The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 197 | Matinée thoughts: On 47 Ronin, The Wolverine, and more

Leaving Proof 197 | Matinée thoughts: On 47 Ronin, The Wolverine, and more
Published on Thursday, August 15, 2013 by
A chance encounter with a trailer at a Tuesday matinée screening has us thinking about Dark Horse’s 47 Ronin miniseries. ALSO: A quick reflection on The Wolverine and more odds and sods.

So it happened that while at a screening the other day for The Wolverine (more on that below), I saw a trailer for 47 Ronin, a major studio film starring Keanu Reeves set for a Christmas 2013 release. I try not to pre-judge films and video games solely through their trailers, but I couldn’t help but be struck by 47 Ronin as a potentially terrible example of let’s-throw-cool-shit-together filmmaking, with CGI that would have looked dated half-a-decade ago:

Anybody at all familiar with the tale of the 47 Ronin will find nothing even remotely recognizable in the film as being drawn from the the traditional story that has been called “Japan’s national legend.” Michael Lonsdale, acting opposite Robert De Niro and playing the part of a retired French spook in 1998’s Ronin, summarizes the story of the 47 Ronin and its major themes in the clip below:

The Reeves film isn’t a case of, say, something like 2010’s Clash of the Titans, where an already fantastical myth is given the Hollywood special effects treatment. While the specific historicity of the tale of the 47 Ronin is open to debate, there is pretty much consensus agreement among historians and students of Japanese culture that the events detailed in the story really happened, although when they actually occurred and the actual circumstances of the incidents remain subjects of speculation. If the trailer is an accurate representation of the contents of the film, I’d have to say that titling Reeves’ film as 47 Ronin is the equivalent of marketing Cowboys and Aliens as a film based on the Battle of the Alamo.

My biggest problem with the upcoming 47 Ronin film isn’t about the fantasy-based take on the story: I actually don’t mind it all that much that Reeves and his companions are battling shapeshifting dragons and ogres and whatnot. The real issue is that the film, based on the trailer, seems to have lost sight of the timeless themes that are the heart of the legend. Does anyone actually think that this film will end the way the legend ends, with all 47 ronin committing ritual suicide after restoring their deceased master’s name and honor? Would Hollywood invest that much money in a special effects film whose very story is anathema to the trend of “sequelization?” But that’s assuming that the screenplay was actually based on the legend at all. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were to be revealed that the screenplay wasn’t based on the story of the 47 Ronin, and the film’s title was the result of some marketing “genius” deciding that appropriating the name of the legend would drive up the film’s Q rating.

That being said, if I pretend that it’s called something else besides 47 Ronin, I find my self more receptive to the idea of watching it: Just because I respect the study of history and cultural artifacts doesn’t mean I don’t like big, dumb fun.

47ronin5p0One adaptation of the legend that does right by the source material is Dark Horse Comics’ 47 Ronin, the recently concluded five-issue miniseries written by Dark Horse founder and president Mike Richardson and illustrated by Usagi Yojombo creator Stan Sakai. The miniseries, created with the editorial assistance of Eisner Hall of Famer (and Lone Wolf and Cub co-creator) Kazuo Koike, hews fairly close to the broad strokes of the legend. Richardson adds little flourishes of personalized characterization here and there for the cast but in the main, Dark Horse’s 47 Ronin is a conventional retelling of the story, with no attempt to reinterpret or subvert the original narrative, although it is noteworthy that Richardson had the 47 ronin commit ritual suicide only after they’d been properly convicted by the authorities of the murder of their rival lord—many other retellings, the clip from Ronin above being one of them, have the avenging swordsmen committing seppuku immediately after their successful attack—giving the story a more Confucian air and further reinforcing the idea that the 47 ronin were not just bloodthirsty vigilantes driven to suicidal rage. Not that reinterpretation is a bad thing, but given how few Western comics adaptations of the legend are extant, it makes sense for Richardson to stick with a more traditional take on things.

It does feel a little strange seeing Stan Sakai draw humans—this is the first comic book illustrated by Sakai I’ve read that features a human cast instead of anthropomorphic animals—but he’s equally adept at portraying human-on-human swordfights as he is at “talking animal” hand-to-hand combat and the impressive eye for detail he’s renown for applying on Usagi Yojimbo is on display in 47 Ronin as well, even with the ultra-stylized look to the art: The costumes, armor, and architecture all look quite period-accurate from what I can tell.

