47 Ronin, a 3D movie released in December of last year, is a modern retelling of one of the most famous - perhaps the most famous - story of Japanese chivalry. Known as Chushingura in Japanese, this 18th-century story is of 47 masterless samurai, masterless thanks to the hara-kiri (seppuku) of their master upon the order of the Shogun for a breach of etiquette.
Chushingura are recountings of this story in dramatic form, and are a staple of traditional entertainment, mainly because the story represents everything considered most desirable in the traditional Japanese ideology: loyalty to the point of death, or as the pre-World War Two Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors put it: "Duty is heavier than a mountain, and death is lighter than a feather."
47 Ronin is Hollywood’s rendition of the Chushingura legend. It introduces the hereto unseen elements of a “half-breed” (part-Japanese, part-Caucasian boy, later man, called Kai played by Keanu Reeves), and black magic.
Lord Asano, the daimyo master of Ako domain, is hosting the master of Japan, the Shogun, and is bewitched that night by the evil witch mistress of Lord Kira, who is there as part of the Shogun’s retinue. The hapless Asano goes on a zombie-like sleepwalk, surprising Lord Kira and injuring him. For this outrage, Lord Asano is required to commit seppuku (hara-kiri), or ritual disembowelment: an "honorable death" reserved for samurai and nobles, as opposed to execution. The punishment also involves Asano's samurai followers being made masterless, i.e., becoming ronin.
Asano's household includes Kai, brought up by demons as an abandoned half-breed child, and then discovered by Asano's followers as a child to survive as a menial. However, when the masterless samurai, the 47 ronin, set out to avenge their master's death, the till now lowly Kai comes into his own, and leverages his supernatural connections to help them acquire the weapons they will need for their mission.
For the long-term foreign resident of Japan, Keanu Reeves's character, Kai, is the focus of attention: as the (half)-foreigner, or gaijin. And what a "good" gaijin he plays! His demeanor is stolidly bovine in the most placid sense of the adjective. A lamb-like bull, the very marrow of whose big bones knows its lowly place and expects absolutely nothing. His love for the daughter of Lord Asano - mutually felt - is doomed from the start, but is mutely, poignantly and hopelessly hung on to by both parties, to be finally relegated, by both, to their next incarnations on earth - presumably an incarnation when both will be blessed with Japaneseness.
Kai is the perfect "Christian," turning the other cheek to every sneer of "half-breed," even from those whose skin he saves. But then he is sold into slavery by Lord Kira upon the death of Lord Asano. Kai ends up in slavery in Dejima, where he is a gladiator, and the one-time virtual Jesus now becomes a devil-may-care retro-pro wrestler in an extravaganza of underground grit, grunge and savagery populated by tattooed, muscle-bound, white lowlifes.
He is rescued from these Dutch gaijin, who make for an even less salubrious milieu than his plodding, ever-disappointing Japanese one, and collared into a mission: to avenge the death of the Lord who beneficently granted him the lowliest station in his household, one that remained unchanged from when he assumed it as a child.
Once the mission is embarked on, the pace of the movie slackens and I started glancing at the time. And by the end, I was wishing for it to hurry and be over.
The biggest problem with the end of the movie is that the 47 ronin, having completed their mission and brought the severed head of Lord Kira to the grave of their master, continue to buy into the whole thing. That is, instead of dispersing, happy in the knowledge that they succeeded, they submit themselves to the judgment of the same fat, fusty, finicky, wily old Shogun who delivered the original verdict of death that got the whole adventure rolling. Of course, he orders them to commit suicide too.
In a Hollywood movie, that just doesn't work. Hollywood is all about overcoming and going beyond, and here we have utterly uninspiring, anticlimactic regression as the heroes submit to an overlord that, to anyone familiar with Japanese history, represents the backwardness, isolation, and brutality of a regime that corresponded to today’s North Korea in its lack of freedom. Add to this the fudgy fromage of pledges between Kai and the avenged lord’s daughter of a love - wallowing in violins - that is never to be consummated, and the break with the promising, art-movie opening is complete.
If you're curious, go and see it. As a visual spectacle it succeeds resoundingly: its almost 200 million dollar budget wasn't for nothing. But if you're looking for a story you'll remember and tell to your children, don't see it ... or, at least, don't dispirit your children with it.
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Friday, March 21, 2014
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