The Book of Void
The key player in this saga gets his prominence diminished to make way for a big star whose character is ... superfluous.
STICKING a Big Name in the cast to sell a movie is nothing new, but sometimes those names don’t fit snugly into the story. In this case, it’s not just the case that the big un’s lack of range causes his scenes to stick out like a sore thumb. It is also because his character’s presence detracts considerably from the man whose real story this is, which is a bit of a crime against that individual’s memory. But more on that later.
This is a retelling of the famous legend of the 47 ronin (masterless samurai) in feudal Japan, who avenged the death of their lord as a matter of honour; only with fantasy elements like demons, dragons and witches thrown in.
The names of the main players are largely the same, even if everything else is pure fiction. There was a feudal lord named Asano who was tricked into assaulting a rival lord, Kira (played here by Tadanobu Asano), and then forced to commit seppuku (ritual suicide, although the local subtitler had it as sepupuku, or death by annoying cousin).
Asano did have a loyal retainer named Oishi (the quietly charismatic Hiroyuki Sanada), who became a ronin after his master’s death and later led other loyal men on a mission of revenge. And by most accounts, Kira was something of an asshat, being corrupt or arrogant or just plain petty.
What history isn’t ready to concede is that Asano’s court also had a halfbreed outcast named Kai (Keanu Reeves) dwelling on its fringes, hated or at least regarded with contempt by the lord’s samurai. Naturally, Kai has to go and fall in love with Mika (Ko Shibasaki), the lord’s daughter – and she with him. Just so, you know, one character after another can dangle it contemptuously in his face that they can never be together.
Kira and his Witch With No Name (Rinko Kikuchi) engineer Asano’s death, the shogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) arranges for Kira to marry Mika after a year of mourning her father, and Oishi and his men are deemed ronin – and henceforth, banished.
Right, so Kai’s long-suppressed true nature (conveniently for the story, he was an abandoned child raised by supernatural beings known as tengu to be a highly effective killer) comes to the fore after he is shipped off to some leftover sets from Pirates Of The Caribbean. Oishi rescues him from a life of fighting in bloodsport for the entertainment of drunken European sailors, and enlists his aid to avenge their master – also so Kai can save his beloved from becoming Mrs Asshat. This is where Kai rises to the occasion, stealing Oishi’s thunder every chance he gets. You really wonder what kind of mess Oishi and his men would have made of things – in this movie, at least – if not for him; the loyal warrior is depicted as a guy who can’t even secure weapons for his troops or gather intelligence properly.
Historically, Oishi was a crafty individual, able to throw Kira’s spies off for two years while he plotted his revenge by acting like a man who had lost everything, even his dignity. Here, he gets thrown down a pit for a year and emerges with only one bright idea in his head, to go looking for Kai just so the outcast can then proceed to show him up at every opportunity. Maybe I wouldn’t have bothered that much if the filmmakers hadn’t gone and opened the door by linking this to the actual story of the 47 ronin.
Viewed as total bull jazz, 47 Ronin comes across as a (mostly) watchable outing where the biggest failing is its star’s inability to muster any kind of emotional connection with the viewer either in his status as a non-entity to the samurai, or as a star-crossed lover.
Sanada is commanding enough in a criminally undermined role, and as usual it’s the villains who chew up the scenery with relish – especially Rinko Kikuchi, who exudes enigmatic menace as the nameless she-thing and gets uncomfortably in-your-face, Painted Skin style, with Mika on a couple of occasions.
The film could have done with a lot more of such campiness and a lot less of its pretensions to some kind of actual significance – they might as well have just changed all the names and marketed this as a 100% made-up kenjutsu fantasy-adventure ... The Lord Of The Five Rings, so to speak.
Red red ronin: ‘aren’t you a little short for a demon-raised killing machine?’