Tuesday, 24 December 2013

47 Ronin (2013)

Like A Christmas Carol in the west, the Japanese never seem to run out of adaptations and re‑tellings of the Chushingura. Marking Hollywood’s first attempt at the classic, 47 Ronin is designed primarily as a lavish spectacle and fantasy-adventure for a generation of western audiences whose exposure to Japanese history and literature is mediated by titles from the 6th and 7th generation video game consoles.

47 Ronin does follow the bare skeleton of the Chushingura premise. After a Japanese samurai lord is sentenced to ritual suicide following a violent outburst, his loyal lieutenants avenge his death in defiance of orders, succeed, and are allowed to take their own lives in honour in recognition of their adherence to the old samurai code. That much is unchanged.

Yet in the translation to blockbuster spectacle, the radical script takes the Chushingura out of its historical, cultural, and philosophical underpinning, cuts out the entire second act (i.e. the lieutenants putting on a show of dissolution and lack of moral will to seek revenge), and drops the characters into a setting that, despite the Japanese visual themes (the anachronistic, if not ahistorical costumes, sets, and mythical creatures that seem to have escaped from a late Playstation 2/3 title), is a straight-up generic fairytale land with a generic “Return of the Good King” fantasy narrative with Keanu as the walk-on badass in the tradition of Toshiro Mifune from the 1962 Chushingura.

Students of Japanese culture and history will no doubt be annoyed at the whitewashing of the samurai lord’s disgrace (yes, the lieutenants are so loyal they avenge a lousy boss whose punishment was probably quite deserved), the historical villain upgrade of the tale’s antagonist (who lives in an Evil Lair in the Mountains of Perpetual Winter), and the wildly ahistorical costumes (all the clans seem to wear mass produced, colour-coordinated, sigiled uniforms), and by the transformation of Lord Asano’s heir from younger brother to daughter. The overall effect? The byword of Bushido becomes a throwaway element of a very generic film that has disparate Japanese elements that don’t quite come together, except when the ensemble cast reenact key scenes from the story (most notably the signing of the oath of vengeance).

But what disparate Japanese elements there are! There are references to James Clavell’s Shogun, Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, The Ballad of Narayama, various Japanese folktales, and even a shout-out to fantasy classics like Conan the Barbarian and Pirates of the Caribbean. The fantasy blockbuster gimmick would have paid off had the film enough budget to fulfil its original script. As it stands, 47 Ronin makes a good exotic Hollywood action fantasy but not quite a great modern Japanese update or retelling of Chushingura or a side-story.

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