Keanu Reeves and ’47 Ronin’ search for ‘honor, revenge and impossible love’

May 24, 2011 | 10:36 a.m.
keanu reeves Keanu Reeves and 47 Ronin search for honor, revenge and impossible love

Keanu Reeves in New York in April. (Peter Kramer / Associated Press)

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.”

47 ronin Keanu Reeves and 47 Ronin search for honor, revenge and impossible love

Rinko Kikuchi, left, Tadanobu Asano, Hiroyuki Sanada, Keanu Reeves, Ko Shibasaki and Carl Rinsch. (Charlie Gray/Universal)

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.”

47 ronin1 Keanu Reeves and 47 Ronin search for honor, revenge and impossible love

The 1941 version of "47 Ronin." (Los Angeles Times)

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.”

47 ronin woodblock Keanu Reeves and 47 Ronin search for honor, revenge and impossible love

The tale of the 47 ronin depicted in an 18th century woodblock by Hiroshige. (FujiArts)

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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14 Responses to Keanu Reeves and ’47 Ronin’ search for ‘honor, revenge and impossible love’

  1. inkhuldra says:

    So, does that mean that they are making two versions, one in Japanese and one in English? If so: wow! No wonder it's got such a big budget. I'd love to see the Japanese version.

  2. ARYA says:

    I am very psyched to see this movie! I was rabid for 3D since I saw Beowolf and the U2 concert movie.

  3. piper ellie says:

    Sure would love to see more pictures of the 47 Ronin set and filming. Have seen only a handful.

  4. Harriet Bee says:

    SPOILER ALERT!!! It's funny – and fascinatingly revealing – that Reeves plays the character Kai, whom he describes as the half-breed outcast of the group, because I am often considered the half-breed outcast of my group. Though in my case it's not a group of ronin, but some guys from work. Reeve goes onto say that there's "a sadness about him," and that he admires "the grace he shows in response to other people’s feelings." This could also be said of me, as I have a deep sadness about me, and I show a charming grace in response to other people's feelings a lot. Just thought I would point this out, as I find it fascinating.

  5. Starkat66 says:

    Does this mean that Keanu has mastered the Japanese language?

  6. Gabbiano_Blu says:

    I think that "47 Ronin" by Universal will be an interesting and fantastic 3D movie. This film surely will be the next big colossal movie in the history of the filming. Everything about this movie makes to understand this fact. Director Carl Erik Rinsch. An accurate choise about the actors of the cast. Different sets where the scenes are filming. Some stylists have worked hard for packing so many clothes in theme with typical old Japanese age, ( the 18th century, time during wich the epic saga had life ). Then, we can only imagine how great could be the work to create a perfect situation to represente a so important old Japanese legend, that talks about honor. Thing not easy to do. They well taken the decision to do the filming of scenes with double actions, with direction first in Japanese and then in English, so all actors are able to feel themselves really involved in their roles in the movie. I think that, the introduction of a sort of fantasy variation on the original story, will be made really with respect, and I think, this will give to the movie a sort of universal key, for learning of the intense message that 47 Ronin saga representes. ( By Gabbiano Blu – Italy – fan of actor Keanu Reeves on facebook )

  7. Gabbiano_Blu says:

    In my opinion, actor Keanu Reeves is the perfect choice for the role of ronin Kai, because he well understand how is important the need of an interpretation truly respectfull for his atypical role in the movie. Indeed, actor Keanu Reeves said so nice words about the realization of the film. ( By Gabbiano Blu – Italy – fan of actor Keanu Reeves on facebook )

  8. Gabbiano_Blu says:

    Actor Keanu Reeves really said so nice words about the realization of the film. He said : “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.”- Then he also said : “We’re trying to make a movie with a lot of depth and in more ways than one". Actor Keanu Reeves is a true professional Artist, because he loves his work very much, and Keanu Reeves wants to give to the pubblic the same emotions that he feels inside, when he acts in a role for wich he really loves the interpreting. I think that, the movie will be really a window opened trought the past time, for sharing a wonderful story of honor, revenge and impossible love. I can't wait to see the movie. I want to feel the same emotions watching the movie. ( By Gabbiano Blu – Italy – fan of actor Keanu Reeves on facebook )

  9. Tina says:

    Thanks Geoff – nice update. Looking forward to the movie now!


  10. susan says:

    having just read the book i cannot wait to see this film it has everything in it love honor intreage i need to know where the premiere will be thanks

  11. BPMT says:

    A bunch of us saw and heard about this idea….and liked it. It fits it.

  12. Anne says:

    a dramatic piece perfect for theatre…

    From BC to the early 1800′s, the lifetimes of one of the most charismatic men in history, John the Revelator. An explorer, astronomer, geologist, artist, writer and cartographer, his many lifetimes included mapping the star systems, deciphering egyptian secrets and finding lost artifacts from the European continent to the America’s to today…present time, documenting the end days.

    You know who’d be great as the main character? Keanu Reeves.


  13. Taibo says:

    This is a US film so it seems to only be in English. I think the comment by Reeves about doing to takes was meant to say that the first practice take would be in Japanese for the actor's benefit (to get them into the scene) but the actual take in English. No way they shot and edited the entire film twice. That's unheard of!

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