’47 Ronin’ Set Visit Report: A Fantastical Spin on An Epic True Story

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47 Ronin Movie Set Visit Report 47 Ronin Set Visit Report: A Fantastical Spin on An Epic True Story

It’s a crisp, clear, June day at Shepperton Studios in London and scores of extras adorned in brightly colored kimonos are preparing to shoot a key sequence in Universal Pictures’ 47 Ronin. Screen Rant was invited to visit the set of the Keanu Reeves-led film, along with a select group of journalists, to get an early look at the action and chat with producer Pamela Abdy, director Carl Rinsch, Reeves and his co-stars Hiroyuki Sanada and Kou Shibasaki.

Screenwriter Chris Morgan (Fast Five, Fast & Furious 6) initially pitched the idea of taking the true story of the “Forty-seven Ronin”, and giving it a fantastical spin. Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove) later boarded the project to do additional rewrites. The essence of the real-world events are that a group of samurai were left without a leader after their feudal lord Asano Naganori was made to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) after assaulting an official named Kira Yoshinaka. The ronin (leaderless samurai) then regrouped and planned for a year to avenge their master’s honor by killing Kira. 47 men went in to avenge the death and 47 men came out. The ronin were then granted an honorable death, and joined their master in death, also committing seppuku. Their story became the stuff of legend and has been retold every year in Japan around the time of the anniversary.

**Spoiler Warning: We briefly touch on some of the basics of the real story of the 47 Ronin.**

This version of the tale seeks to both honor the Japanese roots and draw in a western audience. In it, Kira is an ambitious villain aided by a powerful witch played by Rinko Kikuchi. Mythic beasts and otherworldly creatures inhabit the created universe, bringing the element of fantasy into the grand-scale battle sequences. Additionally, Lord Asano (this version’s betrayed leader) has a daughter, Mika (Kou Shibasaki) who serves a few purposes. Mika is there to represent the hopes for the fallen Ako, Lord Asano’s home, she also stands-in for its repressed people, as she is forced into an engagement with Kira. Perhaps most significantly, though, she has a forbidden love story with Kai (Reeves), a “half-breed” her father took in when he was young. Kai is, as Reeves says, the “other” of this adventure. As such, part of his purpose is to introduce the audience to the world of the Bushido honor code.

47 Ronin Official Set Visit Photo Keanu Reeves 570x380 47 Ronin Set Visit Report: A Fantastical Spin on An Epic True Story

“When I first read the script, it had kind of the largesse of a Western,” Reeves said. “The character that I played, this outsider seeking to belong… I always talk about it as a story of revenge and impossible love. For drama, that’s good stuff. It sucks in life, but in a movie that’s good stuff.”

A half-British child would have had challenges, to say the least, in feudal Japan, and certainly the distrust the samurai feel towards him initially is a part of this film. “In the story I’m discovered by Lord Asano and Oishi, (Sanada) one of the Lord’s trusted samurai, when Kai is thirteen years old,” the actor explained. “Oishi comes up to me and I’m kind of disheveled and distraught and exhausted by this stream, and I pull a knife on him. He takes my hand and he’s going to use it against me. Lord Asano says, ‘Stop.’ Oishi says, ‘My Lord, it’s a devil!” And Lord Asano says, ‘It’s a young boy.’

“So we’re showing Lord Asano as being someone who is not xenophobic, someone who has a bigger idea. Ako is this kind of Camelot. I get taken in and then we’re shown in the next sequence when I’m older and I’m a tracker. I’m tracking this beast and they’ve found a utility for me. We show that I’m treated differently by different people. Also, when I’m a young boy, I see the princess and the princess sees me. And there’s this moment where she brings me food and then we have this kind of connection that becomes unrequited love. We can’t be together; there’s a certain place we can’t go…I can’t take the princess out for dinner,” the actor concluded wryly. Reeves’ character also cannot be samurai, yet he has a role to play in the revenge tale.

47 Ronin Official Set Visit Photo Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa 570x237 47 Ronin Set Visit Report: A Fantastical Spin on An Epic True Story

For her part, Kou Shibasaki feels that it’s essential that the film, “be a good hybrid of these two cultures.” Producer Pam Abdy stressed that that was just that they aimed to do. Adby walked us through the stages of the film’s pre-visualization noting the Japanese art and folklore they were drawing upon for the fantasy aspects of the story. The color palette shifted dramatically as the tale progressed, from the gorgeous pastels of Ako thriving under its Lord, to the grim tones of the cruel Dutch Island that Kai is banished to when Asano dies.

We were able to see firsthand how the vibrant colors of Ako translated to the 3D that they are shooting in as we watched the elaborate “banishment” sequence unfold. During the scene, the Samurai surrender to the Shogun and become Ronin, as Mika (Kou) is given a year to mourn her father before being forced to marry Lord Kira (Todanobu Asano). In order to maintain a sense of authenticity this, and multiple scenes in the film, were shot in both Japanese and English in order to the help the all Japanese cast – other than Reeves – access the emotion of the scene in their native tongue before they performed in English. At the time of our visit it hadn’t been decided if both a Japanese and English version would be released. Reeves, who learned some Japanese for the part, called the multiple-language takes a challenge, but one he was eager to embrace.

