How Bad Is…47 Ronin (2013)?
Is Keanu’s infamous box office flop really as bad as the numbers suggest? It depends on expectations.
47 Ronin is a timeless story, based on a true event, which has enriched Japanese literature for centuries and film for decades. 47 Ronin is also one of the biggest box office bombs of all times, losing Universal Studios nearly 100 million dollars. Like other fabled flops (King Arthur, anyone) it seems like an entirely predictable fiasco. Its star, Keanu Reeves, hadn’t delivered the kind of ticket sales needed to redeem a 175 million dollar film budget since the end of the Matrix trilogy ten years earlier. The historical fantasy epic had become a quagmire genre since The Lord of the Rings had finished up, again ten years earlier. Top it all off with the fact that 47 Ronin had never made its way to western audiences, despite having been adapted at least a half dozen times in Japan. The whole shebang winds up looking like a project designed to fail. So how bad is it?
47 Ronin (2013).
During the height of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) rules the bountiful province of Ako with a benevolent hand. He even welcomes in Kai, a mixed-ancestry child who the locals believe was raised by the spirits of the forest. As a grown man, Kai (Keanu Reeves) is a staunch defender of lord Asano, despite being shunned by the rest of the household – except for Asano’s daughter Mika (Ko Shibasaki). One of Ako’s neighbors, Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), plots to take over Ako and marry Mika with the help of witchcraft. His plan succeeds and Asano is disgraced in front of the Shogun. Rather than follow their master’s noble death by seppuku, his retainers go into exile, plotting to overthrow Kira and avenge their master one year later on his wedding day.
What Went Wrong?
- Genre Confusion: One thing many of the modern epic flops have in common is that they don’t trust their source material to sell tickets. This version of 47 Ronin wants to be Lord of the Rings much more than it wants to be the classic story of the forty-seven ronin. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. A sword and sorcery epic set in a nominal rendition of feudal Japan could be a hoot. Including all of the mythological creatures from that tradition would be fascinating, like a Shinto version of Clash of the Titans. There’s plenty there to make your movie about, but calling it 47 Ronin carries cultural baggage, whether or not you think audiences are widely read up on the subject. For one thing, a lot of its power comes from being a true story. That kinda precludes a lot of the fantasy elements, unless you want to flirt with making a Japanese flavored Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
- White Savior: Another thing historical epics can’t seem to stop themselves from doing is whitewashing the story. From Sinbad the Sailor to Gods of Egypt, there’s a persistent, pernicious drive to make a white guy the main character of a film set hundreds of miles away from the nearest white dude. 47 Ronin had the tools to defuse this trope – the fact that the movie shows that Dutch were quarantined just off the coast by the Shogun gives Kai a plausible back story. We could have had a nice exploration of the isolationist/racist motivations of feudal Japan, with a ready made parallel between Kai being shunned for his race and the samurai being shunned for their masterless status. The film flirts with this, but then goes full on white savior mode. Kai’s story is the only story that matters – he gets all the good fights, the love story, and 9/10ths of the camera time. Only three of the other samurai are named, and two of them are only important because they develop Kai’s story. He’s an audience insert, making sure that the events always particularly and personally effect a white person…despite this not being his story. The film ends with 46 Asian men being executed alongside one white guy, but we only get a close up of the white guy.
- Underrated: 47 Ronin needed to be on the gorier end of PG-13. Hell, I would say the revenge story needed a hard R. The whole affair is literally bloodless and tame, despite swords flashing and body parts falling off. You don’t have to go all Izo or Ninja Assassin on us, but it feels silly when our heroes have the equivalent of butter knives that never seem to cut.
What Went Right?
- Fantastical: I wish the film had really leaned into the fantasy elements, because they were the best realized elements, both story wise and visually. The creatures and locations are memorable. The story begins with Lord Asano hunting a mythical Kirin (think the dragon-like creatures with antlers you see as statues near temples) that felt a bit like the iconic beast hunt from Princess Mononoke. Rinku Kikuchi’s shape-shifting fox spirit manages to be menacing and unsettling in both her human and animal form. Kai fights an ogre that feels suitably impressive, and the Tengu spirits who raised him are a fascinating take on the mythological creature. All in all, I love the fantasy elements, and felt a lot of the actual revenge story was a speed bump in the way of cool monster fights.
- Let Them Fight!: Despite the rating sucking much of the gory glory out of the fights, they are mostly well choreographed and filmed. Kai’s fight with the ogre is cool, as his show down with Rinku Kikuchi‘s final form. The Tengu sequence manages to be exciting despite heavy CG, mostly because the stunt work sells the action so well. There’s an early fight (with Kai, of course) against an animated suit of armor that was fun…but they never pay it off. We see it kick the hero’s butt, and then it just gets unceremoniously dispatched later. Why not let it fight one of the other minor characters, getting two story points for the price of one!?
- Location, Location: The cinematography in 47 Ronin is delightful. It reminded of the better moments of Pirates of the Caribbean – every locale feels at once mythical and recognizable, and has a very distinctive flavor. The Dutch ships tethered together into a floating island was forboding; the Tengu forest was intimidating; the countryside was gorgeous, dotted with temples and statues amidst natural splendor. Even the contrast between the verdant realm of Lord Asano and the desolate mountain castle of Lord Kira hit their high notes on command. It’s a visually stimulating film, from start to finish.
How Bad Is It?
I can’t help but feel that almost all of 47 Ronin’s faults disappear if you don’t call the damn thing “47 Ronin.” The presence of mythical monsters, a white protagonist, and the lesser focus on the actual ronin get waived away by just changing the title. You can keep the over-arching revenge story – even Japanese studios regularly lift large segments of the famous tale to be repurposed in other movies. We have expectations of what a King Arthur story is supposed look like, and what a Robin Hood movie is going to cover. I had the same level of expectations for a 47 Ronin adaptation…and this movie met precisely none of them.
47 Ronin isn’t a bad movie…it’s just a bad adaptation of a very specific story. The cast is talented, and sometimes given the opportunity to demonstrate it. The visuals are fun and exciting, with some really nice camera work. I found myself being swept along by the action despite the story doing nothing for me, not an uncommon feeling when watching a Keanu Reeves action flick. If you don’t care about the classic tale of honor and revenge being kicked all out of shape, you’re going to probably find something to enjoy in this feudal fantasy.