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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
December 2013

47 Ronin

Mixed signals

Confused, shallow take on '47 Ronin' offers only brief glimpses of a distinct new interpretation

47 Ronin
Universal Pictures
Director: Carl Rinsch
Screenplay: Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ko Shibasaki, Tabanobu Asano, Masayoshi Haneda, Jin Akanishi, Min Tanaka and Rinko Kikuchi
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 58 minutes
December 25, 2013
(out of four)

The characters in 47 Ronin exist in a perfectly normal, perfectly classical version of 18th Century Japan, except for when every now and then they have to face off against a giant imaginary CGI creature. You know, the historical Japanese stuff - tradition, honor, samurai, shogun, enormous antlered monsters attacking you, temples, horses, swordfighting...

Oh, what's that? Go back to which one? Oh, right, the enormous antlered monsters attacking you. Yes, apparently there were a bunch of them running around back then, without explanation, and no one seemed to bat an eyelash. Or so it goes for the folks in this movie, whose simple and traditional lives are periodically interrupted by an unexplained visit from something out of a storybook.

In his feature debut, director Carl Rinsch takes on a seminal piece of Japanese history, blending the historical with the mythological by telling a classical story in the language (cinema and computer animation) of our modern-day legends. As an experiment, it can be viewed as a natural continuation of a long-standing custom - reimagining old tales in modern contexts - or, more cynically, as a depressing reminder that seemingly every story, no matter how old or time-honored, now has to be transformed into CGI spectacle.

Whether the final product works or not (OK fine, it doesn't), I'll try to lean toward the former, and give Rinsch the benefit of the doubt - primarily because the film's impulses appear to be much more experimental than the final product suggests. As it stands in this version - with its streamlined story and tidy runtime of just under two hours - 47 Ronin is a film completely at odds with itself, a standard-fare samurai epic intermittently injected with bursts of the magical and bizarre.

It's been widely reported that the film - which was originally scheduled for release in 2012 - underwent a dramatic re-edit after a tumultuous production. Whatever the reasoning, it feels like there's a wholly different kind of movie - one that more boldly embraces the coexistence of Rinsch's disparate stylistic influences - buried in here somewhere.

It seems like this version is merely tolerating the presence of its fantasy elements, throwing up its hands in resignation at the sight of every monster, giant, ogre, witch and dragon, and otherwise ignoring any hint of the supernatural or fantastical. Kill a monster, fight a giant - no matter what it is, the film pretends not to notice anything out of the ordinary. The characters follow suit, reacting with absolute stoicism. The more fantasy-tinged scenes that remain exist by necessity of the plot (almost as if the studio had to leave them in just so the movie still made narrative sense), but the elements themselves - the creatures, the giants - don't matter at all.

The only one that does is the shape-shifting witch played by Rinko Kikuchi, the only member of the cast who seems to be having any fun with the material. Identified by her different-colored eyes (one blue, one gold) whether she appears in human or animal form (most often as a white fox), the Witch is also the only fantastical presence in the movie that is ever put to any use. Indeed, she's the most worthwhile thing about this largely worthless endeavor, a haunting force of nature who pulls the strings for the villainous shogun against whom the ronin (masterless samurai) eventually seek revenge.

Kikuchi (who's been great in such varied roles as Babel, Norwegian Wood, The Brothers Bloom and Pacific Rim) gives us a witch who is as seductive and erotic as she is scary. In one key scene, her knowing eyes and playfully vengeful body language are much more threatening than the CGI dragon she morphs into moments later. And as with so many good villains, there's a wit to her malevolence - a charming, duplicitous sparkle in her eye - that makes her captivating to the point of drowning out the noble warriors she's doing her best to ruin.

What I mean to say is, it's probably not a good idea to have an actor like Keanu Reeves facing off against someone as charismatic as Kikuchi in a scene where we're supposed to be rooting for Keanu. Despite his reputation, Reeves does very well in certain roles, and given the circumstances he's not bad in 47 Ronin - he's just no match for what Kikuchi's doing. It doesn't hurt that his character - Kai, a half-Japanese, half-British outcast taken in as a child by the samurai master Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) - is never given much to do but stand around looking contemplative and occasionally go fight someone. There's a tepid romance between Kai and Asano's daughter, Mika (Ko Shibasaki), and an even more uninvolving bitterness/rivalry between Kai and the samurai Yasuno (Masayoshi Haneda), but none of it ultimately matters much.

All character work is pushed aside for what amounts to a fairly generic samurai epic that's almost unnervingly earnest in its reverence toward the ideals inherent to the historical tale it's telling, while also trying to attempt something much more outlandish. Rinsch and his creative team (including production designer Jan Roelfs) - imbue the story with some rich visual ideas that the editing and storytelling never allow to fully flourish. There's a particular way they like to identify characters and emotions by color that's distinctly comic book-like. And we see glimpses of some bold choices in the art direction (namely the elaborate body art and piercings of certain figures) during a sequence in which Kai is sold into slavery.

But ultimately it feels like two visions (if not more) clashed on this one, and the final result - as is so often the case - is a movie that feels like neither one nor the other.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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