47 Ronin


Keanu Reeves keeps a sharp eye out for flying monkeys.

Keanu Reeves keeps a sharp eye out for flying monkeys.

(2013) Martial Arts Fantasy (Universal) Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rinko Kikuchi, Tadanobu Asano, Ko Shibasaki, Min Tanaka, Jin Akanishi, Masayoshi Hanada, Hiroshi Sogabe, Takato Yonemoto, Hiroshi Yamada, Shu Nakajima, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Neil Fingleton, Natsuki Kunimoto, Togo Igawa, Tanroh Ishida, Yorick van Wageningen, Clyde Kusatsu, Haruka Abe. Directed by Carl Rinsch

There is honor and courage and then there are the ancient samurai of Japan. If we in the West think we know what those concepts are, think again. For that group of warriors, those weren’t just concepts – they were their way of life.

In feudal Japan, the kind and just Lord Asano (Tanaka) rules in a beautiful and bucolic province of Ako. He takes in a half-breed man named Kai (Reeves) who apparently escaped from the demon-infested forest as a boy, although his samurai urge him not to. His beautiful daughter Mika (Shibasaki) nurses him back to health and the two fall in love, although there is absolutely no future in it.

But not everyone is as honorable as Lord Asano. Lord Kira (Asano) desires the wealthy and plentiful lands ruled by Asano and determines to obtain them. With his devious partner, a shape-shifting witch (Kikuchi) who poses as one of his concubines, Kira hatches a plot to shame Lord Asano during a visit by the Shogun (Tagawa) which results in Asano’s ritual suicide. His samurai are released from service and declared to be Ronin, masterless samurai which is the equivalent of a mercenary in modern times although with much less respect. They are forbidden from seeking vengeance by order of the shogun. Kai is sold as a slave to the Dutch where he is made to fight in their bare knuckle brawls and Mika is betrothed to Kira whom she will marry after a one year mourning period for her father.

This is more than the leader of Asano’s samurai, Oishi (Sanada) can take. Even though he knows the consequences of his actions, he determines to re-assemble his men and add Kai, whom he had previously expressed disdain and loathing for, to take on overwhelming odds to exact justice for their Lord, but it’s not an easy matter. Kira’s palace is more of a fortress and the possibility of 47 men storming the castle and surviving is simply ludicrous, plus he is under the protection of a skilled and seductive witch but even if they are successful, the men know they will be under the sentence of death for defying the shogun’s orders. So what’s the use?

Well, according to the actual men who inspired this movie, plenty. If you take away the supernatural elements of this version of it, the basic events happened pretty much as shown – a Japanese feudal lord was betrayed by an ambitious and ruthless fellow lord, rendering his samurai as Ronin. They did defy the shogun’s order and behave as depicted. The results were surprisingly the same as well and they were led by a real life samurai named Oishi.

This was something of a surprising choice for a very big budget Hollywood movie. Why the writer and filmmakers determined to add the supernatural elements of the witch, the Lovecraftian samurai, and the demons in the forest is somewhat surprising; a smaller budget version with fewer special effects would have been a much more effective film in my view.

I won’t deny that some of the CGI are pretty spectacular and the attempts to give this a kind of epic scope of the sort that the legendary Akira Kurosawa used to routinely give his movies are pleasing to the eye. However, Kurosawa certainly would have rolled his eyes at the over-complexity of the plot.  and quite frankly the legendary director wasn’t much into fantasy although he wasn’t afraid to use elements of the supernatural in his films when they were required.

Rumor has it that the studio was overly involved in the making of the movie, demanding changes and leading to a delay of nearly a year for this movie to come out. There definitely is a feel here for too many cooks in the kitchen; the movie doesn’t have the feel and flow that you get with a steady, single hand in charge. Perhaps they needed someone more experienced than first-time director Rinsch for a movie of this scope and budget.

While Reeves is as usual somewhat stiff and wooden, we are treated to some of the finest actors in Japan at this time with the Oscar-nominated Kikuchi as the seductive and sly witch with the different-colored eyes (one brown, one blue) and the respected Sanada, a veteran of The Last Samurai lending gravitas to Oishi and Asano (The Wolverine) giving Kira a kind of sly wink to go along with his wickedness. Tanaka (The Twilight Samurai) as the kindly Lord Asano is also memorable.

