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Keanu's Samurai Training Regime, How To Shoot 3D, Committing Seppuku & More Learned On The Set Of '47 Ronin'

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist November 6, 2013 at 4:02PM

On Monday, we took you on the set of "47 Ronin," Universal's great tentpole hope for the Christmas season. Long-delayed (it was originally set for release last November) and with a troubled production history, the film tells the famous Japanese story of the 47 Ronin, former samurai who spent a year planning their revenge on the man who wronged their master, with two major twists: one is that one of their number is Kai, a "half-breed" played by Keanu Reeves, the other is that the vision of first-time director Carl Erik Rinsch was to set the film in "a dream of Japan," with fantastical creatures and heightened action.
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47 Ronin,

Even CGI characters need to have their costumes designed.
We were curious as to what kind of input the costume designer on a giant movie like this has on the CGI-only characters, and put the question to Rose on set. The answer? "What tends to happen in these big films is that if you let the computer generators create the costume, sure as eggs as eggs, at one point, they'll ask for a real version. For me to then recreate what they've digitally done, is really hard. So I start, and they then take it away. They make it bigger and better than mine, but at least there's a start point."

Co-star Hiroyuki Sanada has been helping Reeves with his samurai etiquette.
When starring in a samurai movie, as a Westerner, it helps to have a co-star well-versed in the genre, and fortunately, Reeves fights side-by-side with HIroyuki Sanada in the film. According to the star, it's been a great boon having the Japanese legend on-set. "Hiroyuki Sanada is pretty fantastic with a sword," Reeves relates, "films like 'Twilight Samurai,' 'The Last Samurai.' I grew up with Sonny Chiba [movies], and I remember we were doing a camera test, and I asked him 'Hiro, how many samurai films have you done?' And he said 'Twenty.' And then I asked him again, and he said 'Thirty.' One day, in Los Angeles, in training, he came over cause he wanted to talk about the work, he was warming up a bit. I was taking lessons from this gentleman. And he says to the guy, 'Ok, do an overheard strike.' So he goes like this, and Sanada goes like, 'pew-pew,' and the blade is like this, against his Adam's Apple. So I was like, 'Ok, that's the bar.' And I haven't reached it, because he's so fantastic. But what's great with working with someone who's so experienced is that he's very generous with help. 'Look here, put your balance here, move like this,' he's great with all of the cast, making sure everything's right, checking how you wear your swords. He is Oshii. He's this guy who's looking out for everyone."

Sanada is as big a fan of Keanu as Keanu is of him
Reeves might have learned a lot from Sanada, but it hasn't just been a one way street: Sanada has a clear and sincere respect for his co-star. "He loves and respects the culture. It surprised me, when I first met him, he knew a lot already, and he'd learn a lot more. He learned Japanese, it was incredible. The first time he spoke Japanese, it was a very important scene between us. I was very moved. All the walls were gone."

47 Ronin, set visit

Japanese samurai swords could swap parts out, but the blades were always at the core.
Weapons master Simon Atherton gave us a brief masterclass in the world of samurai swords, and it turns out that often, the swords were made up of interchangeable components around one core blade. "The blade is the most prized item," Atherton explained, "and you can have a complete set of kit for Sunday or weekday, you could have different scabbards, a different handle, if you're going out on a Sunday, you could change all the components on your sword, but the blade is the most prized thing, that was handed down from family to family. A lot of Japanese soldiers in WW2 went to war with their family sword, that dates back 4-500 years. And I still think the Japanese are hunting for about ten of them, that's ten of them that disappeared after the Pacific War."

There was a grisly method for evaluating the worth of a sword
These days, Atherton says, a samurai sword can fetch up to $15,000, but it's unlikely that modern dealers use the same methods to evaluate the value of a blade as were used in the samurai era. "To test a samurai sword," the weapons master related, "you'd find out how many people it could cut through. And what they would do is they would make a mound of earth, pad it all out, and make it soft underneath, and then lay bodies on top of the mound. And depending on how many bodies it cut through, it would be marked on the hilt. And that sword would then become even more valuable. So you can see why they'd do it later on in life, when they thought 'Sod it, I'm going to die, if it breaks it breaks, but if not, I'm hanging on to it as a heirloom.'" And it wasn't just cadavers being used. 

