On Monday, we took you on the set of “47 Ronin,” Universal‘s great tentpole hope for the Christmas season. Long-delayed (it was originally set for release last November) and with a troubled production history, the film tells the famous Japanese story of the 47 Ronin, former samurai who spent a year planning their revenge on the man who wronged their master, with two major twists: one is that one of their number is Kai, a “half-breed” played by Keanu Reeves, the other is that the vision of first-time director Carl Erik Rinsch was to set the film in “a dream of Japan,” with fantastical creatures and heightened action.
You can get the skinny on the film from our earlier extensive report, but in our day on set at Shepperton Studios back in June 2011, we had the opportunity to talk not just to Rinsch and Reeves, but also co-stars Hiroyuki Sanada, Tadanobu Asano and Kou Shibasaki, as well as costume designer Penny Rose and weapons master Simon Atherton. We didn’t have room for everything in Monday’s story, so take a look below for everything else we learned from the cast and crew of “47 Ronin,” which hits theaters on Christmas Day.
Despite the fantasy elements, this isn’t necessarily the weirdest version of the story.
Chushingura is a term that refers to the various retellings of the story of the forty-seven ronin. But as director Carl Erik Rinsch explains, while many versions stick close to real events, there’s a tradition of mixing it up: “There’s this thing called Chushingura, which is the tradition of the storytelling of the 47 Ronin. So it’s not just a historically accurate story, it’s taking it and making it your own. There’s been the Hello Kitty Chushingura, they’ve done it with all women. It’s like ‘Romeo & Juliet.’ People have come up with sequels and prequels to what happened, they’ve had fun with it… So at first, I looked at it and was like, ‘This is hallowed ground, I don’t wanna fuck up a national iconic story.’ And then I realized that that was the fun of it, is to make it your own.”
Rinsch believes the story will resonate not just with Japanese audiences, but with Westerners too.
For all the bells and whistles, Rinsch says, there’s a strong emotional core to the story, but he did have to find an angle to connect with it. “We as Westerners,” he says, “we elect our leaders, and most of the time we don’t trust them. We have an innate distrust of our leadership, so the idea of when they fall, everything falls, and we need to sacrifice ourselves for them, it doesn’t really happen. But the way I was able to tune into it was, what if my father was killed? What would you do, what lengths would you go, if your father was murdered?… There is inherently in it, a message of ‘What you do in this life resonates into the next.’ What they do will resonate for future and future generations. I was reading this Robert Towne article where he said that a crime that robs you of your future, is actually a sin.”
Keanu Reeves connected to his character straight away.
These days, Reeves is fairly picky with his roles, especially when it comes to blockbuster fare: “47 Ronin” marks his first tentpole lead since 2008’s “The Day The Earth Stood Still.” But he says that as soon as he was offered the project, Reeves clicked with Kai. “When I first read the script,” Reeves told us, “it had the largesse of a Western, and the character that I played was kind of an outsider. I always talk about it as a story of revenge and impossible love, and for drama, it’s good stuff. It sucks in life, but in a movie, that’s good stuff. So I was drawn to this guy, who’s an outsider, who’s involved in the culture, but is outside of the culture, who wants to belong. And who has a chance to fight for it, who can belong by fighting for the cause. It’s just a good story… I was impressed by the scale and the invention. that was one thing that impressed me too, the scale of it.”
Hiroyuki Sanada has a long history with the 47 Ronin.
As a veteran of the samurai genre, it’s not suprising that Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays Oishi, the leader of the Ronin, has encountered the tale before. “When I was eight or nine years old, I saw the TV ‘47 Ronin,’ with Toshiro Mifune. He played Oshii. That was my first inspiration. I played it every week, with my brother. ‘Who plays Oshii tonight, who plays Kira tonight?’ We fought. Every week.” But unlike most of the cast, he’s also appeared in a version of the story before, too. “I played Lord Asano before, directed by Kinji Fukusaku [the late helmer of “Battle Royale” who directed 1994’s “Crest Of Betrayal,” which also melded the classic story with supernatural elements, albeit in a very different way]. So this is my second time with the 47 Ronin.”
Tadanobu Asano hoped he might be on the side of the angels in the film.
Tadanobu Asano, the star of “Ichi The Killer” and “Thor,” among many others, plays the villain of the piece, Lord Kira. But having been familiar with the story since he was “probably five years old, as early as I can remember,” he’d long hoped to appear in a version. But he confesses he’s a little disappointed to be the bad guy, given his name: “Growing up, my name being Asano, I always viewed it from the point of view of the Asano family [Lord Asano being the master of the samurai who become the 47 Ronin] . So I thought that when the time came to do a part in the story, I’d be on that side. So this being a Hollywood project, and being on the other side, it will be interesting.”
