Movie Review: '47 Ronin' (2013)

Reports, such as Variety's on the highly troubled production of this martial arts fantasy film has plagued the film since its onset. There seems to be an assumption that the developments during the production stage can be indicative of a troubled final product. In the case of “47 Ronin” all of its making-of struggles have not affected the film’s overall quality. Vibrant cinematography, and competent special effects keep the film on track visually.

“47 Ronin” tells an extremely fictionalized account of a true story (also known as the Ako incident) in which a troop of 18th century samurai took revenge after they were made Ronins (master-less) following the death of their master.

Hollywood's telling keeps the bones of the true story, while infusing it with fantasized mystical dragons, sorcery, and a “Wuthering Heights”-style storyline involving an outsider played by Keanu Reeves. Disturbing the integrity of the original story is problematic, as this is one of Japan’s most sacred stories. It might be considered troubling that its massive exposure to the Western world is not being conveyed in its truest form.

Directed by first time helmer, Carl Rinsch, the pressure to completely capture such an important story in Japanese history is evident. Where he and the film succeed, is in telling the grim side of the story. The key points are left undisturbed, and for viewers expecting a light, adventure fantasy, they will be vastly disappointed.

The ceremonial suicide of seppuku is depicted with disquieting enough detail to portray what's happening, without being overtly graphic. In this regard, the film pushes the limits of its PG-13 rating, as it could be incredibly disturbing to younger (or older) viewers.

As a whole, "47 Ronin" tackles grave, and heavy subject matter that is in no way toned down. Despite the presence of CGI dragons, and similar fantasy villains throughout, flesh and blood humans remain the film’s greatest villains, a much scarier reality than CGI baddies could present.  

"47 Ronin" deserves accolades for not avoiding, or glossing over its ending. While repackaged, the essential story points are intact. There is no "Hollywood ending" as a result. For those looking to learn about Japanese culture, "47 Ronin" is effective, though Japan's own works provide far greater insight.

Hiroyuki Sanada's performance (“The Wolverine”) as the leader of the Ronin is especially well-done. Sanada, who American audiences might be familiar with from roles on the TV series, “Lost” and “Revenge” (he was the original Takeda), brings his grand presence to the screen like always. His sincere ability to cut through to the heart of a character, and innately portray a leader, serves the film well.

Another standout is Rinko Kikuchi, who turns in a richly villainous performance as the film's beguiling witch/enchantress. Keanu Reeves, meanwhile, remains consistent with the other performances of his career.

The box office results of “47 Ronin” are clearly not the consequence of poor filmmaking, performances, or visuals. The story is unflinching, and may be uncomfortable for those expecting a popcorn treat. The film’s message is important, and its depicted heroes, brave.

Most times a character in Hollywood marches into what appears to be a doomed scenario, and we know they will return mostly unscathed. For “47 Ronin,” its predestined fate of inevitable sorrow is unflinchingly captured, and with great emotional resonance. Valiant to the end, "47 Ronin" stays true to the spirit of the courageous men it depicts. Hopefully that will be the film’s ultimate legacy. Rating: 7.5/10

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