Set visit: Keanu Reeves' '47 Ronin' turns London into 1700s Japan
by Alex Dorn
Samurai loyalty and honor in 3D
London -- Or is it 1700’s Japan? Cherry blossoms erupt from the trees that line the courtyard of ‘Ako.’ The Shogun’s warriors wear golden armor complete with grimacing masks that intimidate while they shine in the sun. It’s a sad scene, 47 Samurai are surrendering themselves to the Shogun. Soon they will be banished and become the “47 Ronin.”
It’s a spring morning at Shepperton Studios outside of London, and our small group of mostly American and mostly jet-lagged journalists is touring the production of “47 Ronin.” Most of us are approaching this project with a pretty blank slate.
Until this point, (June, 2011) the only news of the production that had reached the U.S. was from a London press conference announcing that Keanu Reeves and a mostly Japanese cast including Hiroyuki Sanada (The Wolverine) and Rinko Kinkuchi (Pacific Rim) would be starring in a westernized adaptation of a famous Japanese story of samurai loyalty and revenge based on real events that took place in the 1700’s.
Over the course of the day, as we tour the elaborate outdoor sets of castles and courtyards, and as we speak to the filmmakers, the larger concept comes into focus.
Very briefly: The historical basis of the story involves the feudal lord Asano who embarrasses/disgraces himself by attempting to kill Kira, a protocol official who had insulted him during an imperial reception. The Shogun takes Asano’s lands and sentences him to commit ritual suicide for this dishonor, however Kira is left unpunished. Asano’s band of samurai are then left leaderless and landless, AKA ‘Ronin.’ A year later, these 47 Ronin, led by their leader Oishi, return and extract revenge on Kira by beheading him and putting his head on Asano’s grave on December 14th, 1702.
Of course these are honorable men and they turn themselves in to the authorities. They are subsequently sentenced to also commit suicide for being more loyal to Asano than to their Shogun. They comply and off themselves simultaneously.
Soon after these events took place, the story has been adapted and fictionalized countless times in Japanese literature, the puppet arts of Bunraku, Kabuki Theater and later in TV and film. So many times in fact that the re-telling of the story has become it’s own genre with it’s own name: “Chushingura” (literally, “The Loyal League.”) It is a modern tradition, we are told, to have a new Chushingura adaptation on Japanese television every December 14th, Like a suicide-heavy Christmas special.
Got all that?
Producer Pamela Abdy walks us through the story and we learn that like all Chushingura, “47 Ronin” greatly deviates from the historical events and the story has been expanded to include new characters. Most notably Kai (Keanu Reeves) a half British, half Japanese orphan who is rescued from the wild by Asano, but rejected by the Samurai/Ronin. Also, the character of princess Mika (Kou Shibasaki) the daughter of Asano and love interest of Kai.
Yes, it appears that two of the main characters of this particular Chushingura are not bound by history to kill themselves. We will have to wait for the final film to be certain.
Of course this deviation is justified by director Carl Rinsch as such: “Chushingura is not [about making] a historically accurate story. It’s taking and making it your own. There's been the Hello Kitty Chushingura, right? It’s like Romeo and Juliet, You know, there's the gay Romeo and Juliet and then there's the gangster Romeo and Juliet, the same thing with 47 Ronin.”
We also learn, through some amazing concept art, that this Chushingura takes place in a supernatural version of feudal Japan. Mythical beasts from Japanese folklore like the Kirin (yes, like the beer) and dragons are common sights, and the bad guys ranks are reinforced by evil witches capable of sexily shape shifting.
Producer Abdy credits a research trip to the graves of the Ronin and the art in the religious temples in Japan for this fantastical departure. “We’re going for ‘Lord of the Rings,’ we’re going for ‘Star Wars’ we want to create the world of Japan, we want to create the dream of Japan.”
This ambitious fantasy element informed the choice of Rinsch as visual effects are his strong point. He has only one narrative film under his belt, (sci-fi short The Gift) but his commercial director’s reel is beautiful and effects heavy. Abdy gushes “Carl is tremendous with visual effects, he really understands how to visually tell stories. He has big ideas and is a world-creator.”
This pressure is not lost on Rinsch, who wearily admits “we’re creating a world not from scratch but a world that's entirely new to most Western audiences. And we’re doing it in stereo and we’re doing it with a cast who doesn't speak English as a first language. That on paper is like, okay, that's officially crazy. ‘Don't do that.’”
The sets that have been built on the back lot at Shepperton are truly grand and remarkable to behold. Although there is a large element of the fantastic, the idea is clearly to portray as much as possible practically instead of creating them later in a computer. The film is being shot in 3D with multiple Cameron/Pace rigs that anachronistically float on cranes amongst the beautifully costumed Samurai on horseback and throngs of extras in ceremonial dress.
Behind the scenes in the 3D video village Stereographer Demetri Portelli works with a fantastic array of equipment to adjust the depth of the 3D on the fly for each of the three camera rigs during the production by adjusting the distance between the two lenses.
Unlike post conversions where the depth is assigned in post production via computer, a 3D shoot allows for a more natural rendition of 3D by shooting with two actual cameras per rig (one for each eye.) This new all-digital workflow allows the director, the DP and the Stereographer to playback each shot from each camera and analyze the depth effect of the footage and adjust it for each take. Portelli explains “You might say ‘On that take the performance was good but the 3D was conservative, let’s do another take with bigger 3D!’ That’s a really good thing to do with your director.”
Portelli has just come off shooting Scorsese’s “Hugo” and takes a long view on the art of Stereo cinema. “I think 3D is evolving. It’s still very new for so many people and it’s becoming a bit finer tuned and better executed, and the better technical 3D is better artistic 3D.” However the Canadian Portelli says he has not been able to go home. “Scorsese’s movie went three months longer [than expected] then they asked us to do this, so we’ve been stuck in England.”
Carl Rinsch tells us that his approach to the 3D is probably more aggressive than usual. “You have to play with it like music… it’s going to get a little bit bigger here and then it’s going to mellow out and then it’ll ramp up!”
Will this amazing mishmash of actors, cultures and technologies add up to a decent historical fantasy-action-samurai flick? Find out when “47 Ronin” hits theaters this Christmas, December 25th.