REVIEW: 47 Ronin (2013)

A half-British half-Japanese villager must aid 46 ronins to exact revenge on the lord who took their master’s life.


By Raymond Arcega
Last updated on

47 Ronin

Year: 2013
Country: USA
Language: English
Genres: Action, Historical, Fantasy
Director: Carl Rinsch

47 Ronin centers on the former soldiers of Lord Asano (Tanaka Min), who, while receiving a visit from the Shogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is tricked by Lord Kira (Asano Tadanobu) and his Witch (Kikuchi Rinko) into drawing his sword and attacking royal guests.

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Punishable by death, the Shogun allows Lord Asano to regain his honor by committing seppuku and die a warrior’s death. To prevent any further bloodshed, the Shogun forbids any of Lord Asano’s followers from exacting any revenge. However, the ban won’t stop the likes of Oishi (Sanada Hiroyuki), the resident half-British half-Japanese Kai (Keanu Reeves), and the band of Asano’s loyal men.

47 Ronin is based on the true story Chuushingura, which has seen countless remakes throughout the decades (some of which Sanada has already starred on). This English language remake not only is the first one made in Hollywood, but one that takes several (obvious) departures from the original.

For one, the spotlight of the traditional lead character Oishi (Sanada) shines on a new character made exclusively for the film: Kai (Reeves), because Hollywood still thinks it’s a thing to cast a white dude to lead an ethnic cast.

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Also, if we check our history books, it sure will not say that dragons, demons and witches existed back in the Edo Period (1603-1867). But hey, in order to appreciate 47 Ronin, we have to forget its historical origins and watch it for what it is: a fantasy popcorn muncher.

Visually, the film is quite impressive. Everything from the sets and costume designs deserve admiration. The costumes, which take the clothing of the period and remix it with style, were created by Penny Rose, known for her work in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. The CG was well done too, showcasing not only different creatures but also enhancing the chanbara, or sword fighting, sequences.

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For a connoisseur of theater popcorn just looking for a visual treat, 47 Ronin would be an ideal film. However, the CG doesn’t make up for the amount of underdeveloped and underused Japanese star power the film has at its disposal. The one to feel the most sorry for is Asano Tadanobu, whose Lord Kira goes from being introduced as a crazy and power-hungry madman, to someone who everyone forgets about because of the film’s time mismanagement.

There was also so much time devoted to hyping up Keanu’s made-up character that everyone forgets that the main conflict is supposed to be between Oishi and Kira. So, when the final battle between those two starts happening, it gets brushed aside like a fight between sidekicks.

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But indeed, that underdeveloped character rivalry was nothing compared to the underdeveloped romance between Keanu and Shibasaki Kou‘s characters, Kai and Mika. Both the girl and this “romance” were also made up for the film, because Hollywood can’t make a fantasy epic without including scenes of face-sucking.

All attempts to make the relationship feel real was done through cheesy Star Wars prequel trilogy-level dialog, which of course didn’t even exist in Japan at that time (and some may argue, even in modern day). Whether it be because of language barriers between the actors or because there wasn’t enough screen time to develop the relationship, the romance between Kai and Miku was as flat as a pancake.

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There was little to no time to really let the audience connect with the ronin who weren’t part of the main cast. Usually, even in a large group of nameless supporting characters, fans would be able to pick out favorites among the group. The funny fat guy, for example, or the dude always talking about girls, or the guy who can do amazing tricks with his sword, or the cold and cool bad ass. However, the supporting ronin in this film were all but nameless, with the only one worth paying attention to dying partway into the film.

Fans and buffs of Japan and its culture might find themselves snickering or nitpicking at some of the ways the country’s culture was portrayed on screen. Granted, Sanada and the rest of the Japanese cast and crew were around to ultimately decide how their culture was presented, but at times it was hard to figure out how much of Hollywood was in a given scene. It may be picky to say that actual tengu lived in the mountains and not in the forests, and look drastically different than the Shaolin monk Voldemorts that the film featured.

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It might also be picky to question how quickly Oishi can ride on horseback from Ako, which is located in present day Hyogo prefecture, all the way to the “Dutch Island” Dejima, which is located all the way in Nagasaki, and back in the short amount of time he did. But hey, this is a fantasy epic; that horse must have had NOS installed.

But one thing is for sure, and everyone who has ever lived in Japan can relate to and laugh about – Keanu, the gaijin, being called and treated like a “devil”.


Watch this film…

…if you want to imagine Keanu saying “Woah” every time he cuts something with his sword.


About the Author

Raymond Arcega

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Follow Ray on Twitter and chat with a fellow cinema nut. He also tweets about tokusatsu, assorted geekery, and life and adventures in Japanland.