About The Production
The Ronin Are Reborn
When director Carl Rinsch read the original
treatment of the script, he admits he was intrigued by
the timeless love, elaborate settings and fantastical
creatures that were set against an actual historical
backdrop. Recalls the filmmaker: "I knew a bit about
the story of the Ronin, the traditional history of it,
but of course this is a creative iteration of that."
After meeting with Universal to discuss, Rinsch was
sold on the project that he wanted to make as his
For producer Pamela Abdy, the script offered a
unique tale of a savage world and a man who would
sacrifice everything to save it. She reflects: "The story's
themes of honor, revenge and love are universal ideas,
and we can see ourselves in these characters and their
emotions, yearnings and injustices. Through our hero's
journey, we are transported into an imaginative fantasy
adventure. But at its heart, the film taps into a basic
human desire to right a wrong being done to you."
Not only were the filmmakers seeking to craft a
production that would entertain audiences, they were
committed to honor the national story of a country.
The 47 Ronin legend is beloved in Japan; indeed,
banks and schools close each year to honor these
men who gave their lives for their country. The story
has been passed down through the generations, and
tradition not only allows, but encourages the story
of the Ronin to be elaborated upon through different
media, via creative accounts known as Ch-ushingura.
Each telling and interpretation retains the historical
construct of the Ronin, and tradition invites artistic
embellishments to it.
Discussing this time-honored method, Rinsch
offers: "The tradition of Ch-ushingura is the retelling of
the historical events of the 47 Ronin. It was our goal
to maintain and respect the fundamental emotions and
themes of the true history, but to view it through a
lens that made it relevant to contemporary audiences.
The global audience for movies today speaks in a
vernacular of fantasy, science-fiction
and superheroes. For myself,
the intent was to take Japanese
Ch-ushingura and give it a broad
international reach by presenting it
in a fashion that utilizes this new
Producer Eric McLeod agrees
with Abdy and Rinsch about being
fascinated by the tale passed down
through generations and honoring
the collective story of a country. The
filmmaker notes: "What inspired me
about working on 47 Ronin was that
I not only enjoy the historical aspect
of the film, but I also enjoy the fantasy aspect, the scope
and the world creation of it."
When researching the film, the director drew
inspiration from the art of such masters as Miyazaki,
Hokusai and Hiroshige. Comments Rinsch: "When I
studied these paintings, I saw that there was a whole
fantasy world right there. And I thought, 'If I can
express this world, then we're onto something.'"
From there, Rinsch and his team began to investigate
the fantasy aspects of 47 Ronin, including creatures
that have long been a part of Japanese folklore. They
were amazed by the voluminous libraries they found.
Notes Rinsch: "You have the Y-o
kai; the Oni, which is
a big Japanese ogre; the Tengu warriors, which are bird
warriors. There's this menagerie of fantasy characters
that gave us such exciting directions to explore."
As the filmmakers locked the shooting script
and began preproduction, they found that the key
was balancing scale with character. Shares Abdy:
"The story embraces the emotions of love, pain
and sorrow, and the story needs to be quiet in those
moments. Then when we need to, it has to be big
and bold as well. Tonally, we tried to balance action
and spectacle with characters coming together and
relating to each other."
Keanu Reeves Comes Aboard
One of the earliest efforts involved in casting
47 Ronin was to find a performer with the presence,
physicality and stamina to play the demanding role
of the film's hero, Kai, a figure of two worlds. Keanu
Reeves, beloved by worldwide audiences for his work in
blockbuster epics such as The Matrix trilogy, in which
he gave a human center to a complex and imaginative
fantasy world, was an ideal choice and became a true
partner in the production.
"We sought Keanu very early on," states Abdy. "He
was on board almost two-and-a-half years before we
started shooting and has always been a partner through
the whole process. He's not only the right actor but has
been such an enthusiastic contributor to many aspects
of the production."
"I was attracted to the world it created," shares
Reeves. "I related to it as a Westerner. It's a film that has
big, universal themes such as honor, revenge and love."
In fact, Reeves worked on developing the script with
writers Morgan and Amini, actually before meeting with
Rinsch for the first time. He shares: "Chris and Hossein
have this incredible ability to bring this amazing version
of the Ronin to life that straddles the
real and the fantastic."
Upon sitting down with Rinsch,
Reeves was struck by his vision for the
project and his fluency in the visual
language needed to bring the story
to life. The performer commends:
"Carl's always had a connection to
the film that is based in emotion,
and he's been open to sharing and
collaborating. He's a terrific stylist,
and he's been great at taking this
fictional make-believe world and
making it a real one."
Rinsch was equally as enthusiastic
about working with his leading man. He enthuses:
"Keanu is more than just an actor. He's a collaborator
on every level. He's somebody whom I can turn to and
ask a question, get a thoughtful response, and it doesn't
necessarily have to do with his character."
