Movie Review: 47 Ronin

Movie Review: 47 Ronin

Keanu Reeves heads the cast of a cultural story about Eastern heritage and honours' legacy

By Mark HadleyWednesday 15 Jan 2014MoviesReading Time: 4 minutes

It would be hard to come up with a story more beloved by the Japanese people than that of the 47 masterless samurai who dedicated themselves to avenging the honour of their fallen lord – if there is an English equivalent, it would probably be King Arthur and his knights of the round table. Both have been made into numerous films. Interestingly both also have something of a tragic ending – and that’s probably what will stop this latest version of the tale breaking box office records in the West.

Mark Hadley reviews '47 Ronin'.

The traditional plot of 47 Ronin had to undergo some significant surgery in order to accommodate the inclusion of A-list actor Keanu Reeves. The Canadian star has a touch of Chinese ancestry but that was never going to allow him to pass as a full-blood Japanese warrior. Consequently the early stages of the film are devoted to his introduction as Kai, a half-breed found wandering in the woods after fleeing from a life with the enchanted spirits known as the Tengu. Kai devotes his supernatural fighting skills to the care of Lord Asano, the man who spared his life. But when Asano is forced to commit suicide by the machinations of the evil Lord Kira, Kai joins 46 other faithful samurai in a formulating a secret plan for revenge. 

47 Ronin looks beyond Keanu to make this distinctly Japanese story more palatable to an international audience. To begin with the evil Lord Kira is aided by a witch who probably accounts for at least half of the film’s CGI budget. There’s also a golem-style suit of armour that fights on Kira’s behalf and a sub-plot to arm the 47 avengers with enchanted swords. However the biggest Hollywood trademark would have to be the forbidden love affair between Keanu/Kai and the daughter of his slain lord.  But is this enough to get audiences to connect? I think not.

Western filmgoers don’t generally respond well to tragic endings, particularly the sort that have significant currency for Eastern audiences. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was celebrated the world over for its style but that didn’t stop us asking why the heroine had to kill herself at the end of the film. The problem for 47 Ronin in particular lies with the Japanese conceptions of community and honour: it is far better to belong than to stand alone, and far better to die a respectful death than live a self-centred life.

Consequently, Ôishi, the leader of Lord Asano’s loyal retainers, isn’t howled down when he announces that his plan to avenge their master will result in their death, no matter what the outcome. It’s not because he’s just hopeless at tactics; it’s because he recognizes that all criminal activities deserve to be punished, including the samurais’ plan to murder Lord Kira:

“When a crime goes unpunished the world is out of balance. When a crime goes unavenged the heavens look down on us with shame. But soon the only thing that will be left of our brief lives will be the pride our children feel when they speak our names.”

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The Japanese take pride in this story because the 47 Ronin punished the evil Lord Kira and humbly submitted to the penalty for their own actions. But the western mind is unlikely to see it the same way. We’re so used to justifying the individual’s right to define right and wrong that we tend to require someone to swing in at the last moment and say that the rules don’t apply – “Case dismissed!” But, despite Hollywood’s Judeo-Christian heritage, the Bible would hold a viewpoint closer to the Japanese in this case. 

God requires us to be good, regardless of the things that go on around us. There are no justifications for setting aside His definitions of right and wrong. Just like in 47 Ronin justice will be required at all levels, for victimizers and victims alike. However though this tale ends in tragedy, God sees a way out for those who trust Him. He doesn’t provide the Hollywood ending by overlooking our sin but sends an innocent Jesus to die in our place. When we approach that final courtroom those who trust in his sacrifice will find that there are no punishments left to suffer. 


Rating: M
Distributor: Universal
Release Date: January 16