Published: Thursday December 19, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Thursday December 19, 2013 MYT 5:26:26 PM

The way of the warrior

Keanu Reeves plays Kai, a slave turned samurai in Carl Rinsch's '47 Ronin'.

Keanu Reeves plays Kai, a slave turned samurai in Carl Rinsch's '47 Ronin'.

Masterless, shamed and living in exile, a group of samurai fight to regain honour in 47 Ronin.

IN today’s world, to fight to the end for the honour of one’s fallen master is not something that could – or would – be done by anybody. This kind of true loyalty and fearlessness is no longer displayed among modern folk, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

During the Tokugawa era in Japan (or Edo period), when the shoguns were given the power to rule the country, to live and die with honour was something that everyone was bound to uphold. The samurai made up the country’s military elite and adhered to the bushido code, which is basically made up of seven virtues – rectitude, courage, benevolence, respect, honour, honesty and loyalty.

For a samurai to not live by any of these virtues is considered a dishonour to himself and disrespectful of his master and leaders.

In the movie 47 Ronin, starring Keanu Reeves and Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada, the historical tale of how 47 men fought a whole army to avenge their master’s death is once again brought to light. This time, however, fictionalised characters and story arcs have been created and mixed in the original tale to give it a Hollywood twist.

The cast of 47 Ronin at the film's premiere in Tokyo, Japan, in November: (from left) Jin Akanishi, Ko Shibasaki, Hiroyuki Sanada, Keanu Reeves, Tadanobu Asano and Rinko Kikuchi, and director Carl Rinsch.
The cast at the premiere (from left) Jin Akanishi, Ko Shibasaki, Hiroyuki Sanada, Keanu Reeves, Tadanobu Asano, Rinko Kikuchi and director Carl Rinsch.

“Yes, it’s more of a re-imagined version of the original ronin story. The historical parts of the tale are still the same, but we do have a few new characters added in, which then allowed us to look at the film from a different angle,” explained first-time director Carl Rinsch during one-on-one interview sessions with him and cast members of 47 Ronin in Tokyo, Japan.

Rinsch, a protege of acclaimed director Ridley Scott, has only previously made commercials and short films for the latter’s company, RSA.

“Of course it is different from directing a short film because there’s a bigger budget, workforce and cast, and there’s more time to do everything so it’s great. But then again, there’s more time to do everything. So you tend to go over every take again and again, pore over every single frame, edit and re-edit and re-edit ... it did get a little overwhelming but I am very happy of the outcome nonetheless,” shared Rinsch, who signed on to do the project way back in 2009.

As a result, the film’s budget rose to more than US$200mil (RM620mil) and the release date was pushed not once but twice from its original in November 2012 (later to February 2013, then December 2013). Reports of reshoots, changes in script and additional scenes demanded by the studio Universal – especially when it came to Reeves’ unnecessary romantic plot – were also plenty.

“Yes they were many problems, but I just had to deal with them; in the end, things were fine. These are challenges all filmmakers face. As long as you don’t let them get you down or lose your focus then you’re okay,” said Rinsch.

In the film, Reeves plays a “half-breed” fighter named Kai who was saved by Lord Asano Naganori (played by Min Tanaka) of the Ako region when he was a runaway child. Over the years, he starts to form a special bond with Asano’s only child Mika (Ko Shibasaki), while everyone else treats him like a slave.

47 Ronin director Carl Rinsch on set with actors Keanu Reeves and Hiroyuki Sanada
Director Carl Rinsch on set with actors Reeves and Sanada.

One day, the shogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) arrives at Ako for a celebration. Along with him came Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), a shogunate official from a neighbouring region and his army. In a devious plot to expand his territory and power, Kira tells his sorceress cohort (Rinko Kikuchi) to get rid of Asano. Using her powers, she manages to enchant Asano into drawing a sword at Kira, which is an act of crime and punishable by death.

Asano is sentenced by the shogun to commit seppuku (honourable suicide), and his land and people are placed under Kira’s rule. Asano’s samurai are stripped of their titles and live as outcasts as they are now ronin, or masterless. While their leader, Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), is placed under arrest and tortured by Kira’s men, Kai is captured and sold to foreigners at the docks.

