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.
"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.
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."
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.
"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."
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.