By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist November 4, 2013 at 12:00PM
The likelihood of finding a Japanese palace, stacked with samurai, noblemen, handmaidens and the like, all dressed in their finery and numbering easily in three figures, in Surrey, on the outskirts of London, might seem minimal. But on a windy June morning, that's exactly what was in the backlot of Shepperton Studios, and to all external appearances, everything appeared entirely harmonious.
For the uninitiated, the story of the forty-seven ronin is a beloved one in Japan: based on an historical event that took place in "1702, or 1703, depending on which scholar you believe," as Rinsch told us on set. Set initially in Edo (now Tokyo), it saw one Lord Asano being forced to commit ritual seppuku (suicide), after attacking a court official named Kira. Left leaderless, the samurai under his command became ronin (masterless samurai), and spent over a year plotting their revenge, before mounting an attack on Kira's fortress. Celebrated annually in Japan on December 14th, it's become the focus of Chushingura—fictionalized retellings of the tale in theater, cinema and TV (almost every year sees a new production of some kind). But as Rinsch says, "the most [Western audiences] know about it is from the John Frankheimer film 'Ronin,' where they talk about it in the middle of the second act."
The scene that was underway as the press arrived on set was a pivotal one; in which the Shogun (Cary Hiroyuki-Tanada) oversees the surrender of Asano's samurai, led by Oishi (the great Hiroyuki Sanada, familiar both from many Japanese samurai movies, most recently "The Twilight Samurai," but also American fare like "The Last Samurai," "Sunshine," "Speed Racer," "Lost" and "The Wolverine"). Asano's daughter Mika ("Battle Royale" star Kou Shibasaki) is given a year to mourn, but will then be forced to marry the villainous Kira (Tadanobu Asano, of "Ichi The Killer," "Zatoichi," "Battleship" and "Thor" fame). Among the ranks of the newly-forged ronin is one figure who stands out, because the face belongs to the not-exactly Japanese Keanu Reeves. And it's the presence of the star of "The Matrix" that turns out to be one of the ways that "47 Ronin" is distinguishing itself from previous Chushingura.
Everyone involved from the production was keen to stress the film's respect for the original story, and Japanese culture in general—even day players were cast out of Japan, despite the European shoot, Reeves learned Japanese in order to film some takes in the language to make his fellow actors comfortable, and costume designer Penny Rose told us that, "We've all had masterclasses, we had a Japanese costumer with us... Everything's authentic, there's no zips, no poppers, no buttons, it's proper Japanese wear." But a movie budgeted at $175 million was unlikely to fly in the U.S. with an entirely Japanese cast, and producer Pamela Abdy acknowledges that having a Westernized main character, in Reeves' Kai was "helpful" in getting the film greenlit.
You can pick up as much from the trailers, but at the film's opening, Kai is found by Lord Asano as a wild, feral 13-year-old boy, lost in the woods (his mysterious origins look to play into the film later on). He's taken under the nobleman's protection, but is dismissed by the other samurai, including Oishi, as a "demon" or a "half-breed," and is used mostly as a tracker on hunts. When we talked to Reeves, he expanded on his character. "There's some samurai for who I'm a dog, and there's some like Oishi, he's like a tracking dog. But then we learn that he can fight," he added with a laugh. "We end up having the same goal, and I think by my actions, they learn about Kai, about his grace and his ferocity, and his commitment to what they're doing. So I get a certain kind of acceptance, but there's a line. I can't take the princess out for a meal."
Certainly, the Japanese actors in the film seem to approve of the change: Tadanobu Osana said on-set, "This is the big advantage that this take of the story has over the Japanese versions, by adding a new character, a new viewpoint," and Hiroyuki Sanada concurred, adding: "It's a good way to make a very international film. If it only has a Japanese cast, it's hard to introduce to the world to our culture. Because his character is there, we can introduce our culture to the world, so it's very important." But then, Sanada also told the visiting press "A lot of episodes are gone from the original, but a lot of new ideas have come in," and some of those ideas delve even further from the source material.