Wednesday, 1 January 2014

47 Ronin - English or Japanese?

       Note: this article was written on the 23rd of December, but I’ve only just out it up now as I was busy with other articles and was waiting for my main review of the film to be published first.

       The Keanu Reeves starring samurai epic 47 Ronin is in a strange position. Having seen it recently in Japan (it’s yet to be released in the US), I had an unusual gripe – namely to do with the language in it.

       No, I don't mean cuss words – I mean English.

       It’s ALL in English.

       So? You ask.

       Let me give you a few details first.

       47 Ronin is a classic Japanese folktale (based on actual historical events) that has been portrayed in Japanese popular culture significantly – there have already been a fair few Japanese movie adaptations throughout the years. But now a US studio, writers and director have recently made this latest version, with Keanu in the starring role as a ‘half-breed’ outcast who joins with these Ronin on their quest for revenge. So far that's all ok. Fair enough.
       A supernatural element has also been added to this version of the story - suggesting that demonic forces also played a part in the treachery that causes the Lord of Ako to commit his act of dishonour, which lead to him having to commit seppeku (ritual suicide), thus making his entire Samurai guard into Ronin (masterless samurai).
       Another slight deviation there - but I’m okay with that. It puts a fresh new spin on things and helps the movie come across as something like a live action Onimusha or Ninja Scroll. No bad thing.

       Now the big bone of contention here is that despite the story being set in Japan and all the main characters being Japanese - and perhaps more importantly - all played by Japanese people (bar Keanu of course), the whole thing is presented in English, with every member of the cast speaking their dialogue as such. Of course this happens all the time in films, but in 47 Ronin, despite everyone being proficient enough in the language, it just feels weird.

       A big problem with this is with the casting. The main actors: Hiroyuki Sanada, Tadanobu Asano and Rinko Kikuchi have all dabbled in Hollywood with English speaking roles (which is probably why they were cast), but the flipside is that they are all well known in Japan too. The fact that Keanu’s character in this could have gotten away with having a smaller role and barely has any dialogue as it is, means (character and story-wise) it didn't have to be in English…
       Except for one reason: to sell the film better in the US market.

       According to the makers, the reason why those recognizable Japanese actors were cast was for the sake of ‘authenticity’. But then why have the whole thing in English when they are no English speaking characters in the film (save for a brief scene on an island of foreign traders)? Being part Japanese myself, the whole thing just felt awkward to watch, I felt pulled out of the movie scene after scene.
       Keanu Reeve’s character Kai is supposed to be half Japanese (which I can buy) but the fact that he hardly has any dialogue anyway means that logistically the film could have worked with the whole thing being done in Japanese. Have him learn a few lines here and there – or if that's a real problem have him be a mute, which could be made to fit in with the back story of him being an outcast and a child suspected to be ‘raised by forest demons’. After all his character is made specifically for this film and has nothing to do with the original 47 Ronin folktale.

       But no – making sure the film ‘opens’ in the US is always going to be the top priority. And a foreign language film without a recognisable star in the lead isn’t going to help the studio recover their costs over their. In fact, researching the film shows that although originally scheduled for release back in November 2012, there were various reshoots and additional dialogue put in to ‘boost Reeve’s presence’, which eventually lead to it having its December 2013 release date.

       It's not that samurai's are inherently a hard sell for Western audiences - 2003’s Tom Cruise starring The Last Samurai managed it. Sure, that featured more English speaking roles in it, but the Japanese characters spoke in Japanese and that made it come across as more authentic. You could argue that the inclusion of witches and demons make the argument for authenticity in 47 Ronin a moot point, but why did they go to the effort of casting these well-known Japanese actors? Why not just have other oriental actors who work in Hollywood (for example the casting of Zhang Ziyi, Michelle Yo and Gong Li in 2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha) or American actors that just look Japanese since they are all going to be speaking English anyway?

       You may think none of this really matters, but just take a look at the box office numbers for this movie in Japan. The film is close to finishing its theatrical run here and it has only grossed $2.9m (figures taken as of 15/12/13). Considering this film cost $175m to make, the US take has a worrying amount of catching up to do when it’s released Stateside on Christmas day.
       It seems the Japanese haven’t been overly enthusiastic of this decidedly western presentation of their beloved folktale coupled with the use of certain popular actors. And that's taking into account they do actually quite like Keanu over there. Or maybe the film has just flopped because it’s really not that great a film in general.

       For me watching it, it wasn't too bad –the language thing just took me out of it a little. But imagine what it must have been like for a Japanese audience. As with most western releases over there, there are often two choices when going to the cinema. Choice number one: watch the original version – the film is in English with Japanese subtitles. Or choice number two: watch the Japanese dubbed version (yes there is that option too) – where everyone is dubbed in Japanese (perhaps even by the same actors?).
       Just imagine for a second what that must be like – everything looks Japanese and it’s set in Japan with a famous Japanese actors and yet their voices don't quite match up with how their lips are moving because it’s been dubbed? How weird must that be for the viewer? Especially if the dubbing was done by the same actor… The whole film must have come across as suffering from terrible ADR.

       On a side note, another example of the marketing attempting to bring in more interest for a western audience is the inclusion of Rick Genest (AKA ‘Zombi Boy’ – famous for having his whole body tattooed like a skeleton) in a lot of the advertising for the film. He’s in the trailer, receives billing, on most posters and promotional material – and yet he appears on screen for just a few seconds? I think he only has one line – I can’t even remember! I know film trailers/promo material is not always fully representative of the final product but that was frankly ridiculous. It just looks to be a desperate attempt to appeal more to a western audience and say ‘hey, its not just a bunch of Japanese people in this…’

       Oh well… 

       Usually I’m not too bothered about the ‘localising’ of films. If the film is successful its not even brought up as an issue (take for example, Slumdog Millionaire). It’s just that I was actually looking forward to 47 Ronin when it was first announced.
       How the studio would make and market the film obviously wouldn't allow for it, but here’s what I would have wanted: Keep the cast and story largely as it is, reduce Keanu’s role to more of a side character (let's face it – the story is really about Oishi (Sanada) leading his men) and have Keanu speak less or even not at all – which makes sense given his ‘outcast’ status. And most importantly, have the entire cast (of Japanese characters) speak Japanese. Hell, why not make it a Japanese production (then at least the swordplay would have been good). Keanu wouldn’t mind – he directed and played the villain in this year’s (Chinese produced) Man of Tai-Chi for crying out loud.

       But yeah – it’s a US production so it needs to ‘open’ in the US market, yadda yadda… Time will tell in regards to the box office, but I have a feeling they didn't really think this through when first green-lighting this idea,, and then scrambled to adjust it when they knew it wasn't going to sell well to any audience.

You can read my review of 47 Ronin at Pillow Magazine HERE.

All numbers are taken from

23rd Dec 2013

       Update: As of the date of posting (1st January) 47 Ronin has only made $22.4m at the US box office, and a total worldwide gross of $44m recovered of its $175m budget.

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