Rinsch was keen to shoot practically as much as possible
While the story has drawn comparisons with “300,” Rinsch was adamant that he wanted to keep things as grounded as possible. “You do kind of want to [shoot] outside. Some people like the look of ‘Immortals‘ or something like that, where it looks like it was shot on a stage with polystyrene rocks, but I wanted to get into some real space.” As such, the shoot moved to London to build huge castle and fortress sets on the Shepperton backlot. Not that it was without its difficulties. “It’s been a real challenge,” Rinsch admitted. “The third act all takes place at night, and the night [in the summer] is only four and a half hours long.”
There were a lot of costumes. A lot.
Costume designer Penny Rose (“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” “The Lone Ranger“) spilled the beans on the sheer workload she’d been pumping out with only eight weeks prep time. “988 costumes, and 400 suits of armor. And 13 different variations of helmets.” And they went to unlikely sources for putting some of it together, particularly a chainmail expert with an unlikely main source of income. “The chainmail guy,” she told us, “has a shop in the North of England, and he makes aluminium rings with rubber rings, to create chainmail. And guess what his main business is? He has a huge trade in the S&M market.”
Some of the costumes were influenced by haute couture.
While there’s a traditional influence for many of the costumes, Rose says that she was looking to more contemporary influences too. Of female lead Mika, Rose explained, “She’s all in pale peaches, pale apricot, pale pale colors, all in silk satins. Every costume is a variation on a theme that frames her tiny face, that was the idea, we’d frame her. They’re not authentic Japanese, I’ve stolen a bit from here there and everywhere, quite a lot of couture. I’m trying to remember whose collection it was, I think Alexander McQueen did a Japanese collection, quite a long time ago, and Christian Dior, in the 1960s. But it was mainly about the fact that Mika is so petite, and so we really wanted to frame her face.”
Even CGI characters need to have their costumes designed.
We were curious as to what kind of input the costume designer on a giant movie like this has on the CGI-only characters, and put the question to Rose on set. The answer? “What tends to happen in these big films is that if you let the computer generators create the costume, sure as eggs as eggs, at one point, they’ll ask for a real version. For me to then recreate what they’ve digitally done, is really hard. So I start, and they then take it away. They make it bigger and better than mine, but at least there’s a start point.”
Co-star Hiroyuki Sanada has been helping Reeves with his samurai etiquette.
When starring in a samurai movie, as a Westerner, it helps to have a co-star well-versed in the genre, and fortunately, Reeves fights side-by-side with HIroyuki Sanada in the film. According to the star, it’s been a great boon having the Japanese legend on-set. “Hiroyuki Sanada is pretty fantastic with a sword,” Reeves relates, “films like ‘Twilight Samurai,’ ‘The Last Samurai.’ I grew up with Sonny Chiba [movies], and I remember we were doing a camera test, and I asked him ‘Hiro, how many samurai films have you done?’ And he said ‘Twenty.’ And then I asked him again, and he said ‘Thirty.’ One day, in Los Angeles, in training, he came over cause he wanted to talk about the work, he was warming up a bit. I was taking lessons from this gentleman. And he says to the guy, ‘Ok, do an overheard strike.’ So he goes like this, and Sanada goes like, ‘pew-pew,’ and the blade is like this, against his Adam’s Apple. So I was like, ‘Ok, that’s the bar.’ And I haven’t reached it, because he’s so fantastic. But what’s great with working with someone who’s so experienced is that he’s very generous with help. ‘Look here, put your balance here, move like this,’ he’s great with all of the cast, making sure everything’s right, checking how you wear your swords. He is Oshii. He’s this guy who’s looking out for everyone.”
Sanada is as big a fan of Keanu as Keanu is of him
Reeves might have learned a lot from Sanada, but it hasn’t just been a one way street: Sanada has a clear and sincere respect for his co-star. “He loves and respects the culture. It surprised me, when I first met him, he knew a lot already, and he’d learn a lot more. He learned Japanese, it was incredible. The first time he spoke Japanese, it was a very important scene between us. I was very moved. All the walls were gone.”
Japanese samurai swords could swap parts out, but the blades were always at the core.
Weapons master Simon Atherton gave us a brief masterclass in the world of samurai swords, and it turns out that often, the swords were made up of interchangeable components around one core blade. “The blade is the most prized item,” Atherton explained, “and you can have a complete set of kit for Sunday or weekday, you could have different scabbards, a different handle, if you’re going out on a Sunday, you could change all the components on your sword, but the blade is the most prized thing, that was handed down from family to family. A lot of Japanese soldiers in WW2 went to war with their family sword, that dates back 4-500 years. And I still think the Japanese are hunting for about ten of them, that’s ten of them that disappeared after the Pacific War.”
