I did not want to like it, but I did.
On the night of the 14th day of the 12th month of the 15th year of the Genroku era (January 30, 1703), 47 ronin, disgraced and masterless samurai, attacked the castle of Lord Kira Kozuke-no-Suke Yoshinaka in Edo (modern Tokyo) intent on taking his head.
The 47 were former retainers of Lord Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori, daimyo (feudal lord) of Ako, a minor holding in the country.
The ronin held Kira, an important official of the shogunate, responsible for their lord’s death. While on the obligatory visit every daimyo was required to make to the shogun’s capitol, Kira was charged with tutoring Asano in court etiquette.
Because he had not been offered sufficient bribes, Kira behaved insultingly towards Asano until enraged, Asano attacked Kira with a dagger and cut him on the head before he was restrained.
For the offense of drawing a weapon at court, Asano was condemned to commit sepukku, ritual suicide, his holding forfeit, his retainers made ronin – masterless.
Asano’s chief councilor Oishi Kuranosuke Yoshio organized the 47 most loyal samurai. Watched closely by the shogun’s secret police they played the part of dissolutes and drunkards by day and secretly practiced martial arts and stragtegy by night.
One day while Oishi lay drunk in the street, a samurai kicked him in the face, spat on him and called him a disgrace.
When suspicion had been allayed the 47 struck. They found Asano hiding in a shed and offered him the chance to commit seppuku with Asano’s dagger. Trembling, Kira could not. They took his head, laid it on the grave of their lord, and surrendered to the shogun’s authority.
They had defied the shogun’s command, but obeyed the code of bushido, that no samurai may live under the same heaven as his lord’s murderer. The sentence was death, but death with honor. Forty-six commited seppuku and were buried with their lord. One was pardoned and buried with them after a long life.
There is a whole genre of plays, stories and movies about this one incident, called “chushingura” in Japan. Now “47 Ronin” has contributed to it with several new twists.
It’s a historical fantasy with magic, tengu (demons), monsters and a witch (Rinko Kikuchi) who can become a fox or a dragon.
There’s an entirely invented character, Kai (Keanu Reeves) a half-breed foundling. The relative ages of Asano (Min Tanaka) and Kira (Tadanobu Asano) are reversed. Asano is survived not by a wife but a beautiful daughter Mika (Kô Shibasaki), Kai’s forbidden love interest. Kira is not executed but killed after a slam-bang sword fight.
There is some serious messing around with history here. That’s why I didn’t want to like it.
However, there is also much they got right and great attention to detail.
When the samurai kneel before the shogun, they pull their swords out of their sashes and lay them either to their right side blade inward or in front of them handle facing leftward, a traditional manner that makes it difficult to draw quickly.
There are genuinely touching moments, as when Oichi (Hiroyuki Sanada) tells his wife he must divorce her for her own safety but assures her she is always the love of his life.
The fantasy elements, were-foxes and a warrior schooled by the tengu, are drawn from traditional Japanese mythology.
And in the end and in spite of the liberties it takes with history it is still the story of 47 men who embarked on a quest to set things right that they knew from the beginning would end in death for all of them.
I found it stirring, other critics have not. It has generally been panned and reportedly likely to be a huge financial loss.
In Japan the opening has been called “disappointing” in spite of a Japanese cast of popular actors.
If I had to guess I’d say it might be Japanese uneasiness with the love story of a Japanese noblewoman and a man described as the product of a one-night stand between an English sailor and a Japanese peasant girl. And I really wonder why they put that plot element in when anyone even superficially familiar with Japanese culture could have told them that would be shocking even today.
I still say go see it, and wait. This has the makings of a cult classic.
The last resting place of the loyal retainers and their lord is now the Sengaku Temple in Tokyo. Every December 14, many Japanese visit the temple to pay their respects at the graves of 47 ronin and one other who lies buried there. After their deaths the samurai who had spit on Oishi visited his grave, begged his forgiveness, and committed sepukku.
Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.