47 Ronin is not 47 Ronin and I don't mean this because of the fantasy elements in the film or even Keanu Reeves being in the film. I say this because the core of the original story has been so drastically changed to make it almost unrecognizable that even if you took out the fantasy and Keanu you would still have a film which barely resembles the original story of the 47 Ronin.
The following are the changes compared with the original story so you can see how different it is:
1. Lord Asano - his age and the circumstances surrounding his death
In the film Lord Asano is an old man in his 60s or 70s and he has a full grown daughter (Keanu's love interest BTW). The shogun comes to visit Asano's castle along with the villain, Kira. Asano is bewitched at one point and attacks Kira in the night. Because he attacked an unarmed guest, he is sentenced to seppuku (ritual suicide). The shogun then disbands Asano's samurai for some reason then tells Asano's daughter she will marry Kira after one year of mourning.
The real Asano was a younger man in his early 30s and he was a bit of a self-righteous hothead which is what got him in trouble. He was appointed to meet with envoys from the Emperor in Tokyo (or Edo as it was called then). This assignment required him to learn some of the elaborate customs of the Imperial Court. Kira was a master of such ceremonies at the Shogun's court. He was accustomed to receiving bribes for his services. When Asano did not comply, Kira began to treat him badly until one day he goaded Asano to such a degree that Asano lost his temper, took out his short sword, and tried to kill Kira. This happened within the Shogun's castle and to initiate violence there was an automatic death sentence. He was ordered to commit seppuku and his lands were confiscated. Kira was not punished for his part in the affair.
The latter two parts were important elements which led to the 47 Ronin incident. With Asano's lands confiscated all of his samurai retainers became ronin (masterless samurai) and with Kira going unpunished those ronin felt it highly unjust which led to a group of them conspiring to get revenge on him.
2. The planning of the 47 Ronin nearly non-existent
In the film after Asano dies and his men are made ronin, Keanu is sold into slavery and the chief retainer Oishi is thrown into a pit then it flashes forward one year. When Oishi is released from the pit for some unknown reason he immediately goes in search of Keanu then his men and they start planning from there.
In the actual story and in the later kabuki drama the plotting of the 47 Ronin is a big thing. They have to gather weapons and armor in secret while avoiding the spies of the Shogun and Kira and at the same time make it look like they have given up the way of the samurai. When the spies become convinced that Asano's ronin are not after revenge, the ronin begin stealing their way to Edo where some of them got jobs in disguise. They finally gather in secret and then in the dead of night march to Kira's mansion and attack.
3. The motivation of the 47 Ronin is different
In the film the fictional daughter of Lord Asano is commanded to marry Kira after she has completed the traditional year of mourning. Stopping this wedding becomes practically the main goal of the ronin. When Oishi finds Keanu in a Pirates of the Caribbean gladiator ring he brings him to his senses by reminding him of the wedding rather than taking revenge for the death of their master which was the main goal of the original 47 Ronin. Also Kira was less antagonistic towards Asano in this version. No one but Kira and the witch know why Asano attacked Kira which was that he was bewitched. There was less of a reason to kill Kira out of anger or a sense of justice in order to avenge in Asano. This Kira was less of an enemy than the real Kira who treated Asano poorly over some time.
In the original story, some of the ronin fully admitted that Asano was a hothead who acted rashly but that it was Kira's constant insults which drove Asano to the point of no return. When Kira was not punished even in the slightest the ronin felt this was completely unfair so they sought to finish the job their master had started and kill Kira.
Another part of their motivation is completely missing - their sacrifice for the sake of their master's family and their fellow unemployed samurai. When Asano was punished, his lands were confiscated from his family. The 47 Ronin hoped that their actions of taking revenge on their master's enemy would move the Shogun officials to restore those lands back to the Asano family which in turn would give the other samurai their positions back. This fact is sometimes overlooked even in Japan but it is this reason why the 47 Ronin stand out over other stories of revenge. They were not out solely for revenge - they were willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good of their community and in the end they were successful in this regard. The Shogun officials were impressed by the 47 Ronin's devotion to bushido and their willingness to sacrifice themselves that the lands were restored to the Asano family.
