Wow, it's almost impossible to believe that I was brought to the sprawling, breathtaking sets of 47 RONIN at Shepperton Studios more than two years ago--June 6, 2011 to be exact. And it's been amusing t watch and listen to people speculate about problems with the production, delays and issues with the shoot in general, when they clearly had no idea that this was something far more than a retelling of one of Japan's most famous tales of loyalty, honor, sacrifice and vengeance.
The expensive and elaborate production is going to feature a phenomenal number of unique special effects, it was filmed in 3-D, and it was shot in both English and Japanese so that presumably two distinct versions of the film will exist. The final work will combine both the classic story of the 47 ronin with fantasy elements that have never been incorporated into this tale before, so it doesn't really surprise me that it has been delayed for so long. (I believe it's original U.S. release date was last Thanksgiving, which was pushed to February of this year and then later to this coming Christmas Day.)
The story of the 47 ronin takes place in the early 1700s and tells the story of a group of samurai made without a master (making them ronin, or leaderless) when their lord Asano Naganori committed ritual suicide (or suppuku) for assaulting a court official named Kira Yoshinaka. To revenge their master, they plotted for nearly two years before killing Kira, but as a result of their actions, they too were forced to commit seppuku. The story of the 47 ronin has been told in film, plays, television and in art for the better part of 100 years, and it gained particular popularity in the era of Japanese history when the country began to transition to a more modern way of life and has been a source of national identity for some (one film version debuted one week before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor).
According to what we were told on set, for many years, a version of this story is produced for Japanese television by a different (and often famous) native director. The version being told in this big-screen version adds a few fantasy elements to the mix and a new major character in the form of Kai (Keanu Reeves), a half-breed outcast who joins Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada of THE LAST SAMURAI, SUNSHINE and THE WOLVERINE), the leader of the 47 ronin, and together they seek vengeance upon the Kira (Tadanobu Asano, who plays Hogun in both THOR movies and was also in BATTLESHIP). But the adventure part of their story happens when the ronin and Kai embark upon a series of trials that involve forces and creatures that most warriors could not survive.
From first-time feature director Carl Rinsch, 47 RONIN also features such incredible actors as Rinko Kikuchi (BABEL, THE BROTHER BLOOM, PACIFIC RIM); Kou Shibasaki (BATTLE ROYALE, ONE MISSED CALL, SHAOLIN GIRL); and the tattooed man himself, Rick Genest. The production team seemed especially proud of the fact that every actor playing a Japanese character is "100 percent Japanese," including the extras. They did concede that having a famous American acctor at the center of the story was necessary to get the kind of money and audience they wanted for this version of an age-old story that has never been told this way.
That's probably all the back story you'll need for this small peak into the 47 RONIN production. Let's dive into the first part (or two or three) of the set visit report, which focuses primarily on everything we did prior to beginning to talk with the actors. This includes a trip into the production offices to look at production art, pre-vis video, set models and a look at scenes being shot via 3-D monitors.
To give you a sense of how long ago this set visit happened, on our long walk from the front gate of Shepperton to the 47 RONIN set, we passed through a room that housed a great number of props from WRATH OF THE TITANS. But first we made a stop into the production offices, including one conference room with production art tacked to all four walls, and within them we could see the fantasy elements much clearer. The sets and character/creature design seem to combine the look of nature with cleaner, Japanese lines. There were signs under every image with captions like "Kirin," "Shogun Arrival," "Tournament," "Dutch Outpost Bridge," "Ako Courtyard," "Oni," and "Tengu." Most of these are locations or specific structures, but they were all vast and beautifully rendered. A few of the sets even had models built of them and on display. On one wall were photos of the principle cast members/characters, including one labeled "Lovecraftian Samurai," an image that freaked me out a bit and reminded me a great deal of something Guillermo del Toro might have designed for a samurai-monster movie.
Our first interview of the day was with producer Pam Abdy (GARDEN STATE, STOP-LOSS, IDENTITY THIEF) who explained that this version of the 47 ronin story opens in the village of Ako, a place full of life, energy and beuaty. She explained that productions of this story have been happening almost since the actual events happened, and that this version would take the core of that story and turn it into a fantasy film. She added that the overall vibe the production was aiming for was more THE LORD OF THE RINGS (although the idea came after co-writer Chris Morgan saw 300) filtered to what she referred to as "the dream of Japan." In other words, the creature designs were based on Japanese mythology, and they worked with advisors and historians to authenticate the cultural references, with honor, respect, loyalty and impossible love being the key themes of the film.
The inclusion of Keanu Reeves character half-breed character Kai into this story was an attempt to make things feel more epic. Kai is somehow saved by Lord Asano, and his teaming with the ronin is an attempt to avenge his wrongful death for attacking Lord Kira. Apparently the scene where Kai meeting the ronin involves a poisoned beast in the woods where the samurai are walking through. Kai saves them, kills the beast, and devises a plan to enact revenge on Lord Kira, whose ultimate dream is to become as skilled as the shogun.