There was a grisly method for evaluating the worth of a sword
These days, Atherton says, a samurai sword can fetch up to $15,000, but it’s unlikely that modern dealers use the same methods to evaluate the value of a blade as were used in the samurai era. “To test a samurai sword,” the weapons master related, “you’d find out how many people it could cut through. And what they would do is they would make a mound of earth, pad it all out, and make it soft underneath, and then lay bodies on top of the mound. And depending on how many bodies it cut through, it would be marked on the hilt. And that sword would then become even more valuable. So you can see why they’d do it later on in life, when they thought ‘Sod it, I’m going to die, if it breaks it breaks, but if not, I’m hanging on to it as a heirloom.'” And it wasn’t just cadavers being used.
“Occasionally, they’d cut people when they were alive. You’d be taken as a person and strapped to a board, and they would sever you. One criminal who said, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ because normally you’d decapitate the person first, and then test the sword afterwards. And they said, ‘The judge has said you have to be killed,’ and his reply was, ‘If I’d known this, I would have eaten some stones, so I could have ruined your blades.'”
Samurais could carry up to three different blades.
Most of us with passing knowledge of samurai movies associate the katana — the long, two-handed sword — with the warriors. But as Atherton explained, there were three different variations, for different purposes: “A weapon like [a katana], inside a Japanese building, it’s like fighting in a forest, by the time you’ve got it up, you’ve connected to the wall behind you, and you can’t swing it. So you’d take indoors a wakizashi. It’s kind of an offense to go indoors with a katana, so at the entrance to any building, you’d give up your katana, but you wouldn’t go in undefended, you’d take in a wakizashi,” he explained. “If I came into your house, depending on how I presented myself to you that’s how well I feel with you. So if I sit down and place my sword on my left side, if anything’s going to kick off, I can instantly go for my blade. If I place it on the right, it’s a sign that I’m happy to be in your presence, so there’s a whole tradition of how comfortable you feel, and where you place your sword.”
And for the deep and dirty work, you’d use a sword called a tanto. “You’d carry a katana and a wazikashi if you were walking about the streets, if you were in full armor, I would probably carry my katana and my tanto. The tanto is for finishing off anyone on the ground, that you wouldn’t want to waste a [katana] blow on. The tanto is also the weapon you use for seppuku.”
Ever wanted to know how to commit seppuku? Look no further
Seppuku — the ritualized suicide exclusive to samurai, used either as a way of dying with honor in the face of capture, or forced as punishment — plays a key role in the film. And Atherton gave a brief masterclass on how to pull it off. “There’s a whole tradition to committing seppuku. It’s very ritualized, you’d have a little table with a meal on it, a little plate. You would have your meal, you’d write a poem, about four lines, and then you’d pick up the blade. Normally, it’s just the blade, without the hilt on it, though sometimes you’d have the hilt on it. And then there’d be a piece of tissue, and you’d hold the blade there, with the tissue wrapped round, and only use the last inch and a half of the blade. Because what you have to do is cut the stomach, you can’t enter the stomach, you have to cut the skin of the stomach,” he said. “You go in, you come across, and if you really felt up to it, you’d go up. And the whole idea is that everything fell out. At that moment, you’d fall forward, and then your second would cut your head off. It became very ritualized later on, in that all you had to do was reach for your blade, and your second would cut your head off, you didn’t have to go through all of that.”
The director believes that 3D should be used like music.
“47 Ronin” was actually one of the earlier live-action films to shoot in native 3D, although other subsequent films have hit theaters first. Even at the time, Rinsch was aware that he needed to be careful with how he used the stereo format. “We don’t want to be that sort of in-your-face, ping-ponging balls against the screen or swords up in your grill all the time. But at the same time, I saw ‘Tron: Legacy‘, and I liked the movie, but [the 3D] felt too subtle for me. I think your eye kind of compensates, you’re watching the movie, and about 50 minutes in, and be like ‘Is it still 3D?’ So I think you have to play with it like music. Like ‘Transformers,’ you can’t just have a bunch of action. I fell asleep in the second ‘Transformers,’ just because it was the same note for two hours, it doesn’t have music to it. So we’re trying to use it like music, like saying it’s going to get a little bigger here, then mellow out, then ramp up. And I think that will help you.”
The practicalities of shooting with the huge 3D cameras also meant that Rinsch had to go old-school with the way he shoots the film. “It’s a very classical approach,” he says. “The cameras are so big they’re the size of Volkswagens, so what do you do with cameras like that? You have to revert to the way they did it with Hitchcock and David Lean. I can’t do handheld, the camera’s just too damn big.”