4. Keanu's character becomes one of the 47 Ronin and the making of the 47 Ronin group
Keanu plays a fictional character who is half-english and half-japanese raised by mystical goblins called Tengu. At the end of the film he is invited to sign his name along with the other ronin which brings them to the number 47. This time in the film though their little meeting and signing their names in dramatic fashion didn't make much sense. They had tried to attack and kill Kira just a little while ago with more men and they got slaughtered. Then they regroup and have a document signing which they press a bloody thumb print to the document. In the original story this document was signed to explain the purpose of their attack - avenge their master and restore his lands to his family - which they turned over to the authorities afterwards. In the film it doesn't make sense because they didn't do this before when they tried to kill Kira the first time when they had more men.
This scene is only in there because they have to actually reference the film title. the original 47 were pretty much in on the scheme close to the beginning and were working together in various ways. Here the 47 were thrown together right before the last attack so we hardly know any of them.
Now having Keanu as one of the 47 is just a big no no. For Japanese who know the story each of the 47 Ronin are known and have their own backstories. These were real people. Shoving a fictional character into their ranks is like having Doctor Who sign the Declaration of Independence as the Doctor. Now, dramas over the yeats have added other characters both historical and fictional to the story but they were in supporting roles like Toshiro Mifune who plays a spearman in the 1962 version who keeps some police at bay so the ronin can carry out their attack. Making Keanu's character one of the actual 47 Ronin was just disrespectful.
5. Oishi gets shafted in this depiction
The true star of the 47 Ronin historically and culturally is the chief samurai retainer of Asano - Oishi Kuranosuke. The main focal point of the story revolves around the plotting of Oishi and his tribulations of trying to throw off the spies of the Shogun and Kira by pretending he didn't care what happened to his lord. As chief retainer with a reputation of being honorable, he was closely watched by spies to see if he would attempt revenge. He divorced his wife and became a disreputable lout given to drink and cavorting with geisha. He was so convincing that once feigning drunkenness he "passed out" in the street and a wandering samurai saw him and knowing who he was kicked and spat at Oishi for dishonoring himself and his master. This helped to convince the spies that Oishi truly had given up the way of the samurai and they relaxed their guard which allowed Oishi and the ronin to sneak away to Edo/Tokyo.
Oishi's deception and devotion during the two years which passed from his master's death to the attack on Kira's mansion is the pathos of the story. Japanese audiences really feel for him and his suffering - pretending not to care when caring greatly. He has to do things which normally he would never do. This is the heart of the story. Remove that and you pretty much remove most of the story.
And that's pretty much what the film makers did by focusing more on Keanu's fictional character and almost nothing on Oishi. Oishi is just thrown into a pit for one year so we get nothing of his plotting and deceiving ie what made him the main character to begin with.
So really it isn't the dragons or Keanu that really makes 47 Ronin not the 47 Ronin. It's the changing of the most crucial elements of the story that make this film not the 47 Ronin.
This is my drunk rambling review of the film's bizarreness:
47 Ronin Festival in Tokyo:
Monday, January 6, 2014
Wednesday, January 1, 2014
Happy New Year 2014 from Tokyo! I did my usual New Year's Eve rounds hitting the temple complex of Zojo-ji with Tokyo Tower in the background, then passed through Roppongi, and ended up at Tokyo Decadance at Decadance Bar in Shinjuku.
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- Vagabond traveler currently hold up in Tokyo. I've done a far bit of traveling and had a few interesting adventures along the way. This blog is a chronicle of adventures past and present and those yet to come. I’ve been to about 30 countries though some no bigger than a kitchen table. I’ve run with the bulls of Pamplona, hiked the Inca Trail, got mugged in Mexico City, floated down the Nile in an old boat, climbed the Great Pyramid of Egypt, got ripped at Oktoberfest, and rode the notorious Tokyo Yamanote Halloween Party Train.
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