Monday, December 30, 2013
Ethnocentrism occurs when one culture appropriates something from another culture and then attempts to enhance it. The latest version of the legendary Genroku Akō incident, the tragic 18th century Japanese account of samurai warriors avenging their fallen leader, displays all the vestiges of ethnocentrism. Mind you, the Japanese produced six previous cinematic adaptations about their historic milestone before Hollywood tampered with it. For the record, those movies were “The 47 Ronin” (1941), “Chûshingura” (1958), “Chushingura” (1962), “The Fall of Ako Castle” (1978), “47 Ronin” (1994) and “The Last Chushingura (2010). Presumably, Hollywood must have felt that this constituted an ideal opportunity to produce its own spin on this venerable story. Not surprisingly, Universal Studios has taken considerable liberties with the material. Not only has the studio embroidered this renowned tale of honor with outlandish supernatural elements, specifically demons and witchcraft, but it also has added a half-breed European supporting character to the yarn. Presumably, Universal must have felt that attracting an American audience to a $200-million plus film primarily about the Japanese would only recoup its costs if a major American actor got mixed up in it. Keanu Reeves of “The Matrix” trilogy appears as the improbable white guy who sets the catastrophic events of the Akō vendetta into motion as well as dictates how the Japanese can resolve their dreadful predicament. Freshman director Carl Rinsch and “Wanted” scenarist Chris Morgan with “Snow White and the Huntsman” scribe Hossein Amini have fashioned a conventional chronicle of samurai versus samurai, with a grim finale that precludes any thought of a sequel. If you know nothing about the outrageous revisions that the filmmakers have imposed on the most celebrated instance of the samurai code of honor, you will probably enjoy this scenic saga about sword and sorcery a lot more. Imagine what any important event in American history would emerge as if a Japanese individual interfered with it and you’ll have a good idea about “47 Ronin.”
“47 Ronin” (** OUT OF ****) takes place in feudal Japan in the 1700s. Lord Asano (Min Tanaka of “Black Dawn”) of the Ako province adopts a wandering teenager, Kai (Keanu Reeves), who is the son of a British sailor and a Japanese peasant. The boy’s mother abandoned him, and demons raised him. Eventually Kai ran away from them and Lord Asano took him in as one of his own. Kai grew up with Asano’s daughter, Mika (Kô Shibasaki of “One Missed Call”), and the two become romantically attracted to each other. Meanwhile, since Kai is a half-breed, he cannot serve Lord Asano as a samurai. Instead, he functions as the equivalent of a scout. The first major scene shows him slaying a massive beast that resembles an enormous buffalo with tree branches for antlers. Naturally, another samurai warrior, Yasuno (Masayoshi Haneda of “Emperor”), claims credit for the kill, but Asano’s number one samurai, Ôishi (Hiroyuki Sanada of “The Wolverine”), knows the truth. Later, Lord Asano welcomes his supreme leader, Shogun Tsunayoshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa of “Mortal Combat”), to his palatial estate along with his chief rival, Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano of “Thor: The Dark World”), from the nearby Nagato province. The villainous Kira conspires with the aid of a demonic, shape-shifting witch, (Rinko Kikuchi of “Pacific Rim”), to drug Asano into attacking him. The witch uses a bulbous spider to deliver a drug across Asano’s lips while he is asleep so that he awakens and imagines that Kira is raping his daughter. Appalled by his own behavior, Asano follows the dictates of the Shogun in committing ritual suicide. Ôishi blames himself for letting these events transpire, especially after Kai warned him about the witch. Everybody but Asano and his daughter treats Kai with utter contempt. After Asano slashes his belly open with a knife, Ôishi completes the ordeal by decapitating his master. The heartless Shogun banishes all Asano’s samurai who are now designated as ronin. At the same time, Kira sells Kai into slavery where Kai becomes a highly prized combatant in arena showdowns. The Shogun commands Mika to marry Kira after mourning the death of her father for a year. Kira has Ôishi thrown into a dungeon where he spends the next year. Eventually, after he is released, the vengeance driven Ôishi assembles the remaining samurai and persuades Kai to join them as they set out to deal with the murderous Kira.
Compared with other samurai sages, “47 Ronin” is fairly routine stuff. The battle sequences lack grandeur, and the sword play is pretty dull. The massive ritual suicide at the end isn’t exactly what American audiences will enjoy. Imagine “Star Wars” ending with everybody eviscerating themselves at fade-out and you have a good idea what to expect. This big-budgeted spectacle also suffers from second-rate special effects. Most of the sprawling mountain backdrops are clearly computer-generated, while the swirling witch’s dragon looks like something out of a Chinatown carnival. Presumably, Rinsch and his writers decided to rely on sorcery because nobody knows for certain why Asano attacked his guest in real-life. The way that Asano is poisoned is reminiscent of how the Japanese girl died at the hands of Ninjas in the James Bond movie “You Only Live Twice.” In “You Only Live Twice,” a ninja hid in the rafters, dangled a thread above the heroine’s mouth, and dribbled poison down it. The witch in “47 Ronin” behaves less spectacularly than the witch in “Snow White and the Huntsman” that co-scripter Hossein Amini penned. The art direction, production design, and cinematography make “47 Ronin” look more impressive than its ersatz plot. Interestingly enough, this film didn’t impress Japanese audiences, and Universal has already written it off as a financial disaster. Ultimately, “47 Ronin” qualifies as a tolerable movie with guts but little gusto.