starring Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tadanobu Asano, Rinko Kikuchi, Ko Shibasaki, Min Tanaka, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Jin Akanishi
screenplay by Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini
directed by Carl Rinsch
47 Ronin loosely tells the true story of a vendetta by samurai retainers of the Lord of Ako province in modern western Honshu Island against those of Kira Yoshinaka, the Master of Ceremonies in the court of Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi in Tokyo. The story occurred between 1701 and 1703. What happened is this: every year the Emperor, residing in Kyoto, visited the country’s military leader, the Shogun, in Tokyo, then called Edo. The position of shogun was a hereditary one held by the Tokugawa family, the family which in 1603 prevailed after decades of fierce civil war among Japan’s many competing provinces to unite the country under one government. The Tokugawa family ruled until the 1860s when visiting American whalers and Navy ships forced the country to open to the West and admit foreign traders. That was the so-called Meiji Restoration, named after the Meiji Emperor of the time, Mutsuhito. The Meiji Restoration marks the beginning of modern Japan in 1867. The Tokugawa family still exists today. They are wealthy bankers, financiers, insurers, and property managers centered in the modern city of Mito in Ibaraki Prefecture, their ancestral home.
Anyway, the cost of this unity was totalitarian control under a strict feudal order, observance of a rigid social hierarchy and its many accompanying rituals and rules. The Shogun assigned the Emperor’s reception celebrations to the rather inexperienced rural Lord from Ako province, named Asano Akanori. Asano sought advice from the Shogun’s Master of Ceremonies, a real asshole: arrogant, cantankerous and corrupt. Upset with his treatment by the Master of Ceremonies Lord Asano wounded him with his sword inside the shogun’s Edo Castle grounds - a site still marked by a memorial. The castle no longer stands, but it is the site of the current imperial palace in central Tokyo. Unsheathing a weapon in the Shogun’s castle was such a serious breach of etiquette that Lord Asano was sentenced to death, which in those days for a man of his social position meant ritual suicide by seppuku (disembowelment).
Lord Asano was disgraced, and all of his retainers along with him. Essentially he was provoked into drawing his weapon illegally. So, 47 of his retainers set about a year-long plan to take revenge and on the night of December 14, 1702 (January 30 in the Gregorian calendar) they stormed Kira’s home in Edo and beheaded him. Of course, this was also a capital crime and all 47 were sentenced to the same samurai ritual suicide death as Lord Asano suffered.
The word “ronin” means “masterless samurai” and it describes the social status of the 47 retainers after Asano’s forced suicide in 1701.
For Hollywood purposes a totally superfluous pauper-and-the-princess love story was added between Keanu Reeves and Lord Asano’s daughter. And to make Japan seem more exotic a totally unneeded subplot of black magic was woven into it. Also, the action was changed from the capital to the countryside.
The story of the 47 ronin is famous as one of the “greatest examples of honor and loyalty in Japanese culture.” Yeah, right. It’s true that today thousands of people still visit the ronins’ grave site at the Sengaku-ji Temple in Tokyo’s central Minato Ward, near Shinagawa Station, on the December 14th anniversary of their revenge. But it’s also true that they are among the greatest examples of Japanese failure. They failed to survive their action. But that’s okay because their honor lay in their effort more than in their achievement. That’s what Japanese adore - appearances, in this case, the appearance of great effort. In his 1975 book The Nobility of Failure Ivan Morris devoted an entire chapter to this one incident. In modern times, the useless efforts of Second World War kamikaze pilots are a great example of noble failure.
You will very quickly recognize Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada from the Tom Cruise movie The Last Samurai (2003, directed by Edward Zwick), in which he played a leading role. He’s a handsome guy.