From the looks of these drawings and models, however the film turns out, the art directions is going to breathtaking. There's a wonderful, clear blend of influences that director Rinsch is going for that has elements of Miyasaki and Kurosawa. The Shogun costumes are even slightly different, combining difference clans' designs and using bold colors. We're shown an image of Rinko Kikuchi's character, Mizuki, a shapeshifting witch and master manipulator. And she looks nasty.
We eventually learn that Kai has been turned into something of a warrior who fights for others' amusement on a Dutch-controlled island, but he is rescued by the samurai. We were shown an image of a massive, muscle-bound creature called an Oni, whom were were told Kai fights, but I wasn't sure if said fight happens on the Dutch island or as part of his adventures with the ronin. Really, it doesn't matter; I can't wait to see that battle wherever it happens.
One sequence we see art for involves a village that has been raided for weapons, but none are found. We see designs of Buddha-like statues, monks with wings and Kai battling his "spiritual lord," a fight that we're told happens at the speed of thought. Another sequence set at a farmhouse, where the ronin prepare for their final attack during the wedding of Lord Kira and Princess Mika (Kou Shibasaki).
At the time, no decision had been made on the composer (it is Ilan Eshkeri), but director Rinsch said that musically he was influenced by Radiohead and Bjork. Since his contribution to the final locked version of 47 RONIN has been a subject for debate as late, we'll see if those musical inspirations held up. The last two things we are shown are a pre-vis sequence called "Kirin Hunt," which shows the promise of a great deal of action, and a five-minute, 3-D sizzle reel of material mostly shot at the previous location of Budapest, and there's no denying that the 3-D, even in this rough version, looks phenomenal.
The first stop outside the production offices is the backlot, where the team hasn't so much built facades of buildings, but actual, full-size sets. We walk past stone castles (labeled "Kira's Fortress") with levels and massive steps we get to climbs. Some of the set is (fake) snow covered. There's a giant Japanese drum at one end of the entranceway. As we move through the set, I see horses in armor standing at the ready, massive banners with Japanese writing on them, and our first sign of the ronin gathered at another end of the set. I spot a blown-out wall in one spot. Blue screens are seen on top of each building, clearly to be extended at a later date.
Then we're taking to the active set at which we'll spend several hours, and for the first time we see our first fully decked-out guy in a samurai costume. In fact, we see dozens--seemingly hundreds--of them. The scene is a massive courtyard belonging to Lord Kira a major moment of surrender is about to take place. Throughout the grounds are scattered a couple dozen gorgeous cherry trees with white blossoms on them, but when we finally got a chance to examine them up close, I realized they were all fake trees, with branches stapled to them with hand-sewn flowers on each branch.
Just taking the entire incredible outdoor set is unbelievable. The extras are costumed in various styles of samurai uniforms, with those wearing red being Asano's warriors, who are about to surrender to become ronin. There are other shogun dressed in gold costumes with masks, while Lord Kira himself is dressed in mostly black, presumably because he's not the nicest of men. The princess is visible in a gorgeous pink kimono.
At this point Carl Rinsch sees our group and pops over to say hi and welcomes up to the set, just because "Action" is called. The samurai all take a knee in an act of surrender, heads bowed. The Princess has taken position right in front of our group and the camera, and when the scene is rolling, she walks through the kneeling samurai toward the shogun and Lord Kira, all on horses. When the take is done, we are ushered to the 3-D video village/3-D engineering tent to get a sense of what the 3-D cameras are shooting. The depth of field is incredible, with the cherry blossom trees in the foreground, the Princess in the middle, and the buildings in the background. We are soon introduced to Demitri Portelli, the stereographer, who says the films is attempting to do live 3-D convergence rather than handle it in post. He also informs us that the 3-D system and techs are the same ones used for HUGO and the first 3-D RESIDENT EVIL film.
We watch take 2 of the same scene, only this time Lord Kira gets off his horse to meet the princess after she walks down the middle of the crowd. I notice that the natural wind is doing a great job blowing the flags throughout the courtyard and the billowing costumes worn by some of the cast.
The only interview I'm going to talk about in this part of my 47 RONIN set visit is with the director, Carl Rinsch, who seemed really personable and genuinely enthused about what he was making. He threw around descriptions like "Kurosawa on meth" and expressed his desire to "no fuck up this national traditional story." The one things he never seemed--despite the big sets, action, costumes and eventual CG elements--was overwhelmed. Although he did admit (jokingly, I hope) there were some days that working on your first feature felt like "getting beat with a sledgehammer every day."
Rinsch spoke positively about combining 3-D with as many real sets and other practical elements, and how much better everything looked as a result. "You use 3-D as a storytelling tool," he said. "You have to play with it like music, make it become a part of the style rather than a gimmick." He also made it clear, for those familiar with this story's traditional ending, that there will be no alternative ending (at least under his watch).
I'll end the first part of my 47 RONIN set visit there, but in the next part(s), we'll go right into our lengthy interview with Keanu Reeves. as well as some of the Japanese cast members, as well as the brilliant costume designer Penny Rose and weapons master Simon Atherton. I'll shoot to give you one of these on a weekly basis. Hope you dug Part 1.