Originally slated for a release in November of 2012, then pushed back to February of 2013 — and finally shoved even further back to December 2013 — 47 Ronin has been a long time coming. But will it work? We visited this fantasy movie's set, and here's all of the Japanese madness we witnessed.
Back in June of 2011, we went across the pond to London to get a sneak peek at the filming of Carl Rinsch's 47 Ronin. At first we weren't sure if this film was just a straight-up historical epic — but then we saw a gorgeous witch attack a princess with her hair. And we realized this film was setting itself up as the next crazy fantasy epic. So, will this reimagining of Japanese folklore impress?
For those of you not in the know, 47 Ronin is loosely based around the treasured Japanese story of the same name. 47 Ronin itself has been adapted many, many, many times in Japanese culture (these variations are called Chūshinguras — Rinsch pointed out there's even a Hello Kitty Chūshingura). The Universal adaptation is set in a Lord of the Rings-type fantasy world.
Carl Rinsch: [I thought] "What if you made some of the samurai story a fantasy?" And so we just leaned into that and invested that. OK, what are some of the fantasy characters I, as a westerner never heard of? I mean I knew of Kirin beer, but I never really, I can't imagine a real Kirin or Tengu warrior. I never knew what a Tengu warrior was, and 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 OK, 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 fucking seen that before. Great! Kurosawa on meth."
Long story (very) short — the story of 47 Ronin is centered around 47 leaderless samurai and their quest for revenge after their Master Asano is murdered. The Hollywood version has added one more soldier to this mix: Keanu Reeves who plays a distrusted "half breed" outcast named Kai, who grew up in the samurais' hometown, and lived under the protection of their master. After the foul murder, The 47 Ronin need Kai's help (for some reason). Kai becomes our window into the samurai world, and a focal point for romance, as his doomed love to the master's daughter Mika (Rinko Kikuchi) is put to the test.
The actual scene we witnessed shooting takes place immediately after the master's death. Filming outside at Shepperton Studios in London, an army of a cast assembled over a field of gravel. It was massive. This was outside of Asano's Ako castle, and the Lord master had a TON of things to parade around (even after death). Just about everything was practical, elaborate and stunning. Specifically the branches loaded with cherry blossoms. Almost every gust of wind would float a pink petal across the scene, it was ridiculous.
This was a very beautiful scene for the seriousness that was happening within it. This was the moment the 47 Samurai become Ronin, and Princess Mika learns she's about to be shipped off as someone's bride after she's done mourning the death of her father. It's all very grave, but seriously gorgeous. It was almost strange to see such somber faces framed by such beauty. But astoundingly gorgeous.
There wasn't a lot of dialogue to witness, so we can't comment on chemistry. HOWEVER. Each scene was shot in both Japanese and English. Over and over and over again. The director commented that he wasn't exactly sure which language he would use where (a blend of both, full Japanese for Japanese audiences etc.) but it was certainly an epic undertaking. Even Keanu Reeves learned Japanese, which his co-star Hiroyuki Sanada described as incredible.
Hiroyuki Sanada: On the set, switching between the Japanese and English, even for us, is very hard. It's complicated. But the first time Keanu spoke in Japanese it was a very important scene between us, and more than the dialogue's meaning, I was moved. His energy for the film, completely perfect Japanese pronunciation. It was moving, surprising, respecting.
Holy hell the scope of this movie. Carl Rinsch is not screwing around with this whole Japanese Lord of the Rings turn-it-to-11 thing.
The cast doesn't just get costumes - EVERYONE gets costumes. In the above picture the horses have outfits and even the dog (hidden to the right) has a costume (the dog!)
Pastoral shots are injected with supernatural character hunts, and secret flower-covered beasts. Giant statues are carved into the country's horizons. A character doesn't simply live in a castle — they live in a massive fortress that is at the top of a snow peak mountain. The pirate ship island isn't an island of pirates, it's literally a island made of pirate ships, morphed together into one giant, floating village.
The evil witch doesn't just conjure up magic tricks, she tortures people with her hair and TURNS INTO A DRAGON. Everything, everything, everything is epic. Nothing is understated. Which is kind of great because if you're going to create a fantasy world of wildly imaginative characters, then let it be wildly imaginative.
Here's another example we discovered on set while talking to the always fascinating Costume Designer for 47 Ronin, Penny Rose. While elaborating on how she was dressing Kira's handmaidens even the tiniest of details were pushed for significance:
Penny Rose: In the story, when she is kidnapped and taken to his castle, her lovely little girls who are wearing the cream with the tree on the back, did you spot that? If they all stand together, they are actually a Japanese screen with the tree embroidered all on their backs, so when they kidnap her, to make her even more out of her comfort zone, he gives her three hags. Is that a word you know? Hags? Old Crones. So they were in that shot, but actually they were really working in the castle looking after her, so he kind of had his own spies in there checking on her.
Sadly, we're not sure if these hags and handmaidens made the final cut (Penny said some of this had been cut) but the idea itself is completely mind blowing. The spectacle that is this film is immersed in every part of this world. Fingers crossed it actually works.
And while we're talking about costume choices, Rose's contribution to this movie absolutely reinforced Rinsch's dream to push the world building into a more fantasy realm. Everything was color coded, or given a color identity. The Shogun is Gold, the Ako Samurai is red, the love interest Mika is dressed in "pale peaches and pale apricots," the villains wear black (naturally) and the evil Witch (who sports a lovely back tattoo) wears green.
It gives the whole thing that storybook feel (as we mentioned earlier).
Probably the most exciting thing about this whole production was watching Japanese folklore and legend get turned into an exceptionally elaborate Hollywood movie (but with care). Thankfully, the Tengu warriors we'll be seeing on screen won't be some sort of sexed up Spring-breakers gang with dayglo masks, no all the historical creatures and characters were delicately translated into this fantasy CG world. Here are a few we spied:
This supernatural being was whispered to take the form (and some of their physical features) from the birds of prey. Rinsch's Tengus have a distinctively bird-like demeanor and can move faster than the human eye can see (which will be represented on screen as a sort of yellow CG swirl). Keanu and friends must make their way through the intensely tangled Tengu forrest in order to speak with this cast of creepy fellas. And of course, there will be fighting.
The audience will also get to meet the mustachioed Kirin creature, which is featured in an aggressive Kirin hunt early on in the film. Actually the Kirin chase was one of the storyboarded scenes that helped convince Keanu Reeves to attach himself to the film.
And finally the ending, which we're not going to spoil here — but for those in the know, Hollywood didn't tinker with the ending. Thank goodness, or what's the point? The director was very clear about this when asked if the studio wanted to change the finale:
Carl Rinsch: "No, absolutely not. Can't do it. You just can't do it. I mean, because that – talk about sucking out the integrity of the whole thing. So, while we can play with certain things, you can't be blasphemous. You can't say 'Ah well, they didn't really die at the end, they just took a good slap on the wrist and called it a day and they will show up in the sequel. Maybe they will die in the sequel.' You know, you can't do that. So, it's a really gutsy move on everybody's part at Universal."
And that's it for now, we'll have more, longer interviews for you later on. But for now these are our first impressions.
Full disclosure: All travel and lodging expenses were paid for by the studio.