My Two Cents: 47 Ronin

RoninWitchThere are only two reasons I’m likely to review a movie. One: it’s a small movie I enjoyed that deserves a bigger audience. Two: it’s a big movie that defies expectations where I see people missing the point and piling on the hate-train. With the pretty big ad campaign, you can guess which category 47 Ronin falls into for me. But honestly, I probably wouldn’t have decided to review it until I saw the review Charlie Jane Anders posted on

I’m okay with a negative review. I get that Keanu has his haters. And fantasy adventures can be a tough sell. Plus, the director was pulled from the project and editing process so the studio could re-cut the movie (which I’ll get into). But the core argument seemed to be stated early on in the review, that it took this historical story of the 47 Ronin and, in her own words:

…preserves the bones of this storyline — except that it has to make room for two elements that do not belong in this film at all:

1) Keanu Reeves, playing a random foundling who’s an outcast because of his “half-breed” heritage and because he was raised by demons who look sort of like Buddhist Voldemorts. (I am so not kidding about that.)

2) A whole fantasy storyline in which Kira is in league with an evil shapeshifting Sexy Witch, who wants to help him take over Japan.

Therein lies my problem with the review. How can you be critical of a fantasy movie for having fantasy elements in it?

Is 47 Ronin a great movie?

No. With the level of studio muckery that went on, there was no way that this movie had a chance of being great. But it’s a good movie (better than The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug). A fun movie. And, I’ll just say it, an important movie.

Let’s start by addressing the two points raised in the review that prompted my counter-review, because it speaks to the core of “What is Historical Fantasy?”

The basic story of 47 Ronin is a matter of historical fact, a key moment in the Genroku Era of Japan, and happened around 1701-1702. It’s been dramatized/filmed six times before this, but all in Japan. Someone wanting a historically accurate version of the story without the fantasy elements would be well advised to watch Chûshingura from 1958. Or really, take your pick. All the versions I can seem to find retell the story without a single sexy shapechanging witch or dragon in sight. But the purpose of historical fantasy is to overlay or interweave magical elements into historical event, ideally without compromising the integrity of the historical event itself. The novels of Tim Powers are an excellent example of this (Last Call being a personal favorite), or even the movie Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.

If you saw a single trailer for the movie 47 Ronin, you had to know this was a fantasy. This was no secret, no bait and switch. Why was there a whole fantasy storyline? Because this was a historical fantasy. And why was the character of Kai, as played by Keanu Reeves in it? Because he was part of that fantasy storyline, there to help set up and resolve that fantasy element while allowing the historical integrity of the core 47 Ronin story to remain intact. As for the “Buddhist Voldemorts,” they were Tengu, a demon from Japanese mythology, originally described as being part human, part avian. The design, with the very birdlike eyes and a nose which suggested a beak without being beak-like, was incredibly well done.

Who is this Voldemort you keep talking about?
Who is this Voldemort you keep talking about?

I can’t expect everyone who sees this movie, not even film reviewers, to know what a Tengu is. But I would like to hope that they could trust the film makers to know what the fuck they’re talking about. Maybe that’s just me. (edit: It has been pointed out to me that trusting film makers to know what they’re doing is a historically dodgy proposition. Personally, I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise.)

But this touches on why this is an important movie. The power of Historical Fantasy is that it introduces people to history and cultures that they might not otherwise have known about. And in this, 47 Ronin does a great job. While the voice over and opening and closing title cards are a bit clumsy, I point to the studio re-cut of the film being the likely culprit there.

And as for Keanu, thank goodness for him. And I’m not just saying that because he’s a genuinely wonderful and humble person.

You know what Hollywood doesn’t make? $200 million action movies without a single recognizable white star in it, that’s what. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Hollywood movie with so many Japanese actors in it. The vast majority of the cast was Japanese. The creepy skeleton tattoo’d guy in the posters and trailers (and yes, that’s actual tattoo work), he’s in one scene and has one line, and other than a few random background guys in that scene, it’s an all Asian affair. And far from being the Magical White Guy Here to Save the Day, Keanu has a much smaller role than the trailers would have you believe. In the original cut, he had maybe 15 minutes of the movie. But the producers were unhappy with a big budget movie where their one name actor was minimized. So they…fixed it. I’d love to see the original cut. I can’t help but think it would be a much better version than this.

Even with the bulked up Keanu part, it’s still solid fun. But don’t be deceived by the sadly misleading commercials–it’s not really his movie though I enjoyed him in this role.

It seems like we’re constantly chastising Hollywood for only telling Euro-centric stories with Euro-centric casts. They got this one right, whether that was their intention or not. 47 Ronin does not feel like the same, tired fantasy films we’ve been seeing for decades, and it should be enjoyed, hell, celebrated for that. It does not have an entirely predictable narrative structure. It’s a solid ensemble cast. It’s visually beautiful. And it avoids a cliche Hollywood ending. This is a decidedly Japanese fantasy epic. It just happened to come out from an American studio.

Worth seeing in theaters, but skip the 3D as it really doesn’t add anything.

One thought on “My Two Cents: 47 Ronin

  1. I agree 100% with your assessment of historical fiction. I have always been interested in Chinese history. But for a lay person, the sweep and scope of it is daunting. Then came Dr. Cha Leung-yung and his epic fantasy series set into the historical backdrop of the Ming, Shun, and Qing dynasties. So many of the characters were actual people that I sometimes started to believe they may have been great martial warriors with mystical skill. To this day, I feel I remember as much of those historical periods from his novels as I do from my university courses.

    Then there is this line from Charlie Jane Anders’ review: “. . . things are simultaneously over-the-top and subdued.” I wonder if she’s been to Japan or knows anything of Japanese culture? Even though things are far more interesting in modern times, this is exactly a description of how the culture of Japan is. She notes this as a critique but someone familiar with Japan and its mythical history would have applauded this aspect.

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