Monday, January 13, 2014

Unexpected enjoyment for 47 Ronin

On the Georgia Straight website, I wrote a comment on Ron Yamauchi's reasoned response to 47 Ronin that I had no intention of seeing it.  The day has passed for overblown Hollywood manglings and misappropriations of the revered stories of other cultures - particularly those as close to home as Japan. I've lived in Japan, enjoyed my time there, and - whatever their weirdnesses - respect the Japanese investment in their own culture and tradition; I wish as a Canadian I had the same reservoir of myth and history to draw on. To take a story as important to a culture as this - a culture that is both foreign and yet not that remote - and to bedeck it with inaccuracy and foolishness - to get costumes and hairstyles transparently wrong, to make the leading man a half-white, to decorate it with a dragon foreign to the story, and to partake of lazy, obvious stereotypes like the (quite literally realized) "dragon lady" is not okay. Yamauchi compares the film to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer - a film he and I both enjoyed - saying essentially that "to repurpose hallowed national myth for the sake of insight or even wackiness is the right of any artist," as long as the end product is actually entertaining, but I'm not sure that the principle applies across cultures. What's wrong with 47 Ronin is the same thing that's wrong with films like The Mummy or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, trading in stereotypes, cliches, and Orientalist exoticizations, or, say, with The Last Samurai or Dances With Wolves, which reorganize the history of another people around a white guy, making him the saviour of the day when in reality his people were anything but. Plus it's really, really nothing new; in terms of Japan, it goes back to sticking Raymond Burr into the original Godzilla. There was a time when such things were more-or-less innocent, inevitable and forgivable - I can enjoy a good Warner Oland movie with the best of'em, and the Burr Godzilla is at the least a historical curiosity, viewable now with hindsight - but audiences are a little too plugged-in these days for Hollywood to expect a free pass when gleefully and deliberately erasing the realities of another culture in favour of cliches, errors, and exoticized romantic bullshit, especially when nearly every adult moviegoer alive has the opportunity to easily see REAL samurai movies - ones that get the details right, and, when representing historical incidents, do so with fidelity, attentiveness, and respect. 47 Ronin? Heck with it. Go insult someone else's intelligence.

Then we come to an evening where my girl and I are going to spend time together, and, since I tend to over-assert myself with what we should see on any given night (being, um, somewhat more invested in these matters than she is), we arrived at the conclusion that SHE should pick the entertainment for a change.  When it turned out that she decided - given the grim weather and a long day - that we should go see a movie, I half-hoped (and half-feared) that she would foist something truly unusual on me - that I would be watching something with Julia Roberts or Reese Witherspoon, say. I promised I would watch whatever she picked, without complaint - so she had the opportunity to really stick it to me on this one, and pay me back for some of the horrible images I have fused to her retina over the last year or so; she elected not to. Though we made it to the cinema with my still not knowing what movie she had picked for us, the 3D glasses were a pretty good clue that we were NOT going to see your standard chick flick.

As you may guess: she'd picked 47 Ronin!

Now, here's the thing. Whenever I publicly state that I have no interest in seeing a film, it usually means that I really do; and the act of asserting that I don't only increases that desire. That the last two incidents of such behaviour on this blog led to my watching two pretty interesting films - Pollack's The Electric Horseman and the Coens' The Man Who Wasn't There - has taught me that I should almost always regard such impulses to refuse a movie in advance with suspicion: the feeling that I need to state I am not interested in something is a fair indicator of the fact that some part of me is actually curious, and that I am quarrelling with it. Besides, how many times have film critics embarrassed themselves by condemning unseen films? How can you KNOW a film is bad, if you don't actually expose yourself to it? (I haven't actually seen The Last Samurai, by the way, though I sniped at it above. Who knows: maybe I've got that film wrong?).

