I saw The Wolverine last Friday. I’m due to write a review on it, but thinking back to my experience, the first thing that jumped out to me was a trailer that I saw. This trailer:
Chūshingura, as is the term used to describe any fictional recounting of the Forty-Seven Ronin incident, has a long tradition in storytelling. It’s been portrayed in film, bunraku (Japanese puppet theatre), kabuki, manga, anime, live-action drama, and even a song by Jefferson Airplane. It’s a brilliant story that engages with issue of tradition vs modernization, honor, and loyalty. And if that weren’t enough, it’s also a juicy samurai revenge tale.
Let me explain. The historical incident (yes, it’s at least partly a true story) went roughly as follows. A daimyo, Asano Naganori, is involved in an important function for the Shogunate in Heian (old Kyoto). The shogun’s kōke (高家), which roughly translates to Master of Court Ceremony, was assigned to instruct Lord Asano in the appropriate practices of the function. For some reason, purportedly an insult (many tellings have it that this was an insult about Asano’s wife), Lord Asano drew his sword and struck Kira. For this breach of conduct, which may have been formalized as drawing a weapon in the shogun’s palace, or attacking one of the shogun’s retainers, he was ordered to die by seppuku.
A couple of years later, Ōishi Yoshio (大石 良雄) leads a contingent of Lord Asano’s former retainers in an attack of Kira’s estate, capturing and killing him. For their crimes, they were sentenced to commit seppuku as well, though they may have embraced this as an honorable and inevitable death for their crimes. That’s cool, on its own, but the devil is in the details here. Oishi and many of the other retainers spend the intervening years acting as slobs, layabouts and whoremongers, divesting themselves of any credibility in order to disguise their avenging intent.
What’s important about this is that the story upholds certain cultural values, ones which Japanese people have found central and edifying. It’s about a group of warriors acting out of loyalty, and choosing what they deem a form of honor higher than the shoguns’ approval. It’s not really a story about an individual. There are individual characters, of course, but the story is about doing right by more traditional values, about sacrifice for clan and lord, not personal revenge.
That’s why I’m worried. The trailer opens with words like “outcast” and “exiled,” and seems to focus specifically on how the story revolves around Keanu Reeves’s character. The word “destiny” is used, and the phrase “you’re the only one.” That character’s comeuppance, as impressive as it may end up being, is out of touch with my understanding of what the 47 Ronin story is about. I’m willing to respect the idea that one piece of art based on another one needn’t be slave to that work, or even be used to portray the same ideas. I can’t but help feel, however, that this change is a cheapening of the potential of this film to tell a story different than the “watch this individual hero gain his individual success, and maybe society gets saved while we’re at it.” That’s kind of getting old as a trope.
Speaking of tropes that are getting old, I’m also a little concerned with Keanu Reeves being at the head of this film. I don’t want to be a hater, and I also don’t want to deny his Chinese heritage. I’m just not sure about another film centered on an ostensibly white person who steps into the world of some other ethnic group and wins the day by virtue of their difference, Westerner status, or ruggedly individualistic refusal to kowtow to certain cultural values. It’s an old trope and it’s problematic in so many ways, not the least of which is how much appropriation is implicit in its constant reproduction. Even The Wolverine is guilty of this. See also: The Forbidden Kingdom. In the process, the person usually turns out to be better than the given ethnic group at their own cultural practices. See: The Last Samurai, others.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m going to see this film. I’ve been excited about the idea of a popular, modern Chūshingura film since the possibility was first mentioned to me in high school. The trailer indicates a film with a potential for a bright, brilliantly designed, and colorful epic, one which highlights martial arts and elements of Asian culture. That alone will probably make it worth watching. But everything thing that I just said was also true of Hero, and that film told a story about China with a Chinese star, without subverting Chinese values in the telling.