47 Ronin is one of the strangest big-budget productions in recent memory: a 3-D fantasy set in 18th-century Japan, shot in Hungary and the U.K. with a predominantly Japanese cast, and distinguished by ornate production design, arcane intrigue, and a downbeat tone which bring to mind David Lynch’s flawed-but-fascinating take on Dune. Pitched as a sort of Japanophile equivalent to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the movie takes a historical incident that has since become an essential national myth, frontloads it with supernatural elements, and then plays it completely straight. The 300-year-old story of the 47 ronin—samurai who sought revenge against the man who drove their master to suicide—becomes an epic battle of physical skill versus witchcraft. The Dutch trading post at Dejima becomes a Pirates Of The Caribbean-like hideaway, where slaves fight ogres in gladiatorial combat. Edo-era Japan functions much as medieval Europe does in dragon-and-wizard fantasies: a freeform backdrop where exaggerated historical elements and fairy-tale tropes seem equally at home.
47 Ronin’s weird, cross-referential imagery is enough to make it watchable. (Tellingly, the movie’s credits include a character called “Lovecraftian Samurai.”) That the film works as anything more than an elaborate game of guess-the-citation is a credit to two key elements, the first being its imaginative visual sensibility, an expressionist approach to costuming and set design that comes as welcome relief from the grays-and-earth-tones look of contemporary tentpole fantasy filmmaking. The color scheme (rich reds, deep purples, bursts of yellow and mint green) complements the movie’s crazy-quilt aural texture, the sound of a dozen mismatched accents—an American leading a cast with varying degrees of English fluency—intermingling. No character better exemplifies the movie’s out-there visual sense than the shapeshifting witch (a scene-stealing Rinko Kikuchi) with heterochromatic eyes who uses her long, tentacle-like hair as an extra set of limbs and occasionally disappears into a swirl of colorful fabrics.
Then there’s the movie’s minor-key fatalism, which is surprisingly faithful to the source material, at least when one considers the inclusion of fantastic beasts, immortal warrior sects, and black magic. Ôishi Yoshio (Hiroyuki Sanada) still serves as the leader of the ronin, and the strategist of their revenge against court favorite Kira (Tadanobu Asano), but the script adds a second protagonist in the form of Kai (Keanu Reeves, top-billed but offscreen for stretches of the film), a servant of partly European parentage. In a different, perhaps more box-office-savvy film, Kai would be a Western audience identification figure, but in 47 Ronin, he’s the most mysterious character, an outsider devoted to social codes of selflessness and rank, content to receive no respect from the other characters. (The role is tailor-made for Reeves’ intensely neutral screen persona.)
A Hollywood special-effects extravaganza on a thoroughly pre-modern theme is bound to hit some bum notes, and at least one part of 47 Ronin—a romance between Kai and his lord’s daughter (Kô Shibasaki)—never gels with the rest of the narrative. (The movie retains the source material’s very un-Hollywood ending.) Considering its notoriously troubled history—the $175 million project, directed by first-timer Carl Rinsch, went into production almost three years ago—some blatant re-cutting is expected; the Dejima episode, where Ôishi goes to rescue Kai from Dutch slave traders, feels like a severely shortened version of a longer sequence. But despite these flaws, the movie still amounts to a singular viewing experience: a multi-colored downer fantasy which combines bursts of imagination with a bleak worldview, resulting in something that rarely feels mainstream.