Review: Films Set In Japan – 47 Rōnin (2013)

As the end credits finally roll on this 121 minute tale of honour, loyalty and sacrifice a caption says, as it usually does in all movies, that “all characters appearing in this work are fictitious” and so on which is a shame as the story of these 47 brave heroes is far greater than what’s served up in this over-fictionalised film.

Admittedly, expectations for this new re-working of a famous Japanese story were pretty low to start with and the additions of CGI beasts, monsters, witches, ghosts and gladiators did nothing to stop the rot. In fact, they did more harm than good in my opinion and Keanu Reeves playing a “half-breed” character created solely for the film wasn’t much better. I felt his character Kai was rather under-used in the first half of this movie and though he has more time on screen in the latter part its clear that his presence is just for the benefit of Hollywood with laughable English dialogue and some romantic shenanigans thrown in for good measure too.

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Feudal Japan was recreated on a specially created set at Shepperton Studios in London as well as in Budapest and the Isle of Skye in Scotland. The story starts off with Kai being found and raised by Lord Asano as a servant who acquires some sword mastery and the affections of his daughter, Mika. However, he doesn’t gain the respect of Asano’s band of samurai including Oishi played by Hiroyuki Sanada from ‘The Last Samurai‘ (2003). Anyway, there’s some kind of hallucination trick performed on Asano by neighbouring lord Kira and Rinko Kikuchi’s witch character that results in him having to kill himself as punishment.

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Without their master the samurai are brought together again one year on with a plot to avenge their avenge the death and dishonour of their leader by raiding the chief instigators castle. By now Kai is a much better and improved fighter having spent the year as a slave fighting beasts, monsters and what-have-you-not. Needless to say that he eventually earns the respect of those that previously looked down on him.

My girlfriend’s mum was originally going to accompany me to this but sadly had to pass on such an invitation which was a shame as I’d love to get the opinion of a Japanese person on this. Whilst I was groaning with displeasure at the terribly cheesy dialogue and bad English (and that was just from Reeves!) in the films final scenes the lady sat a couple of seats to my right was blubbering and sniffling away no end. I’m not Japanese and so can’t really pass judgement too much on Japan’s most famous example of the bushido code but I would’ve thought the Japanese people would be embarrassed by this over-the-top Hollywood version.

Only a few days ago did Beyond The Movies bring you the backstory on the real 47 Rōnin and where their resting place can be found in Tokyo The film ends with a caption or two informing the audience that every December 14th, the 47 Rōnin are honoured with a procession and ceremony at Sengakuji Temple. Those reading this in Japan would be better off spending their time visiting that temple than watching this.

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Tokyo Fox Rating 4/10

Tokyo Daytripper: The 47 Rōnin At Sengakuji Temple

With a big Hollywood actor now starring in the forthcoming ‘47 Rōnin‘ movie the story of these 47 loyal samurai will be taken to an all-new and much bigger audience. Unbelievably, its one of those rare films which gets its worldwide release here in Japan whilst the UK and USA have to wait till Christmas time for its release. Keanu Reeves has top billing and he’s ably supported by Rinko Kikuchi of ‘Babel‘ (2004) and ‘Pacific Rim‘ (2013) fame. Hiroyuki Sanada from ‘The Last Samurai‘ (2003) is also cast.

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For anyone wanting to get a real feel for this story they really ought to make their way down to Sengakuji Temple which possesses the burial ground of the 47 loyal samurai who  (WARNING: plot spoiler coming up for anyone who doesn’t know the story!) set out to avenge the death and dishonour of their leader by raiding the chief instigators castle where they ruthlessly and violently beheaded him. Their following collective action was to commit suicide which was seen as an honour.

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Arriving at Sengakuji you encounter the outer gate (above left) and then the inner gate (above right) and just to the right of that is the statue of Ōishi Yoshio (below); the real leader of the 47 rōnin.

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To be honest I’d never really had too much affection for Sengakuji Temple despite having been there three or four times! However, that was before I begun to realise its deep history rather than just checking it off a list of sights to get round as part of some of my Tokyo cycling challenges. These have included cycling Tokyo’s Top 25 Sights in one daywhere I didn’t even go inside, and last year I learned a bit more about the place as I cycled there on a themed tour of Tokyo’s most haunted sights.

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Once you’ve gone through the inner gate there is a path on the left which will take you towards the graves of the 47 rōnin. There is a tiny hut selling postcards, candles and incense sticks and just beyond that is the map which indicates where each warrior, who was willing to die for their lord, is buried though sadly its only in Japanese.

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No less than six films have already been made about the forty-seven Rōnin. I haven’t seen any of them and I can’t say that the trailer really got me too excited. It all looks a bit like a coming together of ‘Gladiator‘ (2000), ‘Lord Of The Rings‘ (2001), ‘Attack Of The Clones‘ (2002) and ‘The Last Samurai‘ (2003) but who can really tell from just two minutes of fast paced and cleverly edited footage.

This fantasy adventure and martial arts story of the 47 warriors who seized eternity was filmed in Budapest, London and the Isle of Skye in Scotland. We were originally told that it was not shot in Japan at all but sources are now saying that filming did indeed conclude here. We will find out very soon for sure!

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Sengakuji Temple is at 2-11-1 Takanawa in Minato-ku and ‘47 Rōnin’ is released in Japan on the 6th December 2013

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