A year passes and Oishi is released from the dungeon. He heads home to recuperate and also to plan his revenge, this time with his teenage son Chikara (Jin Akanishi), who manages to round up the other surviving ronin. In order to get things done right by their master, Oishi includes Kai in the group, bringing the number of ronin to 47. As they think of ways to avenge the untimely death of their master, the ronin must also face the challenge of being hunted by the sorceress.

Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) puts his devious plans in motion in 47 Ronin.
Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) is a deceitful man drunk on power.

“It is different from what we are used to hearing or reading but the essential parts of the story is there. The soul and spirit of the samurai are clearly shown in the story, and that’s what is important,” explained Sanada, 53. His character, Oishi, is one that he has been familiar with since young.

“My first experience of the 47 ronin was when I was eight or nine years old. I saw it on a television show and my first impression was that it was so big! After that, I saw the character of Oishi a lot in theatre, film and television. I was a child actor and every week as I watched the programme, I kept thinking to myself that I have to play this role in the future,” Sanada revealed.

For Reeves, 49, playing a fictional character in a story that is very well known and part of Japan’s history was something new and exciting. “I think of him as an outsider who yearns to be accepted, like an immigrant. He is honourable and a man of nature, which helps ground him.

“Looking at the bigger picture, I basically tried to familiarise myself with the source material and thinking about my character’s place in the story. I always thought the tale of the outsider and these ronin becoming samurai outsiders was universal because all cities and towns and places have these kinds of events and integration problems that happen.

“I tried to get in touch with who Kai is and how this affected him. I wanted my character to have a dignity and respect towards the world around him and others. I also wanted him to be capable, to be a hunter and a tracker that is connected to nature,” he said.

Kikuchi, 32, whose sorceress character morphs into several different things (most notably, a ferocious dragon) in the movie said that she did not have to train much to play her character.

Rinko Kikuchi in 47 Ronin
Rinko Kikuchi plays a sorcerer who will not think twice of killing off her master’s competition.

“My fight scenes were mostly CGI so I didn’t have to do them myself. But I had to wear (different-coloured) contact lenses the whole time and I didn’t like that. Also, my obi (kimono belt) was so tight!” she said.

Shibasaki also shared the same complaints.

“I mostly wore these modern-looking kimonos but they were very difficult to move around in as they were also heavy. However, that was actually a good thing because I had to walk a bit slowly like the women used to walk in those days, and be a lot more demure!” said 32-year-old Shibasaki. 47 Ronin is her first English-speaking movie.

As for Akanishi, learning how to ride horses proved to be a big challenge for him. “I was fine with the sword fighting and the rest of the physical training, but horse riding was something else!” said Akanishi, 29, a former member of a J-pop band called KAT-TUN. 47 Ronin is his first feature-length film.

The 40-year-old Asano, meanwhile, said that this was his first time acting in a film that portrays Japan’s history.

“My grandmother used to tell me the story of the ronin. I used to imagine myself playing Lord Asano one day because we share the same last name,” he said.

Sanada recalled the day he met Reeves. “He was in the middle of training and was drenched in sweat but he came over to shake my hands and welcome me. From that day I knew we would work well together. Through our training and filming sessions we developed a friendship and I am grateful for that. Even though he is a big star, he is a very positive person. He’s also a little shy, very humble and a little reserved... he’s ‘normal’!

“He was also very good to the other actors and was always gentle in giving advice or help. It was important for him that everyone had fun on the set.”

Reeves also only had kind words to offer on his Japanese castmates. “I am honoured to share the stage and fight with Hiroyuki as he is such a high-end fighter and a gentleman, as well as a wonderful teacher. We established a good relationship with one another, which helped a lot in building a relationship for Kai and Oishi in the film.

“The truth is that everyone was so excited about this story and participating in the world that Carl Rinsch was creating. We all got along very well and felt we were a part of something special.”

47 Ronin opens in cinemas nationwide today. 

Tags / Keywords: Entertainment, Entertainment, 47 Ronin, Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rinko Kikuchi, movies, film, Samurai, Universal