47 Ronin: Courage, Revenge and Bushido

47 Ronin, Keanu ReevesI can’t say enough good things about this tale of courage, retribution, revenge and Bushido in feudal Japan. In 47 Ronin, Akira Kurosawa meets Hayao Miyazaki. Think The Seven Samurai with Hollywood production values and Princess Mononoke in real-life. I liked it a great deal not least because it was so different—thus far less predictable—than virtually all of the movies that come out of Hollywood these days. Unfortunately, the theater was practically empty on a Friday night, which is a shame because this movie deserves better traffic than it is getting.

Mundane Critics Mock Mystical Movie

In the few reviews that have been written, the critics hated 47 Ronin. Why? Three reasons:

  1. It does not hew completely to the original story. Well, gee, Hollywood has never done that before! Argo, Zero Dark Thirty and Captain Phillips were all accused of the same thing and somehow they got good reviews.
  2. 47 Ronin, Keanu Reeves, dragonKeanu Reeves is in it. Movie critics automatically hate any film that Keanu Reeves is in or has touched in any way. I think they would give a bad review to a movie in which he did a cameo role. Why? They have a pre-formed opinion that Mr. Reeves cannot act and bring that notion into the theater with them. Their mindset is that, if Mr. Reeves acted badly in one movie, he will always act badly in all movies. Or, by extension, that any movie Keanu Reeves is in must therefore be bad. Of course, they used to say this about Matthew McConaughey, too, and only came around after he made a “course correction,” with roles in several small independent movies that established his new, “authentic” reputation with the critics.
  3. It includes elements of fantasy, such as a shape-changing witch, a monstrous wild creature, and a mystical cave. In general, movie critics are mundanes with no taste for or even understanding of fantasy in any form. Give them an exploding helicopter, a gangsta drive-by, a rom-com prince charming, or an amoral banker and they know exactly what to say. Ask them to accept fantasy and they turn reflexively to ridicule.

Rich Japanese Folklore

I often don’t even read reviews of science fiction or fantasy movies written by the major critics because I know that they will either (a) dismiss it out of hand, or (b) snicker their way through. Often they give away the entire plot, too, as Mark Jenkins did in his Washington Post review, “Keanu Reeves stars in dull retelling of Japanese fable,” which, fortunately, I read only after I had seen the movie. Mr. Jenkins claims on the one hand that the movie has no real Japanese character, yet he quickly demonstrates his lack of understanding of Japanese folklore.

The fact is that Japanese folklore contains a wonderfully rich set of demons, dragons, shape-changers, mystical people and fantastic creatures. You can see whole armies of them in Mr. Miyazaki’s movies, such as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. These movies are so fresh, so different from European fairy tales and American folklore that they are enchanting. One never knows what’s going to happen next because all the worn Western tropes have been thrown away and replaced with new and—to us at least—highly original Eastern story lines. Hooray for that!

But What Do Audiences Think?

When you put all three reasons together, you understand why the critics turned up their collective noses.

So, do audiences like 47 Ronin more that the Grinchy critics? Are we the only viewers who liked it?  For an answer to both, take a gander at its Tomatometer score. A measly 12% of critics gave it a Rotten score while 63% of the audience Liked it. That’s a huge difference and a gap that big says something, don’t you think?

47 Ronin, Keanu Reeves, Rotten Tomatoes, Tomatometer

47 Ronin — Tomatometer Score

One of the things I liked most about 47 Ronin was that it is not filtered through a lens of Western sensibilities, as The Last Samurai was. No one comments on the requirements of Bushido, misinterprets them, is outraged by them or criticizes their demands. The hero doesn’t stand up to the arrogant Samurai—either physically or figuratively–because that would have been a really easy way to lose his head with one sweep of a katana. No one finds the rigidly stratified society of the time unfair or undemocratic. It is what it is. The hero bows to his superiors when and how deeply he must because that was his position in society. He’s a “half-breed” in a country that prides itself on racial purity and a bastard in a society where family defines both affiliations and obligations. He is tolerated—just—by the Samurai warriors around him.

A Few Quibbles with 47 Ronin

The photography is gorgeous and the special effects work very well. Do I have some quibbles? Yes, certainly. A Samurai of that time was unlikely to concern himself with the well-being of villagers and farmers. The matte-painting pagoda is more Chinese than Japanese, and the wedding dress is far too Western in color and design. But they are just quibbles. We enjoyed 47 Ronin and I only wish George Takei could have been in it.

Highly recommended for people who enjoy action movies and who like feudal Japan, fantasy, Hayao Miyazaki, and swordplay.  Lovers of The Hobbit get a dragon, a magic forest and a magical spider.


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