Anyhow - by damn,  it turns out I quite enjoyed 47 Ronin. I liked it more than a lot of the big screen films I've seen in the last year - more than Pacific Rim, World War Z, and Gravity, to name three.  The story has more emotional impact than any of those films (though Gravity is by far the most visually interesting of them, and the best use of the technology of 3D). The creatures, misplaced as they may be, are terrific as effects - especially a multiple-eyed demon-mammal that pops up early on, a shape-shifting fox, and a spider produced by witchcraft. The production design may be error-ridden, and the locations remind one more of New Zealand than Japan (while apparently actually being Hungarian!), but it's still a pretty, consistently interesting film to look at. Rinko Kikuchi may be a cliched dragon-lady with an ahistorical, culturally-wrong hairdo - but by damn, she's gorgeous (and plays the role to the hilt, and hey, that's one nice hairdo to boot). It's easy to feel invested in the characters and to accept the film as a sort of big-screen folktale about loyalty and sacrifice and courage, if you like that sort of thing; it may not follow the original as closely as it could, and it may be predictably over-expository about "honour" and that sort of thing, but it creates a world and stays true to it, much like the Lord of the Rings movies do, except with a Japanese locale. There's a lot it omits, and a lot it gets wrong, but IF - and this is a very big and significant IF - you can turn off your brain to all the objections to the film stated in the first paragraph (which, let me emphasize, are significant and relevant and reasonable objections), and IF you have no real investment in the idea of a faithful rendering of the source story - the story that the film tells works quite well, at least in terms of what it is. What it IS is "everyday Hollywood bullshit," but as far as everyday Hollywood bullshit goes, there are a lot less entertaining ways to spend your money. (And my girl paid the ticket cost, too! Woo!)

What's ultimately the real interest value to 47 Ronin, however, is the tension between the things it gets right and the things it gets wrong. It's interesting, for example, that the Japanese characters are played by Japanese actors. It suggests that someone somewhere realized that cultural (and, um, racial?) specificity matter. That they speak English and have the wrong hair, on the other hand, shows the opposite impulse (how ballsy would it have been if the film hadn't had a western star at all, and everyone spoke Japanese? It would have been a riskier proposition, of course - but look at Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ; it might actually have worked). There are tengu in the story - actual mythological figures in Japan - but they don't look like tengu are generally depicted (the movie tengu have big weird eyes but small flat noses, whereas tengu in Japan tend to have big noses that stick out in a rather phallic fashion).

There is obviously awareness of and respect for Japanese culture behind having the film's witch first manifest herself as a fox, since foxes are trickster figures in Japan, with ample mythic baggage; but then for the film's climax, she turns into a dragon - a positive thing in China and Japan, and not a fire-breathing beast as depicted. There's a pretty good early hara-kiri scene in which a character disembowels himself while having a second on hand to cut off his head and spare him some mess and pain; this is historically correct (though there may be details the scene gets wrong; I'm no expert). Then there's a big climactic hara-kiri where they omit the seconds altogether, like the filmmakers have forgotten what they knew two hours' previous, or couldn't spare the 40-odd supporting players. (It probably says something, too, that throughout the film, people refer to ritual self-disembowelment as seppuku. Contrary to a widely repeated belief here, Japanese really do call it hara kiri - literally, belly-cutting; or so any Japanese I asked told me, when I lived there). There are doubtlessly many more examples, borne of the film's complex and troubled production history, which involved re-shoots and substantial revisions and many years of toil. Some may be spelled out in this article on Roger Ebert's website. One thing I wondered about is why no one ever visits a Shinto shrine in the film, despite various trappings of Japanese religion and folk-culture, like purifying a sword with water. I think these tensions are one of the reasons the film is being written off as a "mess" by some people - it is filled with contradictory impulses. It is faithful and faithless in equal measure. It knows a lot about Japanese history and culture, and is painfully ignorant. It tries to be at least a somewhat faithful rendering of the story of the 47 ronin - it's not like it changes the story's downbeat ending, say, which was a concern for me - but to the extent it cares enough to get certain things right, this only raises the question of how it could get so many things painfully, obviously wrong?

I still rather enjoyed it. And guess what? On a Sunday night, a couple of weeks into its mostly disappointing, critically dumped-upon, 10%-on-RT run, there were still a fair number of people at International Village who had turned out to see it, so in spite of everything, the word of mouth really can't be that bad... see here for another contrarian defence of the film (beneath the article on Scorsese...). If you're a fan of late period Peter Jackson, which seems the template here, have a superficial fondness for Japan, and are capable of being forgiving, when a film trods on its thumbs politically... 47 Ronin is actually not that bad...

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