London -- Or is it 1700’s Japan? Cherry blossoms erupt from the trees that line the courtyard of ‘Ako.’ The Shogun’s warriors wear golden armor complete with grimacing masks that intimidate while they shine in the sun. It’s a sad scene, 47 Samurai are surrendering themselves to the Shogun. Soon they will be banished and become the “47 Ronin.”
It’s a spring morning at Shepperton Studios outside of London, and our small group of mostly American and mostly jet-lagged journalists is touring the production of “47 Ronin.” Most of us are approaching this project with a pretty blank slate.
Until this point, (June, 2011) the only news of the production that had reached the U.S. was from a London press conference announcing that Keanu Reeves and a mostly Japanese cast including Hiroyuki Sanada (The Wolverine) and Rinko Kinkuchi (Pacific Rim) would be starring in a westernized adaptation of a famous Japanese story of samurai loyalty and revenge based on real events that took place in the 1700’s.
Over the course of the day, as we tour the elaborate outdoor sets of castles and courtyards, and as we speak to the filmmakers, the larger concept comes into focus.
Very briefly: The historical basis of the story involves the feudal lord Asano who embarrasses/discgraces himself by attempting to kill Kira, a protocol official who had insulted him during an imperial reception. The Shogun takes Asano’s lands and sentences him to commit ritual suicide for this dishonor, however Kira is left unpunished. Asano’s band of samurai are then left leaderless and landless, AKA ‘Ronin.’ A year later, these 47 Ronin, led by their leader Oishi, return and extract revenge on Kira by beheading him and putting his head on Asano’s grave on December 14th, 1702.
Of course these are honorable men and they turn themselves in to the authorities. They are subsequently sentenced to also commit suicide for being more loyal to Asano than to their Shogun. They comply and off themselves simultaneously.
Soon after these events took place, the story has been adapted and fictionalized countless times in Japanese literature, the puppet arts of Bunraku, Kabuki Theater and later in TV and film. So many times in fact that the re-telling of the story has become it’s own genre with it’s own name: “Ch?shingura” (literally, “The Loyal League.”) It is a modern tradition, we are told, to have a new Ch?shingura adaptation on Japanese television every December 14th, Like a suicide-heavy Christmas special.
Got all that?
Producer Pamela Abdy walks us through the story and we learn that like all Ch?shingura, “47 Ronin” greatly deviates from the historical events and the story has been expanded to include new characters. Most notably Kai (Keanu Reeves) a half British, half Jpanese orphan who is rescued from the wild by Asano, but rejected by the Samurai/Ronin. Also, the character of princess Mika (Kou Shibasaki) the daughter of Asano and love interest of Kai.
Yes, it appears that two of the main characters of this particular Ch?shingura are not bound by history to kill themselves. We will have to wait for the final film to be certain.
Of course this deviation is justified by director Carl Rinsch as such: “Ch?shingura is not [about making] a historically accurate story. It’s taking and making it your own. There's been the Hello Kitty Ch?shingura, right? It’s like Romeo and Juliet, You know, there's the gay Romeo and Juliet and then there's the gangster Romeo and Juliet, the same thing with 47 Ronin”
We also learn, through some amazing concept art, that this Ch?shingura takes place in a supernatural version of feudal Japan. Mythical beasts from Japanese folklore like the Kirin (yes, like the beer) and dragons are common sights, and the bad guys ranks are reinforced by evil witches capable of sexily shape shifting.
[Click to page 2 for more pics and story]