"Occasionally, they'd cut people when they were alive. You'd be taken as a person and strapped to a board, and they would sever you. One criminal who said, 'Why are you doing this to me?' because normally you'd decapitate the person first, and then test the sword afterwards. And they said, 'The judge has said you have to be killed,' and his reply was, 'If I'd known this, I would have eaten some stones, so I could have ruined your blades.'"

Samurais could carry up to three different blades.
Most of us with passing knowledge of samurai movies associate the katana — the long, two-handed sword — with the warriors. But as Atherton explained, there were three different variations, for different purposes: "A weapon like [a katana], inside a Japanese building, it's like fighting in a forest, by the time you've got it up, you've connected to the wall behind you, and you can't swing it. So you'd take indoors a wakizashi. It's kind of an offense to go indoors with a katana, so at the entrance to any building, you'd give up your katana, but you wouldn't go in undefended, you'd take in a wakizashi," he explained. "If I came into your house, depending on how I presented myself to you that's how well I feel with you. So if I sit down and place my sword on my left side, if anything's going to kick off, I can instantly go for my blade. If I place it on the right, it's a sign that I'm happy to be in your presence, so there's a whole tradition of how comfortable you feel, and where you place your sword."

And for the deep and dirty work, you'd use a sword called a tanto. "You'd carry a katana and a wazikashi if you were walking about the streets, if you were in full armor, I would probably carry my katana and my tanto. The tanto is for finishing off anyone on the ground, that you wouldn't want to waste a [katana] blow on. The tanto is also the weapon you use for seppuku."

47 Ronin, Keanu Reeves

Ever wanted to know how to commit seppuku? Look no further
Seppuku — the ritualized suicide exclusive to samurai, used either as a way of dying with honor in the face of capture, or forced as punishment — plays a key role in the film. And Atherton gave a brief masterclass on how to pull it off. "There's a whole tradition to committing seppuku. It's very ritualized, you'd have a little table with a meal on it, a little plate. You would have your meal, you'd write a poem, about four lines, and then you'd pick up the blade. Normally, it's just the blade, without the hilt on it, though sometimes you'd have the hilt on it. And then there'd be a piece of tissue, and you'd hold the blade there, with the tissue wrapped round, and only use the last inch and a half of the blade. Because what you have to do is cut the stomach, you can't enter the stomach, you have to cut the skin of the stomach," he said. "You go in, you come across, and if you really felt up to it, you'd go up. And the whole idea is that everything fell out. At that moment, you'd fall forward, and then your second would cut your head off. It became very ritualized later on, in that all you had to do was reach for your blade, and your second would cut your head off, you didn't have to go through all of that."

The director believes that 3D should be used like music.
"47 Ronin" was actually one of the earlier live-action films to shoot in native 3D, although other subsequent films have hit theaters first. Even at the time, Rinsch was aware that he needed to be careful with how he used the stereo format. "We don't want to be that sort of in-your-face, ping-ponging balls against the screen or swords up in your grill all the time. But at the same time, I saw 'Tron: Legacy', and I liked the movie, but [the 3D] felt too subtle for me. I think your eye kind of compensates, you're watching the movie, and about 50 minutes in, and be like 'Is it still 3D?' So I think you have to play with it like music. Like 'Transformers,' you can't just have a bunch of action. I fell asleep in the second 'Transformers,' just because it was the same note for two hours, it doesn't have music to it. So we're trying to use it like music, like saying it's going to get a little bigger here, then mellow out, then ramp up. And I think that will help you." 

The practicalities of shooting with the huge 3D cameras also meant that Rinsch had to go old-school with the way he shoots the film. "It's a very classical approach," he says. "The cameras are so big they're the size of Volkswagens, so what do you do with cameras like that? You have to revert to the way they did it with Hitchcock and David Lean. I can't do handheld, the camera's just too damn big."

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47 Ronin,
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This article is related to: 47 Ronin, Keanu Reeves, Carl Erik Rinsch, Interviews, Hiroyuki Sanada, Interviews, Interviews, Interview, Feature


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