My brother and I have this thing where we go and find what we expect to be a really crappy movie (or one we’re simply cautious about) and pay the absolute cheapest price we can to see it in the theater. We do this any chance we get and as I’m currently “job seeking” (the more positive way of saying unemployed) and he was off school for the holidays, we decided to go hit a theater for a matinee showing of 47 Ronin and I’m so glad I didn’t pay full price for it.
47 Ronin is based on a historical event. The movie differs from history in that it added a magical/demon aspect by having Lord Kira be influenced by a kitsune who uses magic at various points to provide reasons for events that happened in the historical incident. For instance, historically Lord Kira was attacked because of his rudeness, after prolonged abuse, drove Lord Asano to anger and Asano attacked him with a dagger; in the movie Lord Kira is still a smug, rude ass but the kitsune uses magical spider venom to fog Asano’s mind, making him believe that Kira was raping his daughter, so he attacks Kira. The kitsune is able to change shapes throughout the movie, appearing as a fox, a woman, and later a bearded dragon.
The movie also introduces the “halfbreed” character Kai, played by Keanu Reeves. Kai is the halfbreed son of a Dutch trader and a Japanese peasant, left to die in a forest, saved from death by tengu (read freaky bird mutant people), and taught how to murder people with super fast sword magic. Kai, of course, is mistreated and abused by Lord Asano’s samurai because he’s a halfbreed (something we’re told constantly) even though Lord Asano has more or less taken Kai in and occasionally employs him as a tracker. Of course Kai eventually wins over the samurai, earning their respect and a significant role in the plot to kill Kira. Kai, who occasionally gets to be a bad ass by accident, is in love with Lord Asano’s daughter Mika, who loves him in return.
Let me say two things.
One, I’m really, really tired of the meme “White guy saves the day” (or in this case half-white). It annoyed the piss out of me in The Last Samurai and it annoyed the piss out of me here, especially as, in many ways, both movies make the participation of the white guy necessary for any plot or plan to have success; in 47 Ronin the ronin are without quality weapons and so Kai takes them to the tengu forest where he manages to arm them with special tengu magic swords of non-specificity. Does Keanu now have a clause in his contracts that he must be The Chosen One(tm) in all roles?
Two, considering that the story of the forty-seven ronin is one of the most well-known Japanese tales regarding bushido and is pretty epic all on its own, I really don’t get why they decided to add a supernatural element to the movie. It didn’t really improve anything, didn’t spice up the film IMO, just put in some not-so-great CG and a villain character (the kitsune) who was kind of ridiculous in an over-the-top fashion. Maybe if they hadn’t inserted a white guy into a purely and much-loved Japanese story it would’ve done better in Japan; it certainly couldn’t have made it any worse in the States.
The one thing I am happy about regarding this movie is that The Chosen One(tm) doesn’t live. In both the historical account and the movie, even though they do the honorable thing according to bushido by avenging their master’s death, the forty-seven ronin still commit seppuku because their act, in the way they go about it, is criminal. Kai goes right along with everything right to the very end, of course doing the whole “I’ll track you down and find you in whatever life comes after this” cliche to Mika.
You probably weren’t going to see it in the theater but do yourself a favor and don’t. Just don’t. Maybe don’t even rent it, it certainly won’t add any quality to any samurai-movie collection you might have.