Kai is a "half-breed," the offspring of a British sailor and a Japanese peasant. He was also raised by demons, it's said, after being left to die by his mother in the dank and supernaturally infested Tangled Forest. Many of his 18th-century compatriots would want that kind of boy killed―even if he was found scarred and battered and otherwise pitiable while trying to flee that wicked place.
Lord Asano, however, is not a man ruled by superstition or the fear of others. What he sees is an abandoned, savaged boy, a youth in need of protection. And so he takes Kai in and allows him to grow up alongside his own child. For this, Kai is eternally grateful. And he swears to dedicate his life to serving and protecting both Lord Asano and his beloved daughter, Mika.
His are not idle words, nor is it an easy task. For in this fantastical feudal Japan there are many dark things at play. There are those who plot to grab power and steal away kingdoms. And one of those schemes, forged by Lord Asano's rival in a neighboring province, Lord Kira, uses a shape-shifting witch's handiwork to bring Lord Asano great shame.
It's a shame that can only be expunged by the good ruler taking his own life.
The land's supreme lord and leader, Shogun Tsunayoshi, decrees that Mika should marry Lord Kira after a period of mourning, and that no efforts be made to avenge Lord Asano's death. But some suspect that there's a deeper truth to this tragedy. Oishi is Lord Asano's top-ranking samurai, and he knows that Kira is surely behind it all. He knows that true justice will only come when Kira is defeated and Mika is rescued.
The task at hand will take courage and strength and as many other masterless, ronin samurai as he can gather. It will also require help from Kai. For while others scoff, Oishi is certain that the despised, demon-raised "half-breed" is the key to healing the land. He came back from that place of demons with vital skills, Oishi knows, dark skills that will bring honor back to their dead and disgraced lord.
In this ancient Japanese society, honor is held high. That results in some ugly things in this story, including numerous suicides, but it also drives people to do good. It motivates Lord Asano to protect a young vulnerable Kai, and it causes the ronin samurai to put their lives on the line to protect Mika and right a great wrong. For her part, Mika rushes in to cover Kai and protect her childhood friend with her own life, if necessary, when Kai is about to be killed.
We're told that feudal Japan is rife with the magic of witches and demons, and we see both in abundance. Lord Kira's witch cohort transforms into a fox, a dragon and other swirling, slithering magical creatures made of flesh and/or silk. She uses her tendril-like hair to grab things. And she conjures a spider that induces visions and fits in her victim. She spews out gushing breaths of flame and brings a huge suit of samurai armor to life.
Kai goes back to the Tangled Forest where his mother abandoned him as a baby; it's a place filled with wispy ghost creatures and whispered voices. There we meet a bird-like demon that causes Oishi to see visions of his men being slaughtered. Kai was taught demonic fighting skills that allow him to swirl through open spaces very quickly.
Kai and Oishi enter a large room containing a huge Buddha-like idol surrounded by candles.
It's obvious Lord Kira shares some sort of sexual relationship with his witch cohort. We never see them kiss or embrace, but she runs her fingers over his bare chest in a familiar, seductive manner while concocting one of her spells. Lord Kira mistakes Mika for one of Lord Asano's concubines.
Merging sex and violence is a magically induced vision that while dark and not very explicit still shows a woman being …
… brutally raped by an attacker.
Beyond that, while relatively bloodless, 47 Ronin is packed with death-dealing and the destruction of hundreds. Those savage demises are usually delivered at the edge of a wickedly sharp blade, with crowds of men getting hacked, slashed and impaled. People are also pinned to a post with an arrow through the temple, or strangled with rope, or beaten with wooden swords. Nearly 50 men perform a ritualistic suicide called seppuku. Several times, heads are lopped off (just offscreen). In two cases the severed noggins are hoisted up for surrounding crowds to see.
A huge multi-eyed magical beast throws men and animals in all directions―while also dragging a horse in its wake by the animal's tethered neck―until Kai leaps beneath the beast and drives a sword up into its exposed belly. (The effort leaves open, bleeding wounds on Kai's back.)
A man is beaten and thrown into a pit where he languishes for a year. Two men barely outrun the rifle blasts of British sailors. Lord Kira defeats a sparring partner, and then proceeds to viciously and repeatedly stomp the prone man's face with his foot. Another man is defeated in a arduous battle and promptly stabbed in the abdomen with a knife. Men are impaled, beaten and hoisted into the air by swirling demons. One man screams as he burns to death, set alight by a magical blast. A dock and several ships are set ablaze.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Only by implication: Based on Kai's reaction, it seems that he and Oishi drink some alcohol at Lord Asano's gravesite. And we catch a quick glimpse of somebody else acting drunk.
The story of 47 ronin samurai who avenged their falsely disgraced master centuries ago is a favorite of Japanese artisans. There have been many books, operas, plays and movies crafted in an attempt to stylishly capture the fabled tale's lessons of honor, bravery and sacrifice.
One would think, then, that this Hollywood version―accented with a phalanx of CGI special effects and lots of shots of bearded star Keanu Reeves swinging a sword and looking … serious―might have a few things worth plopping down a fistful of moviegoing bucks for. After all, the film's posters and various movie trailers promise exciting drama amid exotic Eastern sensibilities.
But there's an old Japanese saying that goes something like, "Don't let your daughter-in-law eat your autumn eggplants." Western translation: "Don't let yourself be taken advantage of."
Yes, this pic's scenery and costumes are colorful and the hacking/slashing fight scenes well-choreographed, but by and large there's little that's involving here. The dialogue is bland, the direction flat, the historical context skimmed past. By pic's end it all feels like little more than a ho-hum Americanized actioner.
Worse than that, as part of the sharp-bladed action, scores of people end up driving knives into their own abdomens in ritualistic seppuku―a disturbing "honorable" choice of death that leaves behind its own twisted lesson. Or as a reviewer from The Village Voice puts it, "47 Ronin isn't bloody, but it one-ups the irresponsible ugliness of Hollywood's usual endorsements of violence in one disquieting respect: It suggests that killing bad guys is only slightly less noble than killing yourself."