You won’t learn anything about Japan, the samurai or the incident known historically as the Akō Incident if you see the 2013 American fantasy action film “47 Ronin.” What you will see is a troubling depiction of new wave Orientalism wrapped up the latest addition to the white man saves the world film genre.
To be specific, this is a case of a half-white man saving a vendetta. The half-white person is Kai (Keanu Reeves), the illegitimate only child of a British sailor and a Japanese peasant. He is part of Lord Asano’s (Min Tanaka) household, although not a samurai.
Due to a witch’s spells and the evil Lord Kira’s ambitions, Lord Asano is forced to commit ritual suicide (seppuku). Kai, through his connections with the supernatural world of Tengu, is able to guide the leader of the ronin, Kuranosuke Ōishi to find swords and battle against an evil witch (Rinko Kikuchi) who turns into a silver fox and finally a fire-breathing dragon so that the 47 ronin can complete their act of vengeance against Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano).
This version of the 1701 Akō Incident features a screenplay by Chris Morgan (“Fast & Furious”) and Iranian-British screenwriter Hossein Amini ( the 2012 “Snow White and the Huntsman” and 1997 “The Wings of the Dove”). Amini was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing for his “The Wings of a Dove” script, but he won’t get much adulation for this effort. While Amini was working with the 1902 Henry James novel of the same name for that 1997 movie, he might have consulted the popular bunraku play “Kanadehon Chūshingura” by Takeda Izumo II.
Apparently executive producer Walter Hamada had a hand in the writing as well, making it his first screen story credit. Hamada is better known as a producer with credits (“The Conjuring,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Friday the 13th”) that in no way would lead someone to believe he could help this script. The supernatural elements mix European and American horror traditions with Japanese in a manner that gives the CGI loose reins, but not in a manner that serves the story or the locale well.
The costumes designs by Penny Rose (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) combine East Asian aesthetics as do the hair and makeup design. This is Japan as seen through the eyes of someone who has been watching too many Chinese period dramas and has no concept of the meaning of color or the consequences of natural resources.
Director Carl Rinsch had previously only completed video shorts as a director. How he got greenlighted for such a big budget movie is something that should be investigated; it might enlighten us into the ways of Hollywood as a business.
Certainly some of these attitudes of experimenting and blending traditions and cultures have been seen before and were acceptable to the American public in the 1930s-1950s, but hasn’t the world changed since then? One wishes someone had given this budget to Takashi Miike, a man who knows something about horror movies and has recently made a few respectable samurai movies as well.
Wait until this movie comes out on Netflix and even then, you might not be able to stifle a yawn.