Re-imaginings of the story of the victorious ronin are quite common in Japan. “There’s this thing called Chūshingura, which is the tradition of the story telling of the Forty-seven Ronin,” Rinsch explained when asked if he worried about the response to this new interpretation of the tale. “That means Chūshingura is not just a historically accurate story. It’s taking it and making it your own. There’s been the Hello Kitty Chūshingura, they’ve told the Forty-seven Ronin with all women. In Japan, people will come out with one or two films that are Chūshingura stories every year, right around Christmas time.” The director likened it to modernized or revamped versions of Shakespeare, saying, “When I first looked at it, I went, ‘Oh, wow, this is hallowed ground. I don’t want to trespass on it. I don’t want to f**k up a national, iconic, story.’  But then I started realizing, no – that’s the fun of it, is to make it your own. And what Chris Morgan had done from the very beginning was to say, ‘What if you made some of the samurai story a fantasy?’ And so we just leaned into that and invested that.”

47 Ronin Official Set Visit Photo Carl Rinsch 570x380 47 Ronin Set Visit Report: A Fantastical Spin on An Epic True Story

Adding, “We said, ‘What are some of the fantasy characters I, as a westerner never heard of?’ The more I looked into it, the more I saw that the myth and the fantasy of Japan had more characters in it than Marvel could ever have in their entire menagerie. So, I thought, ‘Okay, this is an opportunity to do something totally, totally different. So, our version of Forty-seven Ronin, our Chūshingura story is going to be a samurai fantasy epic.  I thought, ‘That’s cool. I haven’t f***ing seen that before. Great! Kurosawa on meth!’”

“Everyone here who’s doing the film likes the idea of a reinterpretation,” Reeves agreed. “Everyone likes the idea of telling the story, but also making a Hollywood movie and making it fantastical.”

“It’s a good way to make an international film,” Hiroyuki Sanada explained. “Because his (Reeves’) character is there we can introduce our culture to the world.” This is the second version of Forty-Seven Ronin that the actor has been a part of and, aside from the international nature of the project, the ultimate appeal of the role was the idea of doing a hybrid fantasy-samurai film.

47 Ronin Official Set Visit Photo Film Crew 570x380 47 Ronin Set Visit Report: A Fantastical Spin on An Epic True Story

“I’ve done a lot of Samurai films in Japan before,” Sanada said. “Sometimes I’ve done the choreography by myself. There’s a great choreographer on this set and sometimes it’s Hong Kong style all mixed in. We tried to make a contrast between Keanu’s special skills (which he learned from some of the mystical beasts) and traditional Samurai style. The fighting style between his character and ours is very different. This was peaceful period in Japan – the Edo period is so peaceful. Even the Samurai were learning sword fighting in the schools, never fighting in real-life. But Keanu’s character had to survive, had to kill someone to survive. At the beginning even the samurai have never killed anybody before in real life. We can learn from Keanu’s characters. No rules in real fights, so you have to use everything.”

For his part, Reeves referred to the action sequences as a combination of Speed and The Matrix. The actor says that the 3D is used to bring the audience into the experience, as if they are walking on stage with the actors. Rinsch emphasized how important it is to him that he use the medium as an accent, to play with it like music, rather than as a gimmick. Elaborate, sweeping sets were built for the production in order to provide an organic sense of place.

“Instead of doing it like the 300 is and make it very much shot on a stage with a big green screen, we said we’re going to opt for everything,” Rinsch said. “We’re not going to say that this just has visual effects in it, and we’re not going to make what could be a boring period piece. We’re going to do everything. We’re going to have the big sets, we’re going to have the big costumes, we’re going to have the big real action sequences, and we are going to have CG augmentation, CG environments, CG characters, and CG fights as well.”

47 Ronin Official Set Visit Photo Hiroyuki Sanada 570x380 47 Ronin Set Visit Report: A Fantastical Spin on An Epic True Story

That’s not the ultimate point for the director, though. “There are two thrusts of the movie, emotionally,” Rinsch explained. “Yes it looks really cool and boy there’s going to be big effects, but it’s really the story of Oishi’s revenge and this is the story of Kira’s love story with Mika. There is inherently in it the message of what you do in this life resonates into the next. Righting a wrong here is going to resonate for future generations, which is cool.”

Check out the latest 47 Ronin trailers here.


47 Ronin opens in theaters December 25, 2013.

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  1. “We’re going to do everything. We’re going to have the big sets, we’re going to have the big costumes, we’re going to have the big real action sequences, and we are going to have CG augmentation, CG environments, CG characters, and CG fights as well.”

    Well you would hope so for a reported $225m budget!

    • Why, you bought shares?

      • Nope, but seeing as I will be helping them recoup that money I would hope it’s at least going to be a spectacle.

        • and there I was thinking going to the movies is a leisure, not an investment… oh, the naivety !

