanation that Reeves’ character hails from there.
The story hews loosely to the original tale, except that the bad guy has a witch at his disposal (who is actually a shapeshifter), and supernatural foes abound: animated suits of armor, the aforementioned tengu swordsmen, and of course oriental dragons. You get the sense that this film was meant to be an Asian version of "Lord of the Rings," and at least when it comes to special effects it succeeds.
But it’s not a film about Keanu Reeves. American audiences aren’t likely to be happy with what amounts to an ancient Japanese form of suicide-by-cop, in which our collective 47 ronin willingly go to their deaths by flouting authority with the sole purpose of avenging their master’s honor. This is a beautiful film, but it’s not an upbeat one.
Also, Zombie Boy speaks a handful of words and appears for less than 30 seconds in the movie. His inclusion is cynical marketing at its finest, which is perhaps part of why audiences punished “47 Ronin” so severely. It’s a film marketed all wrong trying too hard to gloss over a strong story at its core. Wrong audience, wrong approach, but still a visually engaging film.
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