Although advertised as a science fiction film, 47 Ronin is really a history with some fantasy troweled over the reality to make it seem more like live action anime.
I have always been fascinated by the Chushingura-- the stories of the 47 masterless samurai (ronin) of Ako.
The true story
In April of 1701, the young lord of Ako, Asano Naganori, after suffering many months of ridicule and shaming by the relatively elderly Kira Yoshinaka, lost his temper and, drawing his sword in the Shogun's palace, attempted to murder Kira. Although wounded, Kira lived.
The bureaucracy of the Shogunate recommended to the Shogun, Togukawa Tsunayoshi, that both daimyo (feudal lords) be punished, but the Shogun for some reason sentenced only Asano, and did not punish Kira at all. This was an unpopular decision at court, But Asano committed seppuku anyway, as ordered.
The fief of Ako, which was fairly large-- 50,000 koku (a koku was the amount of rice needed to feed one man for one year)-- was seized by the Bafuku (the shogunate) and the Asanos were imprisoned.
Many of Asano's 350 samurai retainers also committed suicide, while some fled as ronin (masterless men). 47 of Asano's samurai, under the lead of Oishi Yoshio, even though they knew that taking revenge was against the law of the bafuku, decided on a long and well planned revenge against Kira.
To put Kira at ease, they went separate ways. Oishi spent a year roistering in taverns and geisha houses, prompting one samurai from Satsuma to spit on him in the street, saying, "You are no samurai!"
Another of the 47 married into the family that had designed and built Kira's Edo (Tokyo) mansion, so they could gain the plans.
On the night of December 14, 1702, Oishi and 45 other ronin attacked Kira's house, after sending one of their number to Ako to tell their story. Kira was given the chance to commit seppuku with the same knife that had cut Asano's belly, but he was a coward and refused. Oishi used the knife to strike off Kira's head.
In the morning the 46 ronin marched from Kira's house to Sengakuji Temple, where they presented Kira's head to the grave of Asano, and then waited to be arrested.
It became a deeply dividing cause in Japan. Many who had been upset that Kira had not also been punished now felt that justice had been served, and even the Shogun felt that he should pardon the 47. His advisors convinced him that to pardon Oishi and his men would lead to civil unrest and possibly shake the foundations of the bafuku government.
But since it was clear that the 46 had conducted themselves in the highest spirit of bushido (the way of the warrior), they were allowed to commit seppuku.
The ronin were divided into four groups and taken into custody by four high ranking daimyo, all of whom were sympathetic to their cause. Unfortunately, no pardon was forthcoming. In the late evening of February 4, 1703, the four groups of ronin honorably committed seppuku, and were all buried in the Sengakuji Temple graveyard near their master.
About the movie
It has already been decided that this was a huge box office bomb. That's too bad, because it really did a good job cinematically. It showed early 18th century Japan incredibly well. The only costuming malfunction was the wedding dress of Lord Asano's daughter, which was white. Even though it could have been a voiceless protest against her forced marriage, I don't think so. Traditionally, Japanese wedding garments are red.
The big problem is that there wasn't enough explanation about the fantastical scenes. If they'd just have played it straight they'd have made a beautifully photographed and reasonably well acted historical drama. As it was, you really have to know some Japanese phantasmagoria to know what is going on. In the first act, Lord Asano and his men are chasing a Japanese demon-- if it quacks like a demon, etc. That's pretty understandable, but where it goes wildly off the rails is the white fox with the brown eye and blue eye. This is pretty clearly supposed to be a kitsune or fox spirit. But unless you know that you are left with a big "say whut?" and you are scrambling to understand what is happening.
Eventually, the kitsune transfers to her human form, with some very weird hair,which you would understand if you know that the fox spirits have multiple tails, and the more powerful they are, the more tails they have.
Kai (not a Japanese name) is played by Keanu Reeves, who plays Keanu Reeves better than anyone else can or will. In this case he plays a very fictional half-breed of an English father and Japanese mother, whose mother exposes him in the Forest of the Tengu. He is taken in and raised by the Tengu, but leaves and runs away to Ako and Lord Asano. In order to understand this, you need to know what the Japanese attitude to half-breeds is, as well as who the Tengu are, and why he would want to run away as a young boy. Tengu are the Japanese equivalent of dark elves, a part avian race that lives apart from the ordinary Japanese world. They are kami, or Shinto gods.
In order to get swords for the 47 ronin, in the movie, Kai and Oishi go to beg them of the Tengu, who put them through an extended magical sequence to test their resolve and their ability to obey orders. Kai reveals that he still remembers how to use the powers that the Tengu taught him as a boy.
Kai uses those powers to kill the Kitsune, and the 46 ronin kill Kira and then commit suicide.
I loved it, but I understood exactly what was going on. I know the story, I have read the accounts and the Japanese novels in translation and seen the three or four films made in Japan that recount the story of the 47 Ronin. I thought it was great.
Joy, however, didn't know the story and didn't much like the film, because they didn't explain what was going on and she was lost a lot of the time.
And, too, she hated the fact that the Bafuku made Oishi and his men kill themselves. I think that's another reason why the movie didn't do well. Westerners just don't understand why they did, and what it means, and why this incident is one of the most important incidents in Japanese history and culture.
- Review: 47 Ronin -- excellent but deeply flawed film