Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Style Over Substance

Watching the latest Keanu Reeves movie, 47 Ronin, was sort of a bit of surprise for me. I deliberately stayed out of watching the trailer or reading anything about the movie so I could honestly say that I came in the theater expecting absolutely nothing.

The story was inspired by the popular tale of the forty seven masterless samurai from the early 18th century after their master, Lord Asano (Min Tanaka), was forced to commit seppuku (ceremonial suicide after being disgraced for trying to kill his guest and rival, Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), in a temporary fit of madness brought on by the latter's witch/concubine). The Lord Kira takes over the land after Shogun Tsunayoshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) forces Asano's daughter, Mika (Kô Shibasaki) to marry him after a mourning period of one year. After the one year was over, Kira let Asano's second-in-command, Ôishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), out of his prison cell being sure that his spirit has been properly broken (he was thrown into prison immediately after taking over). Unknown to Kira, Ôishi had spent all that time planning his revenge for his deception. After successfully finding and freeing Kai (Keanu Reeves) from his slavery he organized the remaining soldiers of Asano and set off on a mission of revenge and to rescue Mika fom a fate worse than death.

The interior of Moronao's palace just after the ronin burst in. Their rush is met by a group of Moronao's retainers (left) while Yuranosuke directs operations seated on a military camp-stool with a small drum (right).

Keanu fit the role of his half-breed character, (the child of a peasant woman and a Dutch sailor) though I wish his character's background was explored more. One of the odd surprises in the movie is that although Keanu gets first billing in all the promotional materials, it was Hiroyuki Sanada who got the stronger role. Another is the presence of fantasy creatures in the movie. Having grown up reading devouring Japanese and Chinese mythology books I hadn't the slightest idea they would be exploring part of those myths in this movie. One of them, the Tengu was mentioned early on in the movie. I didn't believe it at first thinking this could be a reference to a group of feared bandits hiding in the forest. It turned out to be the real thing. So in effect what happened to Keanu's character as a kid when he said he was trained be the Tengu was similiar to this:

Ushiwaka-maru training with the tengu. 1859. By Kunitsuna Utagawa.
It turned out that he was abandoned in the forest as a baby because his being half-breed, as was implied in the story, brought a great deal of shame to his mother and the community. Instead of dying and joining the restless ghosts wandering through the forest, the leader of the Tengu took pity on him and adopted him as one of their own. The thing is, their view of death as something to be glorified and humans only fit to be killed, turned him against them. Though he was thoroughly trained in the art of war and black magic it was something he hid from his friends and lover, preferring to keep a low profile at least till the very end when it was needed the most.

Another mention of a familiar mythological creature is the witch who was introduced as a white fox. I assume the character was based on a fantastic creature called kitsune in Japan. But while the movie portrays the woman as originally human endowed with powerful magic to transform herself into any creature or person she wants, the kitsune is originally a nine-tailed fox who, upon reaching the age of a hundred, gains magical powers and more than enough cunning to fool those they encounter. So when she was defeated in the end I was half-expecting her to transform back into her true form.

All in all, the movie was a treat. It had elements of fantasy against the backdrop of a popular national legend, the most famous example of the samurai code of honor, bushidō, some romance and a bit of laugh-out-loud moments. Film director Carl Rinsch revealed that he sat down with Keanu Reeves about two years ago to discuss this project wondering how they were going to take on a popular Japanese tale and do it justice. Rinsch said they decided to make the story their own, making "it a Hollywood blockbuster and see it through that lens."

47 Ronin is released and distributed by United International Pictures through Solar UIP Philippines.

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