First film of the year, and one that attracted me like a flame attracts a moth. A blockbuster Japanese historical fantasy movie? Sign me up! I won’t lie, my stinky sense was tingling after seeing the rather misleading trailer but I had to satisfy my curiosity. It wasn’t as bad as the critics are making out but I’d hardly rate it as something exceptional, nor recommend it to anyone who most likely had already decided to see it.
It’s loosely – VERY loosely – based on a legendary Japanese tale of courage and loyalty. But who wants to see that? Just to be safe they added in a witch and a half-English character with supernatural skills from when he was raised by ghosts. To be extra safe, they even made the trailer entirely about those extra characters!
The original story involved the lord of a province being provoked into attacking another local lord, and being sentenced to commit ritual suicide (seppuku). This left the fate of the province in jeopardy, and the ex-lord’s samurai cast out as ronin. After a long time in exile, they finally served justice, laying down their lives to avenge their former master in a grand gesture of loyalty.
The story has been told many many times, but for this latest film adaptation much focus is put on a new character Kai (sad Keanu Reeves in Neo mode), the abandoned bastard of an English sailor, raised by the ghostly Tengu before running away and being taken in by Lord Asano. Never accepted by the samurai, Kai still catches the eye of Lord Asano’s daughter Mika who never gives up her love for him. Lord Kira wants Lord Asano’s territory (and daughter) for himself, so hatches a plot with the witch Mizuki (Pacific Rim’s Rinko Kikuchi) to manipulate Lord Asano’s death.
So much for a definitive reading of the story then. But I can’t deny the fantasy angle did spice things up a lot, I can’t imagine a straight-up samurai film would have been as marketable or watchable for Western audiences. Not that this has helped either, it’s looking to be a massive tank at the box office, maybe even losing over $100m of the film’s outrageous $170m budget. Sure it looked good but how in God’s name did they spend that much money?
Credit where credit’s due, the sets and SFX were brilliant, and I can’t really fault the cast. I think the script was the weak link though, a little too spun out at 2 hours and crammed with every cliche you could imagine for a Japanese period movie – seriously, you could stick a hat-stand up your bum in this film if you said it was for honour. Rinko Kikuchi’s crazy witch was a much-needed splash of colour to counterbalance the fairly unnecessary Kai’s blank stares.
It was fine, I didn’t leave thinking it was terrible. For all the fantasy window dressing, at its core it really did feel more like a samurai movie than anything, and I think the studio’s determination to make it into a genre-spanning action movie is the only think that truly fell flat.
Here’s the trailer we got in the UK – looking at it again, the mind boggles at why on Earth they made it like this compared to all the other trailers, it’s like it’s for another film! Plenty of dialogue that was never used, or re-edited to completely change the meaning. Bizarre!