I first heard the tale of the 47 samurai during the film Ronin. The legend hinges on the idea that there are two competing imperatives for honourable behaviour. On the one hand, the samurai whose master was killed could live out their lives as ronin, wandering the landscape like Yojimbo – technically without personal honour; on the other, they can take revenge on the one who murdered their master, but by doing so break a social code that can only be subsequently mended by their ritual suicide. The idea as presented in Ronin is that there is a conflict between personal honour and the structure of society, a conflict which is resolved in that film by the ambiguous figure of the spy, whose personal dishonour is completely ameliorated by his necessity for that society to function. The spy does not need to commit suicide because he is never truly alive, inasmuch as he has no personal existence, even as unstructured and apparently honourless as the wandering Ronin: he is a perfect instrument of the state, allowing the state to be regulated. The 47 samurai are fascinating because they make the personal choice to be that restorative force and revenge their master, accepting the personal cost that must be paid – having broken the rules once, they cannot be allowed to continue to exist because that would be an even greater threat to the system. It’s an extremely abstract and yet utterly powerful conclusion, and is perhaps the perfect evocation of the famous saying that whomsoever seeks revenge should dig two graves.
What 47 Ronin does is take this central story through-line, and load up a supernatural element, and an extraneous semi-supernatural “halfbreed” in the form of Keanu Reeves’ Kai, who in addition to being a semi-outcast has a forbidden love for the master’s daughter, Mika. This introduces two fairly major elements that disrupt the central tenets of the basic myth – supernatural forces that are operating outside human society automatically destroy the central beautiful concept of competing forms of honour, because demons inherently have no honour, or at least, not the kind of honour that a strongly structured society like the Japan presented in the myth has. That’s actually one of the powerful aspects of the demon in fiction, they are automatically exceptions to the rules that destabilise human existence. If they could live in harmony with us, symbiotically, they would become merely humans, as they do become in the later stages of much urban fantasy. The powerful what-if scenario of Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter, Anno Dracula, or True Blood is exactly that disruptive normalisation – how does the open presence of demonic forces disrupt normal society, and how does society adapt? Those examples are successful precisely because they effectively amplify the disruptive power of the demon many times. Something like Grimm, or some parts of Angel, are pathetically unsuccessful because they ultimately show that, hey, demons are people too. So by locating the originating treachery not in a human part of the system of society, but in a demonic force, 47 Ronin defuses the central aspect of the myth that is so powerful. What it gestures towards instead is either that the resultant suicide is monstrously unfair (literally), or the disruption that the integration of demonic powers into the true social order would create. But the film explicitly treats neither – simply allowing the story to roll along in its predestined detail. It simply seems unaware of the impact the addition of supernatural elements has. Similarly, the love story that motivates the point-of-view de facto protagonist, Kai, deforms the idea of the honourable sacrifice into something intensely personal. Rather than being a story about correcting a terrible injustice, it becomes far more a conventionally-motivated personal kind of revenge, to save a woman from a figurative monster.
I think what this results in is a film with no clear emotional centre, and no clear moral tone. This is not inherently a bad thing – lots of films I love are ambiguous or ambivalent – but the clarity of the legend is not really replaced here by some other organising principle. The story thus feels very muddled, almost picaresque, where you could imagine cutting huge swathes of the sub-plots and side-quests to reduce the film to only a very small number of key scenes. It makes virtually everything that occurs on screen feel like a digression. Having said that, most of the digressions are actually fairly entertaining in and of themselves. I was never bored in this film, just confused.