When 300 was a huge success, it was clear that the sequel to box office magic for the next few years would be to use a number to demonstrate an outnumbered group, comprise that group of historical warriors, and let them loose. After all, The Deadliest Warrior has a few seasons out now, right? There is plenty to draw from. So, of course, when the gimmick cut straight to ronin – one of the most badass historical warrior sects – and the numbers cut straight down to 47 – it seemed we were in for a treat, right?
Which isn’t exactly what we got. To start with, the 47 Ronin in question could have been 5 Ronin or 300 Ronin, and it wouldn’t have made any difference to the story. The fact that it is loosely based on a true story is the only reason why “47” was significant in any way, and if it weren’t for the grab for 300 dollars, Ronin would have been a better title for the movie. Well, that and perhaps name recognition for those who are aware of the first two films by this name. And to those who don’t think the titles are similar enough for the comparisons I’m making to 300, it might be worth mentioning that the trailers in front of 47 Ronin were 300: Rise of an Empire and The Legend of Hercules. The connection between the first trailer and 300 is obvious, while the second had a trailer that did its damned best to capture everything about the movie that could possible attract fans of 300. Everybody in the movie industry knew exactly what they were doing with this title, and nobody tried to hide it.
Which brings us to the movie. 47 Ronin is not a film in the mode of 300. Not remotely. There is some scenery-eating, and there is some combat, but this is generally a slowly paced story in the mode of a storybook fairy tale. This is the kind of story that you tend to see characters reading as framing stories of films or bedtime stories for characters in them. Normally, these stories are somewhat jarring because when you cut to the characters, you realize that they are much more developed and interesting than they are in the story that the character narrating would lead you to believe. In 47 Ronin, that’s not the case. There is just enough development to motivate the characters: to make Kai an outcast with mysterious skills, to make Oishi seek revenge, to show that Kira and Mizuki are evil, and to show that Mika and Kai are in love.
Despite the weak characters, I rather enjoyed this setting. This is mythical fuedal Japan, where Tengu, oni, and witches can be found. From this spawns the most interesting character: Mizuki. Mizuki is a witch, with eyes of two different color. Although I can’t find verification of this, I’ve heard of that as a common method of recognizing Kitsune – fox demons – which is very fitting, considering that we are first introduced to Mizuki in the form of a white fox. The “witch” isn’t any more developed than the other characters…unless you look at her from a social viewpoint. Every character, with some minor variation, strictly follows the heirarchal rules of feudal Japan. This makes sense, when you consider that every character is either a noble or the servant of nobles. Mizuki, on the other hand, doesn’t care. She breaks the natural order, speaking familiarly with her lord and sitting in a more casual way than even anime children can be seen doing, while in the presence of nobles. She makes sexually aggressive motions toward Mika for the sole purpose of proving that nobody will make any move to stop her. She flouts her power, not by using it in flashy ways (although there are some interesting effects surrounding her), but by letting her body language show that she is the most fearless person in the room. This gives her a surprising amount of entertainment value: action, comedy, Fantasy, and even mild eroticism, for such a bland film.
And yes, while I can praise the visuals (which I was a little shocked to discover were not worked on by Industrial Light & Magic), this film is bland. The action scenes are entertaining, but they are few and far between. The characters are not particularly worth following. An hour of this film could easily have been retooled, either for more action, more effects, or more character, but instead what we got was a lot of lingering shots of the actors and effects. This could also have been retooled, in an R rated film, but there’s just something about ritual seppuku in PG-13 that takes something out of it. Maybe because all that can be seen is a man from the chest up with a look of pain on his face, and then the scene ends.
Besides a storybook tale, another thing this film reminds me of is the live action “gritty” retellings of Disney tales we have been getting. If the two villains were combined into one, this could easily have been Aladdin set in feudal Japan: replace the “street rat” with the outcast half-breed and force “Jasmine”’s love interest to kill himself instead of improsining him, and it’s all set. There was even a scene during the climax that could easily have been inspired by either Jafar turning into a snake, or Maleficent turning into a dragon. Finally, there is a fat man among the Ronin who was somewhat reminiscent of the fat man in Mulan, only with less characterization.
Ultimately the best thing about 47 Ronin was its visual effects, while the worst thing about it were the writing…and the concept. Why it is still felt in this day and age that a big-budget film requires a white lead in order to bring in viewers is completely baffling to me. Add this to the fact that the original story included no white men, and you get an uncomfortable addition. In fact, I would have found this film much more interesting if it were in Japanese with English subtitles; at least then I wouldn’t have spent parts of the film wondering why certain characters had strong accents (arguably stereotypical) while others spoke perfect English, despite all coming from the same region (and all speaking Japanese in-story). The writing, of course, can be blamed for the fact that this is a film that had enormous amounts of potential, but ultimately didn’t do anything to actually make use of any of it, instead relying on a boring story that changed the real one in very significant ways yet didn’t change it enough to inject any character or personality. There are moments of entertainment that can be gotten out of this, but for any particular draw I can point out a better movie to watch. Myself, I’m waiting for the unrated DVD with uncut execution sequences.
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