From the Set: Keanu Reeves Leads the 47 Ronin
by Edward Douglas
There are samurai as far as the eye can see. Samurai in red armor, samurai in black armor, samurai on horses, samurai with leashed dogs and ones with cool star-shaped helmets. They're all gathered in an enormous courtyard with the ones in red bowing down before a group on horseback, the ground covered in small rocks that make it hard to walk over them without making lots of noise. And yet, a dainty princess floats above them barely making a sound as she walks towards the two most prominent men on horseback, including a regal-looking older man fully covered in gold.
This is the scene we walk in on when we turned the corner onto the backlot of Shepperton Studios in London and we are literally in seventh heaven, because this is a key scene being filmed for 47 Ronin, the directorial debut by Carl Rinsch. Rinsch happens to be the son-in-law of famed director Ridley Scott and he's mainly directed commercials and short films before getting a chance to direct his first feature, an FX-laden epic that mixes history and fantasy.
The original story of the "47 Ronin" is a Japanese classic based in historical fact that's been retold many times over the years in Japanese plays, television shows and films. In the first big budget Western adaptation, the idea was to take that story and create a vast world that delves into fantasy and magic, rather than telling a straight historic samurai story. Bringing fantasy into the mix allows them to introduce many creatures for the band of ronin to face.
The film is somewhat unique in that like this past summer's The Wolverine, it stars one Western star surrounded by a number of Asian actors, some more known than others. The former is Keanu Reeves, an actor who has fully embraced Asian martial arts ever since appearing in "The Matrix Trilogy." (He even made his directorial debut recently with Man of Tai Chi, which opened this past weekend.) Also if the film stays true to the original story, the ending is likely to be controversial since it goes against what would normally be seen in a Hollywood movie.
In the movie, Keanu plays Kai, who as a young boy was found in the woods and sold into slavery to Lord Asano (Min Tanaka), becoming friends with his daughter, the princess Mika, played by Kô Shibasaki. Because he's an outsider, Kai isn't readily accepted by others in Asano's kingdom and he's eventually banished, but when Asano is killed, his powerful samurai army is left leaderless and the Ronin turn to Kai to help them get revenge.
The antagonist of the piece is Lord Kira, played by Tadanobu Asano, who most will know for playing Hogun of the Warriors Three in the "Thor" movies… or if you're really cool, as the star of Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer. Kira wants to become shogun and he uses a shapeshifting witch named Mizuki and played by Pacific Rim's Rinko Kikuchi to help him achieve that. The leader of the Ronin, Kuranosuke Oishi, is played by Hiroyuki Sanada, one of the more prominent and prolific Japanese actors in terms of shooting Western films and television, having recently starred in the aforementioned The Wolverine as well as a short-lived character on "Lost."
As we arrived at Shepperton, producer Pam Adby walked us through the story via the concept art that was tacked up on the walls around the room, giving a fairly detailed run-through of almost everything that happens in the movie. These included designs for some of the creatures that Kai and his band of warriors face on their journey - an ogre-like Oni that Kai battles, a wild forest beast called a Kirin as well as the designs for the Tengu monks. These monks are lightning fast and we were told they "move like birds," but they appear in one of the film's many battle sequences.
Although Rinko Kikuchi wasn't around on the day we visited the set, we did get to see some designs and concept art of her shapeshifting witch and how she uses her magic to change into different creatures. It looked like black tendrils of smoke surrounded her before the transformation, making it obvious that this would be a fairly CG-intensive character.
Over the course of the day, we had a chance to talk to a lot of the principle cast including Keanu, Tadanobu Asano, Hiroyuki Sanada and Ko Shibasaki, but most of you probably will be more interested in Keanu than the others, so you can read that interview here.
Later in the day, we were out on the backlot of Shepperton where they had built two massive sets including the one we described at the beginning of this report. First, we walked around Kira's fortress admiring the decorative motif on its black walls, which sported the octopus theme that represented Kira's household. This is the location for a massive, presumably climactic, samurai battle and they needed a larger space than could be built inside a soundstage in order to pull that off.
That was fairly impressive but not as spectacular as the massive courtyard in Ako that they had created elsewhere on the backlot, which included cherry blossom trees and other things that really made it feel like we'd been transported to Edo-era Japan. In the background, they had built a bridge, but we were more impressed with the perfect sky overhead on the day they were shooting the scene. Off to the side of the courtyard was an equally large training ground where they stage a samurai tournament, and this is where we had a chance to talk to actor Hiro Sanada, still donned in his samurai armor, a bit later.
In the meantime, we watched a scene in which the princess Mika is being told that a year after the death of her father, she'll have to marry Lord Kira in order to bring their clans together and so she can keep her land. At the same time, Asano's former samurai are learning that they will have to leave Ako now that they're masterless. Although the entire ground was covered with small noisy rocks, Kou, looking very distinctive against the samurai's black, gold and red armor with her pink robe adorned with orange ribbons and flowers, gracefully walked through the bowing samurai, almost floating above the rocks as you could barely hear her feet crossing the courtyard. When she arrives at Kira, who is atop a horse, we got to watch some of their dialogue. As we had learned earlier, they were doing most scenes both in Japanese and English with the idea that they would decide which one to use later.
As we may have noted before, epic battle movies like 47 Ronin often offer the type of set visits where the costumes and weapons being used tend to be far more interesting than for other movies. With that in mind, we got to spend a little time with costume designer Penny Rose, best known for her work on the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, and Simon Atherton, the film's weapons designer, to see what they were bringing to the table.
"The start point is authentic Japanese 1870--you have to have a good start point," Rose responded when asked about the inspiration for the 988 costumes and 400 suits of armor created for the production. "We researched for quite a long time. We saw all the previous Japanese '47 Ronin' movies and then we decided to give it a kick, so we went for a bit of fashion. We went for a bit of fantasy, and kind of ended up with what you watched today."
Atherton was very knowledgeable about the history and evolution of samurai swords and other weapons during the period and he gave us a great demonstration of how samurais changed the way they wore the swords and used them to attack during a fight. He and his team hand-constructed hundreds of swords for the production since buying actual Japanese katana would have been cost-prohibitive (not to mention dangerous), but he certainly had some interesting things to tell and show us. We learned about something called a "sleeve catcher" that warriors can use to grab his adversary's robe. As Atherton went through various swords that had been built, we were particularly impressed with Lord Kira's sword, which was far more ornate than the others with a gold handle and scabbard that included his octopus motif.
Before we left, Rinsch was able to share with us a 9-minute sizzle reel of some of the 3D footage that had been shot already, including scenes of Keanu fighting both with Hiro's character as well as ascending a staircase while fighting off Kira's men. None of the CG creatures were ready to be shared just yet, but the footage gave us a good idea of the various locations of the film and how they were captured using 3D. Mind you, our visit to the set was a few years ago, back when 3D was still a pretty big buzzword and they were shooting the movie using 3D cameras, which was a pretty big deal for Rinsch, as you'll learn when reading our interview with him later this week. At the time, he and his stereographer Demitri Portelli talked about using the 3D "artistically" and "elegantly" and from what we saw that day, they certainly have a lot of gorgeous landscapes and sets and costumes to capture using the 3D technology.