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47 RONIN

About The Production
Seizing Eternity: 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 feature debut.

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 Hollywood palette."

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."

 

Discovering Kai: 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."

 

An International Ensemble: Supporting Cast

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 fantastical elements.

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 performance."

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.

"Sanada-san is diligent," commends Akanishi. "He cares about everybody and 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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