The tale of the Forty-Seven Ronin is a true story, kinda sorta.
It all started in the year 1701, when the young ruler of a minor holding in Japan became enraged at the bad manners of a minor court official. He attacked the official with a knife inside the residence of the Shogun, an unforgivable offense. He was ordered on the same day to commit ritual suicide, which he did. His property, his holdings, and his wealth was also confiscated by the Shogun, which was part of the usual punishment for such matters at the time. His family was made destitute, and his sworn retainers were cast out to be made leaderless samurai with no position and no future.
The dead lord had over 300 sworn samurai in his service, and most of them either committed suicide themselves or went out and found other jobs. But a hard core corps of 47 bided their time, and waited for the uncouth court official who started the whole thing to become complacent.
After 2 years the ronin decided that the time was ripe, and the call went out. Home made armor and weapons were retrieved from secret hiding places, and the revenge bent warriors amassed for a night assault on the residence of the man who had caused the death of their master.
After a brief but fierce battle, the defenders of the residence were defeated. The court official was discovered in hiding, and beheaded. The ronin then marched across the city to lay the head on the grave of their dead master, but before leaving they first took care to extinguish all of the lamps and fires inside of the residence. They were afraid that an unattended flame would get out of control and the structure would become a blaze, which would have been a danger to the neighbors.
The grave of their master was situated on the grounds of a Buddhist temple. After presenting the head and dagger used to remove it from the body, the ronin peacefully gave themselves up to the authorities. After dithering for three months, the Shogun ordered all but one to commit ritual suicide for the murder. Their graves are popular tourist attractions.
This story is a source of great pride to many Japanese. It embodies an idealized version of the qualities that their culture holds most dear. Loyalty, self sacrifice, perseverance, and dedication shine through the telling of the tale. It helps that it was (mostly) true as well.
A movie opened yesterday which is supposedly inspired by this epic story. How did it do in capturing the spirit of the legend? Was it at least entertaining as a big budget popcorn muncher?
The short answer is that it was a complete travesty as an homage to a worthy historical incident. It also committed the unbearable sin of action movies by being both too slow and rather boring.
Want details? You will find them after the break, but be warned. Below there be spoilers!
Perpetual surfer dude Keanu Reeves portrays a mysterious “half breed” who is found running through the forest one fine day in Genroku era Japan. Instead of being killed immediately, which was standard operating procedure for anyone of less than full Japanese blood in those less enlightened times, Keanu is shown mercy by the local lord. He is allowed to live in a drafty hut in the woods, cut off from regular society while enjoying regular furtive visits by the comely daughter of the aforementioned local lord. All in all, not a bad existence for someone who should have been subjected to an immediate death sentence due to the Occident of his birth.
As in the actual historical event upon which the movie is based, the local lord is ordered by the Shogun to commit suicide due to an attack on a court official. But this time around, the attack was orchestrated by a devious and cunning concubine who moonlights as a witch!
It seems she wants to be the power behind the throne of the new Ruler of Japan, and the first step is to arrange it so the minor court official would be able to add the holdings of a minor fiefdom to his own. With the enormous power and influence that would supposedly come with conjoining these two pipsqueak properties, the next step would be to wrest the ultimate political authority from the Shogun himself!
The bewitched court official thinks he has all the bases covered. The samurai of the dead lord are cast out to make their own way in the world, and their leader is cast into a dank and damp hole in the ground for an entire year. Just to make sure that all trouble is banished from the realm of possibility, even Keanu is disposed of. He is sold to a Dutch sea captain as a slave for their shipboard gladiatorial entertainments.
The bad guy makes a mistake, however, in releasing the leader of the ronin instead of simply killing him as he lay in his stoney dungeon. As soon as he is free, the plucky former samurai starts to develop a plan. Supporters are contacted, secret meetings are arranged, and weapons are procured for the final assault. There is, however, one thing that he desperately needs to achieve victory. That necessary ingredient is the half-breed slave who, apparently, is a greater swordsman that any Japanese that ever lived!
Really, I don’t think I need to go on with this. A true story that has inspired generations of people has been turned into yet another tired cliche about how the natives need the white guy to save their bacon. The insults to Japanese culture and history just keep building, one atop the other. Although the tale of the Forty-Seven Ronin is certainly exciting enough to stand on its own, the filmmakers insist on adding poorly rendered CGI monsters and fantastical beasts in a vain attempt to capture the interest of those who enjoyed the Lord of the Rings movie franchise. Insulting as that is to the intelligence of the audience, the scriptwriters also keep on treating Asian culture in the most appallingly racist and tone deaf way.
The worst of it is on display when Keanu leads the ronin into a haunted forest to seek help from a secret sect of Buddhist monks. This ancient religion is important to untold millions of people, but it is depicted in the film as a sanctuary for murderous mutant mind-melding magicians. (I think I’ve just run out of M’s!) The monks openly admit to killing most who happen to stumble upon them, even seeming to boast about the practice. And the reason why Keanu is such a badass martial artist? It is because he was schooled as a child in the deadly skills of Buddhist assassins!
Look out! It is the next generation of killers, learning how to murder people with a single blow from their pinkie-toe!
Okay, so the screenplay is mind-numbingly idiotic. The dialogue is instantly forgettable, the characters poorly drawn and defined, the plot so stupid that I hesitate to label it such in case I offend stupid people. But this is an action film, not high art! It could all be salvaged if the fight scenes were well choreographed, the tension and suspense kept at a fever pitch. It would only be a disaster if the pacing was plodding, the combat uninteresting.
Well, guess what? I think you know what I am about to say here.
The director was obviously trying to impart to the audience a sense of how important and noble the story was. He does this by constantly resorting to rigid scenes where people stand around and Emote with a capital E. Just when you think that things are finally (Finally!) going to get interesting, they come to a screeching halt in order for the camera to move in for yet another overly talky close up. The pace was so languid that I found myself looking forward to visiting the rest room in order to make more room for sipping the Bladder Buster Special that I had purchased at the concession stand.
The final scenes where the ronin are to commit suicide were intended to be poignant and emotional, with a great deal of mournful music and impassioned speeches that are supposed to convey the nobility of the lives that were about to be snuffed out. Instead I found myself wishing that those bastards would just hurry up and slice their bellies open already, as all the places in the Men’s Room were sure to be filled up as soon as the credits rolled and the crowd rushed the exits.
I would have to say that, considering I was more excited by the prospect of gazing into a urinal than the movie screen, even the reduced price I paid for the matinee was not money well spent.