For this reimaging of the 47 Ronin tale, and in
keeping with Ch-ushingura, the character of Kai is a
new addition to the canon. An orphaned half-blood
who trusts no one, Kai symbolizes the eternal outsider,
struggling to fit into a culture rooted in its deep sense
of nationality. Reeves says that Kai's tale is familiar to
many: "On this journey, Kai strives to be included and
accepted; that's a story a lot of people can relate to. This
kind of immigrant story is relatable: that yearning for
acceptance while retaining your individuality." For the
performer, it is an honor to introduce the tale to a global
audience. He reflects: "Like all great stories, this one
works in the sense of its universality."
For Rinsch, the producers and Reeves, rounding out
the cast meant painstakingly choosing the best and the
brightest of Asian cinema. From action veterans and
feted Oscar nominees to rising stars on the pop music
scene, the filmmakers handpicked an exciting cross
section of performers for the epic feature.
A staple in Japanese films who was most recently
seen in the worldwide blockbuster The Wolverine,
Hiroyuki Sanada has received six nominations for
Japanese Academy Awards, and has won twice. For
the cast and crew, the selection of Sanada as Oishi,
the leader of the samurai, meant this Western twist
on the story of the 47 Ronin had earned the seal of
Japanese approval. Sanada bore the responsibility of
making sure this new take on the beloved tale stayed
true to its source, even as it introduced fresh and
Sanada grew up with the legend and appreciated the
opportunity to explore a retelling of it. He shares: "I first
saw it on television when I was about seven. My brother
and I used to pretend we were the characters. When I
became a child actor, I always wondered when I would
play Oishi. I waited a long time, and to be offered the
role in an American film was quite a welcome surprise!
"There was a lot of pressure for me because Oishi
has been played by a lot of actors I admire," Sanada adds.
"But this version has a lot of differences to the traditional
one. The emotion and intention are the same, but Oishi
is much more human here, with weakness, doubt and
setbacks. There's a balance between authenticity and
fantasy, and this is a wonderful opportunity to introduce
the story to a younger Japanese audience, as well as
Japanese culture to the world. There's something in
there for people of every country. It's not just a Japanese
story. It's about respect, friendship and love."
Having worked on several Western films and with
multiple American filmmakers, Sanada reflects on the
experience of shooting with Rinsch: "On the first day of
working with Carl, I realized that he not only watched
and listened, but he has a gift for feeling the emotion
of a scene."
Rinsch provides insight into why Sanada was
chosen to play the warrior who fights alongside Kai:
"Oishi's character is a lamp in daylight. You don't know
how strong he is until it gets dark. I think Hiro Sanada
is such a stoic and powerful performer; he explodes into
action when things get rough. He can fight like nobody
you've ever seen before."
For his part, Sanada is just as enthusiastic about
the experience of collaborating with the film's leading
man. "From the rehearsal period on we spent a lot
of time together, some six months," he reflects. "We
prepared dialogue and practiced a lot of fight scenes,
so physically and mentally we shared a lot. Keanu is
always very calm and respectful. I respect him very
much, as an actor and as a person."
Reeves returns the kind words with a concise: "I
didn't have a brother before, but I have one now."
Producer Abdy extrapolates that Sanada was a
mentor for those on set: "Hiroyuki embodies the role
of Oishi. He's a wonderfully generous actor and has
been so incredibly helpful to us in embracing the world
and understanding the culture. He handles everything
with grace, style and elegance, and he brings that to his
To play Mika, Kai's forbidden love interest, the
filmmakers wanted an actress who could embody a regal
princess who's willing to defy tradition. They turned to
one of Japan's musical phenoms, the multitalented Ko
Shibasaki. Rinsch reflects: "Ko was somebody I did
not know before we started the process. She has a huge
career as a singer and has a huge facility for acting. She
has done an amazing job, and I expect she will go on to
be even more legendary in every avenue she pursues."
Reeves sums up the relationship between Kai and
Mika: "The outsider and the princess: an impossible
love. Because it's jeopardized and unfulfilled, Kai's
yearning for Mika is what drives
a lot of this story." Working with
Shibasaki has been a highlight of
filming for Reeves. He shares: "Ko is
such a rock star. She can do anything.
She has such vulnerability, elegance
and beauty in her performance."
In taking on the role, Shibasaki
saw an opportunity for Hollywood
to tell a Japanese story from a fresh
perspective. She states: "Japanese
people tend to be shy and don't
always express their opinions
openly. Carl always encouraged me
to feel and express things more, and
to bring out my natural expressions. He's a kind, broadminded
person, which is why I think it was so easy to
dive right in and take risks."
Mika is desired not only by Kai, but also by the
villainous Lord Kira, who seeks to claim all the land
that belongs to Lord Asano. To portray the antagonist,
the filmmakers brought aboard Tadanobu Asano,
who has crossed the globe with one of his breakout,
signature portrayals in Ichi the Killer and rocketed to
international fame as Thor's fellow Asgardian, Hogun,
in both Thor and Thor: The Dark World.
