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Stephen Turnbull asks what (if anything) went wrong with the 47 Ronin

When T. H. White’s great Arthurian fantasy The Once and Future King was first published the New York Times described it as “a glorious dream of the Middle Ages as they never were but as they should have been.” A very similar comment would not be inappropriate to describe the strange world of old Japan conjured up in the movie 47 Ronin.

Here I must declare an interest, because in 2010 I was hired to be its Historical Adviser, a job I relished and greatly enjoyed in spite of subsequently remaining in the dark over what had been done with my advice for two and a half years.

You might wonder why a movie company should hire someone to advise on the historical accuracy of a fantasy. It is a very good question, and by answering it I feel that we come very close to understanding why the final results have fallen short of the project’s initial vision.

I first met Director Carl Rinsch at the very start of the production in September 2010, when the staff members were still unloading cardboard boxes on to their desks. He explained that his movie would re-tell the story of the 47 Ronin but with fantasy elements. I greatly approved of this for two very good reasons. First, the fantasy elements that were planned were not artificial creations. Instead they were beings that people who lived in those days really thought existed, just like T. H. White’s dragons. Second, the 47 Ronin story, as it has been presented in Japan over three centuries, is itself a fantasy based on a rather dull and unsavoury historical event, jazzed up by playwrights within two years of its occurrence. To prove my point I brought out of my rucksack a towel I’d bought at the most holy shrine in Ako where the heroes are still worshipped. On it, each of the 47 Ronin is depicted in the guise of Hello Kitty. Not even the American film industry could top that. The ghost of Chikamatsu would be smiling down on Hollywood.

Much of the negative criticism of the movie has been produced in ignorance and laziness. One reviewer criticised its historical accuracy and then revealed his own miserable knowledge of Japanese history by referring to the historical Lord Kira as “Mr Yoshinaka!” A release date on Boxing Day cannot have helped. With a copy deadline looming and Santa Claus on his merry way the film critics stared at a blank screen and then drank deeply from the cliché tank.

The big question is whether or not Carl Rinsch’s vision was realised. I thought 47 Ronin had the potential to break totally new ground, almost as an anime acted by real people, a concept that would cause many a Japanese film director to commit seppuku, furious that Hollywood had beaten them to it. I think that the goal was achieved up to a point, but that certain production matters prevented the concept from being fully realised and also prevented its critics from appreciating what was really going on.

Much depended on the interplay between fantasy and reality. Essentially, 47 Ronin sought to create a world where the fantastic intrudes into the human world, and this human world is “Old Japan.” It is sensibly never given a real date, or we would have begun with a hunt in the presence of the only Shogun who ever banned hunting! This is in sharp contrast to the fantasy worlds of Narnia or Middle Earth, where everything is fantastic, so here in Ako we have very human and earthly samurai interacting with creatures from another dimension, made believable simply because this was the very real world of the humans’ own beliefs. This is achieved best of all by the superb character of the shape-shifting witch (Rinko Kikuchi), whose antics and excellent screen presence produce a classic role that would not have been out of place in the greatest of Japanese ghost stories. To a lesser extent the same was achieved by the kirin, the beast that is hunted at the start of the film. Kirin, incidentally, is a popular brand of Japanese beer, and I cherish the thought of a scriptwriter, inspired to write his first words as notices the creature on the side of the can. The tengu were disappointing because they had been conceptualised too far away from the Japanese originals, for which I had supplied much material. But then, I was hired to give advice. It was up to the production team whether they accepted it or not.

So the fantasy creatures are indeed fantastic, in every sense of the word, so how about the humans? The cast do their very best to be very human and the acting is excellent throughout even though they are handicapped by banal dialogue. Mika (Kou Shibadaki) is the perfect heroine and the ronin, particularly Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), carry the film along with gusto and really do behave like samurai. Keanu Reeves has been most unfairly criticised. None of the reviewers seem to have grasped that he is playing an outcast who is kept firmly in his place, so grand gestures and dialogue would not have been appropriate. He plays this downtrodden role perfectly, and as for the comments about him not looking Japanese, I actually feel that Universal should have taken a gamble and cast Keanu in the role of Oishi, as a full-blood Japanese. I am sure that they would have got away with it and that he would have impressed everyone.

So we have very human humans and very fantastic fantasies, so why was it not a thumping success? Here I feel that two important members of the team let the side down and that their faults consisted of not being able to handle the crucial interface between the two worlds. This may have gone over the heads of many who have seen the film, but during 47 Ronin we are reminded time and time again (sometimes by a sonorous narrator) that it is set in the real world and that this real world is Japan.

The first culprit was the original scriptwriter Chris Morgan, who seems never to have made his mind up whether this was Japan or Narnia and thereby introduced elements that were not fantasies – instead, they were errors based on his own poor research. I identified all these anachronisms right at the start in 2010, such as words like ‘tournament’ and ‘hanging’, and yet in spite of my warnings and Hossein Amini’s valiant re-write they were still there on the silver screen. Again, it may have gone over the heads of the audience, but if it is to be emphasised that the human world is the real world then you must get it right.

This brings me to the related topic of the costumes, and what I find so surprising is that some of the costumes are so good while others are so bad. The male “civilian dress,” from the homespun ronin to the lords’ robes are largely good and anchor their wearers firmly in the human world. The white apparel for the hara-kiri scenes was superb and the fantasy green robes of the witch again make a statement about her other-worldliness, as do the clothes of the tengu. Sadly, with much of the other design work, the costume designer Penny Rose seems to have got completely mixed up between the two worlds. This is puzzling, because she designed the costumes for Pirates of the Caribbean and produced a marvellous contrast between the very human sailors, marines and officials and the more fantastic pirates. So why did she fail so badly on 47 Ronin when faced with a similar challenge? It would have taken so little effort to have got the armour looking right. The samurai with tigers on their heads are appalling but funny, but the court ladies are disastrous. Fantasy is no defence when the audience is constantly being reminded that this is the real world and the film is to be shown in Japan. The ladies with back-to-front sashes (the sign of a prostitute) and pigtails that look as though they are on an undercover mission to smuggle dildos into the palace have, I know, caused gasps in Japanese cinemas followed by gales of raucous laughter.

Yet none of this seems to have detracted from the overall positive impression of the ordinary movie-goers who are not aware that samurai did not belong to the Cats Protection League. They just enjoyed it. For myself, I groaned a lot but when I look at the castles and the village that I helped design I feel proud to have been part of it. I just wish that the CGI artist on Kira’s castle had known when to stop adding turrets! As one of my friends said, ‘I wasn’t expecting history – I enjoyed it!’ It must be a hard life being a film critic when you can’t just have fun!

Dr Stephen Turnbull is Visiting Professor of Japanese Studies at Akita International University in Japan. He is the author of 71 published books including The Revenge of the 47 Ronin (2011), the first book in English to examine the historical account of the incident. He also acted as Historical Adviser for the award-winning computer strategy game Shogun – Total War.

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