Making the Grades
47 Ronin is based on a celebrated Japanese story of a group of samurai. But historical facts take a back seat to fiction in this Hollywood version that includes a new character to the story. Kai (Keanu Reeves) is a half-breed taken in by Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) when he was a boy. With a cast of Asian actors in this film, Reeves is presumably there to offer a familiar face to North American audiences. He also serves as a forbidden love interest for Asano’s daughter Mika (Kô Shibasaki).
When an evil witch (Rinko Kikuchi) puts Asano under a spell, he nearly kills a rival lord named Kira (Tadanobu Asano) in the presence of their superior Shogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). In order to restore his honor after the assassination attempt, Asano is obliged to commit seppuka, or ritual suicide. The Shogun then gives his kingdom to Kira, and orders the new ruler to marry Mika in order to settle further disputes. Graciously, the Shogun allows the grieving girl one year to mourn her father’s death before the wedding.
In the wake of Asano’s death, the samurai who were formerly under his command become ronin—disgraced soldiers without a leader. Their degraded social status forces them to roam the countryside looking for ways to support themselves. Still Ôishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), Asano’s second in command, and the other samurai harbor a desire to avenge their dead master. Aware of the watchful eye of Kira and his soldiers, the men meet secretively to avoid being detected while they gather weapons and make plans. Although they have always been leery of the mixed-raced Kai, believing he is a demon, their unfortunate circumstances give them a reason to now accept the loner who also wants revenge on the warlord.
Honor becomes the driving force for these men. And they and their families are required to make incredible personal sacrifices to restore their reputations. In this cultural setting, that means a number of other characters must take their own lives as well. Most of the conflicts, including the suicides, are relatively bloodless. Other frequent violence involves sword fighting, decapitations, burnings and beatings. Villages are razed and one woman appears to be raped. Thankfully there is little in the way of sexual content and profanities are non-existent.
While the film has some stunning visuals, the ronin and their motivations are sadly underdeveloped. Rather than depict the depth of their loss, both in their own eyes and that of their society, the story plays out like a prolonged video game with one unrealistic opponent after another to overcome. Instead of a tale of integrity, 47 Ronin does little more than scrape the surface of a legendary event and the warriors who adhered so strictly to the law of the samurai.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about 47 Ronin.
Learn more about Ronin.
Why is one’s honor so central to Japanese culture? Do you agree with the methods these men used to restore that respect? What was the personal cost to them? To their families? Why does the Shogun allow Ôishi’s son to live?
Why were the men punished for living the code of the samurai?
How does the movie version differ from some of the historical retellings of the event?