While this is a good-looking movie that gives us the opportunity to watch quality performances by actors who don’t get as much exposure in the West as they deserve, there is simply too many flaws for me to give this a solid recommendation. See it more as a curiosity piece rather than as coherent cinema and as long as your expectations aren’t too high, you might even find reasons to enjoy this.

REASONS TO GO: Some fairly cool eye candy. Nice supporting performances from a great Japanese cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Overwrought plot. Needless elements of fantasy in one of Japan’s most iconic true stories. Something of a mess.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is quite a bit of martial arts action violence, some fairly disturbing images  as well as some thematic elements that might be above the heads of the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the seventh filmed version of the story although the first to come from Hollywood; in reality the 47 Ronin are revered in Japan for their honor and adherence to the Samurai code despite overwhelming odds.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 29/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forbidden Kingdom

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Griff the Invisible

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Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Ichimei)


 

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Why do Japanese swordfights look so much better in the snow?

(2011) Samurai (Tribeca) Koji Yakusho, Naoto Takenaka, Hikari Mitsushima, Eita, Ebizo Ichikawa, Kazuki Namioka, Hirofumi Arai, Munetaki Aoki, Ayumu Saito, Takashi Sasano, Takehiro Hira, Baijaku Nakamura, Goro Daimon, Yoshihisa Amano, Ippei Takahashi. Directed by Takashi Miike

 

Honor is a word whose meaning varies from culture to culture. For some, honor means keeping one’s word – when it suits them. For others, honor is all about the written word. If it’s on paper, the it’s binder. If not, a verbal agreement is worth the paper it’s written on.

For the Japanese honor has a much more stringent connotation, particularly among the samurai – their warrior class. Honor is the be-all and end-all to life for them; without it, they couldn’t exist, much less function. The samurai have always been an object of fascination, even to the modern Japanese. Of late, there has been a revival in the samurai film, the genre of film that is perhaps as uniquely Japanese, a signature to their entire national film identity as Bollywood is to India.

Hanshiro (Ichikawa), a ronin (masterless samurai) shows up at the castle of Lord Kageyu (Yakusho) asking leave to commit hara-kiri – ritual suicide by disembowling himself with his own sword – in the castle courtyard. Kageyu is willing but regales him with a story – of a young samurai who had recently come to his door asking the same thing. There had been a rash of false suicides – ronin who came to their door asking to commit hara-kiri but not intending to go through with it, instead using the ritual as a means of getting money or employment. The lord and his samurai made sure, however, that the young samurai followed through. He begged that three ryu be sent to his family to pay for treatment of his sick wife and son, then he committed the ritual disembowelment – although he only had a bamboo sword, adding to the agony of the act.

Hanshiro also has a tale to tell; one of his daughter Miho (Mitsushima)  who had fallen in love with the gentle, bookish Motome (Eita), her childhood friend. They got married and had a baby, but the clan both Motome and Hanshiro served had displeased the shogun. He ordered that their castle be dismantled so that a new clan might build their own, the samurai dispersed. Samurai have no skills other than those they’d been previously using; finding work was next to impossible for them.

They were getting desperate; Motome was selling off the few possessions he had to get food but Miho, who had always been sickly, is having trouble taking care of the home and the baby. As winter arrives, their struggle becomes life or death but Motome has a plan.

Miike is best known for his cult classic Ichi the Killer and more recently the samurai epic 13 Assassins. He has a reputation as a director who doesn’t let convention get in the way of telling a good story. He constantly pushes the edge, with varying degrees of success. He certainly is prolific; something like 54 films already under his belt and he’s just barely passed 50 and his pace is picking up. Most of his films don’t make it to America – about one in five do.

The ones that do are always interesting. They don’t always connect with me but they always have something that grabs my imagination. This one is no different and in many ways actually exceeds expectations. It’s not my favorite of his movies but it’s right up there.

The cinematography, like many Japanese movies, is superb. The landscapes lend itself to beautiful images. Even the impoverished village where Motome lives with his family has a kind of serene beauty. I think one of Miike’s conceits is that beneath the beautiful veneer are ugly things – like Motome dropping an egg he’d purchased with a book he’d sold and licking the yolk from the ground because he was starving.

