47 Ronin Action

Bushido-Style Blu-ray Review: 47 Ronin

April 8, 2014Ben MK

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Of monsters and men

By Ben Mk

The legend of the forty-seven ronin tells the tale of a group of 18th century samurai — left masterless after the death of their daimyo — who sought to restore honor to their house by avenging their master. It was an act that ultimately cost them their lives; and over the centuries, their story has transcended the pages of history and entered the realm of myth. Director Carl Rinsch's 47 Ronin is by no means the first film to revisit the legend; but it does so in a unique way, interweaving it with aspects from classic Japanese mythology. The end result may bear only a passing resemblance to historical accounts, but it's still a spectacle of sword and sorcery that has to be seen to be believed.

Creatures of myth — such as the kirin, the oni and the kitsune witch — aren't the only new additions to the story. The film also incorporates the theme of the hero's journey into its narrative, by throwing an outsider — a "half-breed" named Kai (Keanu Reeves) — into the mix. As a boy, Kai flees the Tengu Forest, where he was raised, and is taken in by the Lord of the province Ako, Asano Takumi no Kami (Min Tanaka). However, despite the kindness shown to him by their ruler, Kai never gains the acceptance of Ako's citizens, especially not that of its samurai warriors, who believe his presence to be a threat to their safety. Even as an adult, his attempts at helping the samurai only earn him a tongue-lashing — or worse, a physical beating — with his only solace coming from the love shown to him by Asano's daughter, Mika (Ko Shibasaki).

But though Ako's samurai may be wary of Kai's origins, the real threat lies beyond their borders — in the rival province of Nagato — where Lord Kira Yoshinaka (Tadanobu Asano) has his eyes on them from high atop his mountain fortress. Aided by a shapeshifting witch (Rinko Kikuchi), he plots to overtake Ako, seizing the opportunity to do so during a tournament held in honor of Shogun Tokugawa (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). By poisoning Asano's mind with dark magic, the witch tricks him into attacking Kira without provocation, leading the Shogun to sentence Asano to death — by way of seppuku — and to banish his forty-seven samurai — now declared ronin — from Ako.

Dominion over Ako falls to Kira, as does Mika's hand in marriage; and the ronin are forbidden by the Shogun to seek vengeance. But even after he's imprisoned for a year — in an attempt by Kira to break his spirit — the samurai leader, Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), remains determined. After tracking down the rest of his samurai brothers, now scattered across the land, the ronin move to close the circle of injustice opened by the death of Asano. But to do so, they will need the help of Kai — and the skills he learned in the Tengu Forest — for they will have to contend not only with the might of Kira's army, but also with the magic of the shapeshifting witch.

Although the film plants its flag in the storied history of Japan, the tale of the forty-seven ronin themselves is relegated to its backstory, while the elements of mythology and fiction take center stage in the foreground. The approach may suit those in the mood for, say, a feudal era version of 300, but viewers seeking to find nuggets of truth in the storytelling may find themselves lost amid the bombast of the script. That being said, the cast are as convincing as can be in their performances — especially Rinko Kikuchi, who seems to derive maniacal pleasure from chewing the scenery as the film's supernatural villain — selling their roles with much verve and lending an air of authenticity to what otherwise plays as pure fantasy.

47 Ronin charges into battle on Blu-ray with an HD transfer befitting of the story's mythological flourishes, bringing the colors, costumes and landscapes of feudal Japan brilliantly to life. From the fur and horns of a rampaging kirin to the intricately detailed and ornately decorated armor of the samurai and their foes, the image — lensed by cinematographer John Mathieson — never falls short of its status as razor sharp eye candy. Colors are rich and bold, especially during the Shogun's tournament sequence, where the crimsons of Ako, the purples of Nagato and the golds of the Shogun and his entourage are on full display. And excellent shadow detail, in scenes such as the nighttime assault on Lord Kira's fortress, ensure that viewers never miss a moment of the action. The film's sonic landscape receives equally impressive treatment from the disc's boisterous DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, which renders every note of composer Ilan Eshkeri's orchestral score — as well as action-oriented effects such as the clanging of steel against steel and the roars of the film's fantastical creatures — with pitch-perfect clarity.

Universal's Blu-ray release provides several alternate viewing methods, including a DVD copy of the film, as well as a code redeemable for an iTunes and UltraViolet digital copy. There's also a smattering of HD special features (amounting to over 30 minutes worth), most of which are exclusive to the Blu-ray. The first exclusive is a 4-minute featurette entitled Keanu & Kai, which briefly highlight's Kai's role in the story, as well as Reeves' role as a collaborator on the film. This is followed by the 6-minute Steel Fury: The Fights of 47 Ronin, which brings attention to some of the film's key fight sequences, as well as the fight training that the actors went through in preparation. And then there's the 8-minute Myths, Magic & Monsters: The FX of 47 Ronin, which focuses on the more colorful elements of the story. The remainder of the disc's bonus features — which can also be found on the DVD release (albeit in their non-HD form) — include a selection of four Deleted Scenes (totaling nearly 8 minutes) and the 7-minute featurette Re-Forging the Legend, which delves into the reimagining of the tale as a fantasy epic, as well as dipping into elements of the film's production design.

Carl Rinsch's 47 Ronin takes its cue from the long-running tradition of Chūshingura; but when all is said and done, the film owes more to fantasy epics like The Lord of the Rings than it does to real-life, historical events. Its account of honor and bravery still rings true, but it muddies the waters separating fact from fiction far too much for it to have any lasting resonance. Still, those in the mood for a rousing piece of Japanese action-fantasy will find the film to be an admirable effort. And coupled with the equally fantastic A/V presentation of Universal's Blu-ray release and its modest (though not terribly insightful) selection of bonus features, that makes 47 Ronin on Blu-ray worthy of at least an honorable mention.

Disc Breakdown
The Film  —  ★★★
Audio/Visual Fidelity  —  ★★★★½
Special Features  —  ★★½

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