There’s no firm word yet on whether or not Dark Horse will collect the miniseries as a a trade paperback or hardcover, but given the publisher’s track record of compiling its material in bound volumes, I think it’s an inevitability that we’ll see one sooner rather than later.

On The Wolverine

the-wolverine-posterAs I mentioned above, I did go and see The Wolverine the other evening. I found the experience to be reasonably entertaining, a nice bit of air-conditioning and summer action cinema fluff for a brutally humid Tuesday. I did feel like the progression of Wolverine and Mariko’s romantic relationship was too rushed. In fact, I felt that all of the character relationships developed at too quick of a clip: How did Wolverine earn Mariko and Yukio’s loyalty—such loyalty that they would betray their supposedly ironclad lifelong sense of familial duty—so quickly? And no, “animal magnetism,” “sculpted pecs,” and “washboard abs” aren’t reasonable answers.

Also getting short shrift in the film, to the narrative’s ultimate detriment, is that little explanation is given as to why Wolverine is so particularly abhorrent to the traditional Japanese warrior culture. The superhuman powers of regeneration that grant Wolverine near-immortality are an affront to the ethos and philosophy contained in the Hagakure—the 18th century book that codified proper warrior behavior—where Edo Period swordsman and retainer Yamamoto Tsunetomo wrote that “the way of the samurai is found in death,” words that are obviously inapplicable to a warrior who cannot die, at least not by conventional means, in battle. Wolverine may have a samurai’s fighting spirit, but the curse of his healing factor is a constant, inescapable betrayal of his warrior virtue: His seemingly assured victories over non-superpowered foes are empty and meaningless, holding no honor for those possessed of the samurai mindset. Chris Claremont touched on this cruel contradiction in the 1982 Wolverine miniseries that served as the inspiration for The Wolverine‘s screenplay, but it seems to have been lost in the translation from comics to film.

Odds and sods

If you’re looking for the reviews of the July trade paperbacks and hardcovers, I’ll have to apologize and say that I am way, way behind on my reading. I’ve been busy working on a comics project of my own—I don’t want to say too much about it because you could say we’re still in the “pre-alpha” stage and it might come to nothing—but what I’ve come to find is that working on a comic leaves precious little time to read other people’s work. I will eventually get around to reading and reviewing certain July books, though.

I’ve been absolutely obsessed with the soundtrack to the 2011 PC game To the Moon.

I discovered it while going through video game music composer Laura Shigihara’s bandcamp site—Shigi composed, arranged, and sang the game’s vocal theme “Everything’s Alright”—and I’ve had it playing in the background almost constantly these past three days. Game designer and musical score composer Kan Gao isn’t shy about exhibiting his musical influences in the work—I can definitely hear strains of Atsushi “Tenmon” Shirakawa’s scoring work for Makoto Shinkai’s Voices of a Distant Star, The Place Promised in Our Early Days, and 5 Centimeters Per Second, Kiyoshi Yoshida’s score for Mamoru Hosoda’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Joe Hisaishi‘s music for the various live-action and animated films, as well as Vincent Diamante’s soundtrack for the PSN game Flower—but Gao and Shigi’s work still stands firmly on its own merits.

The game’s narrative themes, from what I can tell from the trailers and gameplay videos on YouTube, also echo those of the aforementioned Voices of a Distant Star, The Place Promised in Our Early Days, and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, which basically involve the protagonists using science-fiction contrivances to achieve closure in some past romantic relationship. It’s very interesting and heartening to see such story ideas tackled in a video game. I can’t personally speak as to how well Gao was able to execute the story in To the Moon not having played the game myself (what I wrote above about not having enough time of late to read trades/graphic novels applies double for playing video games… I don’t think I’ve played on my PS3 for at least two months now), but it is worth noting that it won GameSpot’s “Story of the Year” award for 2011 and it is supposedly the highest-rated 2011 PC game release listed on Metacritic.

Early reviews for Kick-Ass 2 are coming in, and they’re not looking particularly good (read the Guardian review here, the Telegraph‘s review can be found here, and the Daily Mail‘s scathing take is here). Mark Millar’s comics writing has always been hit-or-miss for me—he either scores a grand slam like Marvel 1985 or he whiffs with exploitative, shock-for-shock’s sake material like Nemesis—and I’m indifferent to the first Kick-Ass film (I never read the comic) despite some decent performances. I’ll probably just wait for the film to hit Netflix or HBO, if I end up seeing it at all.

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