The performances here are quite restrained. Ichikawa is at times the concerned father, the proud father-in-law, the wise sage and the fearsome warrior. Each co-exists within the other within Hanshiro and each appears as needed. Yakusho captures the essence of a powerful man; by his own rigid code of honor he has done nothing wrong and is convinced that he has acted properly. The conflict between Kageyu and Hanshiro is inevitable but also understandable. Hanshiro has learned through grim experience the fearsome cost of the rigid code of the samurai.

The hara-kiri scene is excruciating. The young samurai is forced to kill himself with a bamboo sword which bends and splinters while he is exhorted to twist the blade by a sadistic second. It is one of the few scenes in the movie that have any gore involved (Miike is well-known for showing realistic carnage in his films) and it is hard to watch at times. The more sensitive readers might want to give some thought before seeing the movie.

But the rest of the movie is much more character driven rather than action driven, which makes that scene all the more jarring – and all the more intense. I think by doing that, Miike made the scene far more powerful because it’s not just one stomach-turning scene among many. It’s unforgettable but again, I must stress that it’s not for the weak-stomached.

The nature of honor is a powerful question, but particularly in Japanese society so it’s no wonder that these sorts of film appeal to them as a nationality. For me, this is a compelling look into the samurai culture which shows the darker elements of the samurai code, which sets it apart from the many films that celebrate it.

REASONS TO GO: Subdued performances make for a subtle character study rather than a typical bloodbath. Well-choreographed action sequences as well.

REASONS TO STAY: The hara-kiri scene is brutal and hard to watch. The pacing is slow and it’s possible that the middle section could have been trimmed some.

FAMILY VALUES: Not a lot of gore but when it’s there it’s quite intense. Definitely not for small children although teens who aren’t too squeamish might enjoy it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although there was another movie of that name from 1962 with a similar theme, this isn’t a direct remake.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100. The reviews are very good in general.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lone Wolf and Cub

SWORD LOVERS: The swords used in the film are modeled on genuine samurai swords of the period. Motome’s bamboo sword was not uncommon in the era either.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

13 Assassins (Jusan-nin no shikaku)


13 Assassins

I don't know if I could fight with a straight face against a bunch of guys with dinner plates on their heads.

(2010) Samurai (Magnet) Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuki Iseya, Goro Inagaki, Masachika Ichimura, Mikijiro Hira, Hiroki Matsukata, Ikki Sawamura, Arata Furuta, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Masataka Kubota, Sosuke Takaoka, Seiji Rokkaku. Directed by Takashi Miike

When you are trained to a life of service and honor is your most prized possession, justice is an important and necessary function of what you do. When justice is replaced by cruelty and barbarism, what is an honorable man to do?

In feudal Japan, the tradition of the samurai is on the wane as the Land of the Rising Sun slowly but definitely approaches the Meiji era, kicking and screaming in some places. The Shogun is still the de facto political power, deriving his power from the Emperor but in many ways wreathed in more temporal power than he.

The one currently in power has appointed his half-brother (and son of the previous Shogun) Lord Naritsugu (Inagaki) as his heir and the head of the country. Naritsugu, however, is corrupt and amoral, raping and killing without fear of reprisal because of his standing. Even other feudal lords aren’t immune as he attacks members of other clans without conscience. The country is on the verge of being plunged into civil war and even the Shogun knows it. He cannot openly oppose his half-brother or demote him from his position; to do so would lose tremendous face for him. However, through back channels he approaches one of the few samurai left who are honorable but without master – Shinzaemon (Yakusho).

Shinzaemon is shown the proof of Naritsugu’s depravity; a limbless woman whose tongue has been torn out, the wife of a peasant who dared speak out against Naritsugu’s depravations. She has been repeatedly raped and when asked what became of her family, she took a brush in her mouth and wrote out the words “TOTAL MASSACRE” before letting loose a wordless animal scream that is as compelling a moment as you’ll see on the screen this year – and also much more indicative of Miike’s usual style.

Shinzaemon knows that Naritsugu will be nearly impregnable in his palace in Edo (Tokyo) but awaits him to leave for the long journey to his home castle. He knows that even the well-protected Naritsugu will be vulnerable on the road. He can’t have a very large army like Naritsugu does; a pitched conflict would probably not end well for Shinzaemon and quite frankly would further destabilize the situation.

