Keanu Reeves had every reason to sound tired but his voice was pulsing with an enthusiasm that was impossible to miss even across a crackling international phone line. “We just wrapped. It was our last day here in Hungary, we’re in Budapest,” Reeves said from the set of “47 Ronin,” the period-piece epic that’s due in theaters in November 2012. “We had about 34 shooting days here. Then off to England. It’s been amazing so far. Do you know the story of the ’47 Ronin’? It’s a story of honor, revenge and impossible love. It’s famous in Japan.”
That’s an understatement. The saga of the 47 ronin is based on 18th century historic events but as the story settled at the center of Japanese consciousness — it’s been described by scholars as “the national legend” — it was enlarged and embroidered to fit the needs of folklore. And now comes Reeves, Universal Pictures and director Carl Erik Rinsch to adapt that grand old tale of battle and duty into a 3-D spectacle film for 21st century audiences. The epic has been adapted for the stage, film and television again and again (of the films, 1962’s”47 Samurai” and 1941’s “The 47 Ronin” are the best known to Western audiences), but this version will shine an intense spotlight on Japan with a cast of top stars from the country’s film scene, including Hiroyuki Sanada, Tadanobu Asano, Kô Shibasaki and Rinko Kikuchi, the Oscar-nominated actress from “Babel.”
That scrutiny, however, is a sword that could cut both ways. This version is set in a world of witches and giants, making this a battle epic more in tune with “300” than, say, “Gladiator,” at least as far as fantastical elements. More than that, Reeves portrays Kai, the son of an English sailor and a Japanese woman and a character created specifically for this Hollywood retelling. The 46-year-old actor chose his words carefully on the topic of tilting the classic to fit modern popcorn imperatives.
“Japanese kids grow up with this story told to them. They hear it from family and they learn it in school, it’s part of the culture,” Reeves said. “It’s been made into movies many times and on television. It’s like our westerns, the story keeps being told. It’s been reworked in some ways [for this new film] but with great care and respect.”
Reeves said Kai is “the half-breed, the outcast in the group” who joins with Oishi (Sanada), the leader of 47 ronin. The troupe of banished samurai long to restore their honor and find vengeance against the treacherous Lord Kira (played by Asano, who is in theaters now as Hogun in “Thor“) who was responsible for the death of their master. Kai is the uneasy compatriot in their company and his standing will be questioned even more as he falls in love with Mika (Shibasaki), daughter of the fallen master. The film presents a quest where the ronin (the term for samurai with no master) face trials that test their mettle and their loyalty to one another.
In Kai, Reeves has found a character who is the outsider who wants to find his place. “There’s a sadness about him and I admire the grace he shows in response to other people’s feelings. He doesn’t have anger about the way he is viewed, but there is sadness and I’ve found that an interesting thing to work with.”
Reeves said the movie has a stylized approach and sheer scale that already has dazzled him even before all the post-production visual effects work. The team behind the camera certainly suggests a new entry is being made in the cinema of the massive; Rinsch, a protégé of Ridley Scott’s with a background in commercials and photojournalism, has a team that features cinematographer John Mathieson (who was nominated for an Oscar-for Scott’s “Gladiator” as well as Joel Schumacher’s “The Phantom of the Opera “) and production designer Jan Roelfs (who was nominated for Academy Awards for “Orlando” and “Gattaca“). The script was written by Chris Morgan, who is coming off the strong success of “Fast Five” and but has never handled a period-piece, and Hossein Amini who adapted Henry James to great acclaim with “The Wings of the Dove” and went on to less stately fare with “Killshot.”
Reeves said language has been a bit of challenge (“We do the scenes first in Japanese [to get everyone on the same page] and then do it in English”), but he’s found an esprit de corps with his fellow actors and a deepening fascination with the story that looms so large in Japanese hearts. Most of all he’s been invigorated by the challenge of the fight scenes. “I haven’t done two-handed sword before so it was pretty cool to learn the basics and I’ve been building on that,” said the star who helped usher in the modern age of CG-enhanced combat visuals with “The Matrix” film franchise. “There’s a definite style to this sword and it’s very fast I’m trying to keep up and learn as I go.”
The actor also said he’s been a student of the filmmaking approach on the set, with the “very immersive, very of-the-moment” approach to 3-D and digital filmmaking. He chuckled and added: “We’re trying to make a movie with a lot of depth and in more ways than one.”
– Geoff Boucher
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