Asano explains a bit about his character's motivation:
"Mika is a very important person in Ako. By
controlling the princess he would be able to obtain Ako,
which is something that he has always wanted. On a
more personal level, he sees in Mika a quality of love
that he doesn't possess; he wants to somehow control
that power to love that she symbolizes."
Asano has long had a connection to the 47 Ronin
story. In fact, he shares a name with the feudal lord at
the heart of the story. The performer offers: "When I
was growing up, the story would appear very often on
television or in a film and my grandmother would say,
'You're an Asano, too.' It's ironic that I ended up playing
the opposite role!"
Instead, as the villainous Lord Kira, Asano claims
he found a simple way to identify with his dark charge.
He explains: "He might appear to be power-mad and
arrogant, but if you change your perspective a little
he can be seen as a very charming man. There is, of
course, something fundamentally wrong with him, but
that makes him a very interesting character to play."
Asano believes the film should have a life of its
own separate from the many Japanese interpretations.
He explains: "Because this is such a popular story
in Japanese culture, it has been portrayed in many
different mediums and in many different versions. All
of these have followed a set of unspoken rules about
the story. Carl is from a different culture, so he brings
a completely new perspective and he is able to distill
the story down to its universal themes. He has created
something original that is true to the themes of the story
and also breathes new life into it."
While Asano and Reeves do not share any dialogue
on screen, Reeves enjoyed watching him work. He
laughs: "He's such a good bad guy. He treats life like
everything belongs to him. I saw this close-up of him
watching some dancers perform, and it was like he was
saying, 'Of course you're dancing for me. Everything is
for me: The moon's for me; the sun's for me.'"
Oscar-nominated Rinko Kikuchi, who came to
worldwide attention with her stunning performance
in Babel and was most recently seen in Pacific Rim,
discusses her exposure to the legendary tale: "I've
known this story since learning about it at school,
but this film will be quite different from versions
Japanese audiences have seen before. The creatures,
sets and characters are totally new." Brought onto the
production to play the duplicitous Witch, the actress
knew there would be challenging days ahead. "My
character doesn't exist in the original version, but she
adds a fantasy element to this story and I had a lot of
fun with it."
Kikuchi was thrilled to play such a strong role.
The actress sums: "It's fun to play such a wild
female. Carl told me my part would be provocative,
sexy and wild. The Witch is a shape-shifter who is
clairvoyant and play tricks on others, but she is not a
typical witch. She has the heart of a woman, but she
just follows her instincts."
Rinsch's goal has been to show audiences a side
to Japan none have ever seen, while simultaneously
paying homage to her country's cultural traditions. "The
Japanese want to see something new, too," Kikuchi
adds. "Rather than a traditional story performed
and created just by the Japanese, we would love to
see this traditional story from a new angle. This film
strikes a perfect balance between what is universal and
something totally creative and new."
Jin Akanishi-who is also a phenomenon in his
native Japan, where he's been heretofore known as a pop
music star-plays Chikara, Oishi's son. Abdy discusses
the character: "Chikara was forced to become a man at
a very early age. Oishi, like any parent, just wants to
protect him." Of his on-screen portrayer, she adds: "Jin
has done a great job with the role. He's learned a lot on
the film, and I'm thrilled we cast him."
Akanishi relished the chance to join the production.
He elaborates upon the story of his character, who
is schooled by Kai in the fighting style of the Tengu:
"Chikara starts off as a boy who wants to be a samurai.
Throughout the story, he grows up. He's the only one
who really understands Kai and treats him as a friend."
Abdy recalls asking Akanishi whether he and his
friends were familiar with the tale of the 47 Ronin: "He
said, 'No, it's something our grandfathers and fathers
talked about.' But as we walked him through the world
of the film he said, 'This is cool; my friends will love
this.' We have an opportunity to educate the younger
generation in Japan about this story because we're giving
it to them in a world
they can relate to."
For the younger
members of the cast,
there was much to learn
from their counterparts.
Akanishi. "He cares
every little thing. He
pays attention to how
we wear our costumes
and how we move
because he knows
so much about Japanese culture. He's been incredibly
helpful and supportive."
While Akanishi plays the youngest of the outcasts,
the remainder of the principal samurai warriors was
populated by Japanese performers MASAYOSHI
HANEDA as Yasuno, HIROSHI SOGABE as Hazama,
TAKATO YONEMOTO as Basho, HIROSHI YAMADA
as Hara and SHU NAKAJIMA as Horibe. MASAYUKI
DEAI came aboard as Isogai, while YORICK VAN
WAGENINGEN portrays the Dutch Island's Kapitan
and GEDDE WATANABE plays the Troupe Leader,
who enables Oishi's men in their plan to attack Kira's
soldiers. Riku, who is Oishi's wife and Chikara's mother,
is played by NATSUKI KUNIMOTO.
Finally, in addition to the much respected Min
Tanaka, who portrays Lord Asano, longtime performer
and martial artist Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa joined the
production as Shogun Tsunayoshi, whose word in this
feudal land is unquestionable law.
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