No, this is meant to be an assassination and to make it happen, he enlists the help of twelve like-minded samurai, including his nephew Shinrouko (Yamada). The task is made doubly difficult because Shinzaemon’s protégé Hanbei (Ichimura) is Naritsugu’s bodyguard and while Hanbei doesn’t approve of what Naritsugu does, he is loyal to his master as a samurai should be and will protect him to the best of his abilities, which are considerable.

Shinzaemon’s plan is to divide Naritsugu’s forces and send him through a specific town. In order to do that, he has to bar his travel across a single bridge. Fortunately, the clan that owns that bridge is more than happy to send Naritsugu on his way. The stage is set but Shinzaemon has to get ahead of Naritsugu by traversing a mountain. Unfortunately he gets lost but he comes upon a hunter named Koyata (Iseya) who while descended of samurai stock actually finds the samurai quite boring and unexciting.

Once they get to the village they turn it into a death trap with hidden fortifications, explosives and burning bulls (CGI flames animal lovers – don’t get your panties in a twist). However when Naritsugu arrives later than anticipated, Shinzaemon’s plan is thrown into disarray when it is discovered that rather than the 70 soldiers that they estimated he had with him, he has more than 200, a ploy used by the clever Hanbei to buy time to get reinforcements.

This leads to an epic battle in which much blood will be spilled, heads will roll, heroes will fall and Hanbei and Shinzaemon will cross swords at last. Will justice be served?

Miike is best known for his twisted and sometimes graphic horror films, but there are some who find his sensibilities a bit of an acquired taste. Fortunately, it’s a taste I’ve acquired. Miike has a reputation for deconstructing different genres when he attempts them (slasher horror, superhero and so on). He is incredibly prolific although this one seems to have taken more time than he usually does.

In fact, in a somewhat surprising move, Miike has opted to play this one more or less straight (other than a few occasional images including the limbless lady) which considering the depravity of Naritsugu probably brought up a few of Miike’s admirers up short. Samurai movies are a staple of Japanese cinema, and pretty much reached their nadir with Seven Samurai, Kurosawa’s epic (which inspired, among other things, The Magnificent Seven. This is based on a movie from the same era from a different director and perhaps more in need of a remake but Miike does surprisingly well.

The cinematography is beautiful and ugly at once, with lush Japanese countrysides and bucolic villages combined with horrifying images of brutal violence. The final battle sequence takes up nearly half the movie and is the reason you’re going to either love this movie or hate it; some will find the sequence too overwhelming and over-the-top, some too long and others might even find it not long enough. In any case, how you feel about battle sequences is largely going to determine how you feel about 13 Assassins.

The acting is pretty decent here. Of note is Japanese rock star Inagaki who plays the powerful Lord as almost childish in his petulance crossed with an amoral serial killer and rapist. He is completely corrupt and without any sort of morals – sort of like a Wall Street CEO who suddenly realizes he can get away with anything.

Yakusho is a big star in Japan and he shows why here. He is charismatic and powerful, a man used to being obeyed (at least Shinzaemon is) and certainly confident in his talents. Shinzaemon is a man worthy of respect (and if you don’t show him the respect he deserves, he’s liable to lop off your head) and is a worthy leader of these disparate samurai. Iseya provides much-needed comic relief. He is agile and monkey-nimble, but surprisingly strong using rocks and sticks to kill his armed and armored opponents.

Part of the movie’s problem is that 13 are really too many samurai for us to get to know properly. Most are little more than a single personality trait that quickly gets lost in the carnage. Remembering their names? Forget about it. I couldn’t always keep them straight and I’m usually pretty adept at that sort of thing.

What this boils down to is an epic struggle, one in which honor takes center stage. The honor of a man avenging injustice against the honor of a man defending his master until the bitter end. It is truly a morality play, Japanese-style and the swordplay and buckets of blood are merely window dressing on it. This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if you like samurai films you’ll like this one. If you like extensive battle sequences showcasing the sword skills of samurai you’ll love this one. If you like character development, you might want to give this a pass.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of awesome battle sequences, lots of blood violence and a truly hiss-able villain.

REASONS TO STAY: A little on the too long side, and it is difficult for Western audiences to really get too involved with the individuals who, except for the top three or four leads, aren’t developed as characters very much.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of bloody violence, some disturbing images, a rape and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story was based on an actual incident in feudal Japan, and was previously made into a black and white movie in 1963.

HOME OR THEATER: The epic scope of the film virtually screams theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Stuff