          • Really not sure why you’re baiting? If I go to the cinema it is both a leisure and an investment of my time and money, the two aren’t exclusive. Is it unreasonable to expect a large budget movie to be a spectacle?

            • I’d say it’s unreasonable to _expect_. The admission ticket gives you the right to watch the movie, not to audit the budget.

              • How have I performed an audit on the budget?

                The director is talking the movie up, effects, set pieces, action sequences, CGI etc so that people will expect to see a spectacle?

                Why is it unreasonable to expect to be entertained by a movie?
                Why do you think trailers exist? so that people will be interested, excited and compelled to watch the film. If you want to watch a movie you will expect something in return.

                • I think M. might be one of those people who ignores trailers then complains when the movie turns out bad because he/she didn’t bother watching the trailer first and is so butt-hurt about it that he/she has to ride other people who hope for a movie not to disappoint after enjoying the trailer and investing time and money into the finished product.

                  • Unless you’re the producer, you didn’t ‘invest’ anything in the finished product.

                    And no, I don’t watch trailers. I watch movies.

                    • So how do you know to see a movie then? Walk in blindly? If so then you’re what’s wrong with audiences who throw cash at a bad movie without seeing a trailer first to know in advance that it’s gonna suck.

                      I bet you don’t test other products either and are satisfied with broken items.

                      And yes, we do invest in movies. We invest time to watch and we invest our money to ensure decent returns for the studios. If a bad movie makes lots of money thanks to people like you who go without seeing a trailer first then you’re encouraging them to make sequels to bad movies that none of us need.

                      Oh well, done with this conversation now because after admitting you don’t watch trailers, I can’t take you seriously.

                    • He doesn’t watch “trailers’. He just hopes the movies themselves go off without a “hitch”.

                • Does Rinsch say he expects people to watch the movie because of the budget figure? I must have missed that paragraph, then.

                  “If you want to watch a movie you will expect something in return.” Will I ? Because you said so ?

                  • Now you’re are just making stuff up. I never said anything about Rinsch saying he expects people to watch the movie because of the budget?

                    Yes, if you want, meaning have the desire to do something, its because you get something from it.

                    • “The director is talking the movie up, effects, set pieces, action sequences, CGI etc so that people will expect to see a spectacle? ” – your own post, 47 minutes ago.

                      Ever heard of sheer intellectual curiosity?

              • Get a job. Get a girl. Get a life. Pick one or pick all. It will make you much happier than you are now, M.

                • Promise? Because that’s what was shown in some movie trailer… dunno about that.

                • The director did talk the movie up, the affects, set pieces, action sequences, CGI etc if he wasn’t talking about making it a spectacle then what was he talking about? how bland it will be? that it wont evoke any kind of emotional response?

                  • well, he definitely wasn’t saying ‘buy tickets and help us recoup the budget’.

                    • He doesn’t need to that’s what trailers are for.

  2. Aw, screw it! I’m in! This is gonna be fun. I’m taking my inner kid to the movies this Christmas.

  3. Roth I thought you weren’t at SR anymore?

    • Hey There!

      I’m at IGN, but I’d done this set visit for Screenrant. Was fun chatting with the boys again!

      • Dammit Roth, come back to us. There’s something wrong with Perri, he’s gone rogue and we need an extra pair of hands to contain him. Must be all those demonic possession movies he’s been watching recently, I dunno.

        • Perri’s a lady :)

          • That’s exactly why Roth should help. It’s one of those gender changing diseases. It’s not natural Rob, it’s not…*sobs*….natural.

  4. I hope it doesn’t bomb. I really want to see more Keanu movies.

  5. Very excited for this ,It should do well but I hope it doesn’t bomb.

  6. Sounds like it’s worth a shot.

  7. Yeah, I still like the look/sound of this movie. Might have to make a trip to the Movie Fairy this Christmas.

  8. to Dazz

    Movies are not toasters, as a living classic said. Therefore they don’t need to be ‘tested’.

    And I will go see whichever movie I please.

    • So….you wanna explain that to studios then when they make trailers to help us – the audience – decide whether we may or may not like a movie in a 2 minute feature?

      Otherwise, we’d have all wasted thousands of dollars on movies we hated due to walking in blindly without watching the trailer first.

      You can see whatever you like but please, start watching trailers first. It saves your money being wasted and it stops studios making crap because people walked in blindly and said “I’ll see…..THAT movie” and don’t know what they’re in for.

      • I’m the one who decides whether my money has been ‘wasted’ or not.
        Trailers are just a marketing gimmick. I prefer to get info about movies from other sources, thank you.

        As for the relevance of trailers to the _actual_content of the movies…. remember this?

  9. I saw the trailer on the Big D this past weekend. It looks pretty good. Crazy CGI and fighting. Looking forward to this now.

  10. Movie looks entertaining. I have put it on my Netflix list!

  11. “He doesn’t need to that’s what trailers are for.”
    I’m sorry, could you please explain ?

  12. Now I really am starting to question your intelligence?

    Trailers are designed to get bums on seats, ticket sales make box office returns, box office returns recoups budget and creates profit.

    • Oh, that must be one of the reasons I don’t watch trailers, then.