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Visual Fantasy Sweeps Up Viewers In Samurai Tale: Movie Review of 47 Ronin

by Nancy Chan

Film Critic

It seems dragons are the flavours of the season, what with Smaug’s desolation in the second installation of The Hobbit trilogy and now in 47 Ronin, a retelling of the ancient Japanese story of the masterless warriors.  Whether you call it magical irrealism or folk legend, 47 Ronin has all the elements of a fairy tale, and a Hollywood action star to bring it together

The film is based on the story of Samurai warriors in 18th century Japan who lose their master and thus their place in society, becoming outcasts or ronin.   They seek to regain their honour and their place and not incidentally, the right to die as a samurai, by committing seppuku.

Keanu Reeves is Kai, a mysterious mixed-race outsider who excels in fighting but exists as a sort of servant to the proud samurai warriors.  There’s a beautiful princess, a beneficent and honourable feudal lord, a grasping and evil prince bent on seizing the overlord’s lands and his daughter.  And then there are the Ronin.  We’re never quite sure if there are actually 47, as few of them have distinct personalities nor does the film take time to develop their stories.

Reeves’s presence in films is often maligned as wooden; in this film, his stoicism serves him well.  As Kai, he is humiliated by the samurai, forbidden to join their ranks despite his obvious talents and bravery as a fighter, called a half-breed and eventually sold and forced to fight in a cage against various threatening combatants.  He gets one shirtless scene, several fighting opportunities and eventually the love and devotion of the princess.

Other stand-outs: Hiroyuki Sanada as Oishi, the head of the Ronin, who brings a steely soulfulness to the fairy tale, and Rinko Kikuchi as a witch who is suitably devious, insinuating herself into her scenes with all the skills of the serpent she eventually transforms into.

It’s not a pure samurai film as such, trying to be all things to all people: there’s the hopeless love between the princess and Kai, of different social stations, the quest by the ronin to obtain weaponry and meet various challenges along the way in a kind of fellowship of the ring parallel, and then the overarching theme, of regaining honour. There’s a white fox with one blue eye and one brown eye (the witch again), mysterious priests in the woods, and Kai, who has some superhuman powers of his own.

While there’s nothing too challenging intellectually in the film, viewers should let themselves be swept up in the legend, enjoy the visual sumptuousness of the costumes and the aesthetics of the set pieces including Kai/Keanu’s fight with the dragon/witch.



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