While Western culture has permeated the East, the reverse is not true, for while Hollywood blockbusters regularly play to the packed theatres of the Orient, sometimes with scenes tailored to that market (The Dark Knight featured scenes in Hong Kong, large sections of The Wolverine were set in Tokyo), how few of the many films produced each year in Japan, China, Korea, Thailand and their neighbours play in international venues? Rather it is more common for those few films judged to be of interest are remade, transposed to more familiar locations, their mystery and flavour rendered palatable to the cheap tastes of the West.
Featuring dragons and ghosts, magic and Japanese history, melodrama and a traditional story lumbered with a very modern and obvious subtext about the acceptance of outsiders and their differences, the debut feature of director Carl Rinsch has taken a different approach.
Based on the story of the revenge of the forty seven Ronin, inspired by true events from the early 18th century, it is a Japanese tale with a native cast, yet told in a Hollywood style with a distinctly Western soundtrack, the Japanese cast speaking English, enriched with fantasy elements and, most incongruous, a Hollywood star in a lead role which has been created solely for this adaptation.
Keanu Reeves is Kai, adopted as a child by the noble Lord Asano but regarded as a half-breed outsider, his love for Asano’s daughter a forbidden secret, hidden from her family and from the audience who are forced to suffer painful looks exchanged between the two which substitutes for any real involvement.
Miscast and largely peripheral to the story, standing off to the side, silent, or offscreen in disgraced exile, Reeves is a familiar name to sell the film to multiplexes, but he’s little more than an extra in his own film. While there is an occasional scene to bring him to the front or to bestow importance upon his character, it is not earned, and Kai leads the final scenes as an installed hero rather than an organic one.
The Japanese cast try their best to squeeze any spark of life from their pompous and wooden dialogue, with every single line explanatory as though the audience were idiots. With no plot point which isn’t laid bare, it is almost as if the script has been translated by someone who barely spoke the language.
With their unquestionable enthusiasm and acting skills, it would have been more convincing for all had they been allowed to speak in subtitled Japanese rather than forced to act in English. As Oishi, leader of group of rogue samurai, only the respected actor Hiroyuki Sanada makes an impression, his dignity and nobility bringing his character closest to the audience.
The main antagonist, Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), whose manipulations cost the life of Lord Asano, is less convincing than a Disney villain, his schemes carried out by the witch Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi), more ridiculous than scary as she shapeshifts between a badly rendered white fox which announces itself as a digital addition or crazy spider hair lady before becoming a traditional Japanese dragon in the final scenes, giving the impression that Keanu Reeves is fighting the spirit of the Kohaku River from Spirited Away.
It is not that 47 Ronin is not an impressive production, with a large cast in period costume and expansive sets, sufficient to give it an epic feel, yet the transitions between the locations are shown as sweeping fantasy landscapes, obviously computer generated and totally out of keeping with the rest of the film, as though the story feels it needs to be The Lord of the Rings in order to compete, save for one scene where it chooses to be Pirates of the Caribbean instead.
Without any idea how to combine these different themes and genres, the characters become puppets thrown from one scene to another, but it is a costume drama without any weight or importance behind it. Hampered by the inexperience of the director, only the final assault on Lord Kira under cover of a theatrical production has any innovation, involvement or, crucially, excitement; despite his aspiration, Akira Kurosawa he is not.