Is 47 Ronin Based on a True Story?

‘47 Ronin’ is a fantasy action film that tells the epic tale of forty-seven ronin (Masterless samurai), and their quest to avenge the unjust death of their master. In the Ako province, in 18th century Japan, Lord Naganori Asano rules with benevolence. Serving him are his samurai, who take great pride in themselves and their master. But when the master of a rival province, Lord Yoshiknaka Kira, sets his eyes on Ako due to jealousy, Lord Asano ends up committing seppuku (ritualistic suicide). Stripped of their rank and honor, Lord Asano’s former samurai now plot their revenge against Lord Akira and his forces. But it is not just men that stand in their way, but demons and witches as well.

Will they be able to prevail despite the overwhelming circumstances against them? Directed by Carl Rinsch, the 2013 film features the talents of Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tadanobu Asano, Rinko Kikuchi, and Ko Shibasaki. Though ’47 Ronin’ features magic and surrealism on a grand scale, the story itself is a period film. And so many of our readers might find themselves wondering whether there is an actual historical relation to the film or not. If you’re one of these people, then worry not, for we have the answers for you!

Is 47 Ronin a True Story?

Yes, ’47 Ronin’ is based on a true story. The film, written by Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini, is based on the actual tale of the forty-seven ronin who avenged their master, the real-life Lord Asano, in January 1703. Contrary to the historical account, however, some aspects of the film adaptation are quite different. The first and foremost factor is, of course, the magical nature of things. It was clearly created to give the story a more “other” feel and serves a purpose within the confines of the narrative. Another prominent factor is the presence of Kai (Keanu Reeves), a half-Japanese man who served Lord Asano after having saved him from dying.

Raised by the Tengu, Kai knows his way around magic and witchcraft, but even with those traits of his set aside, there was never any half-Japanese man who aided the ronin in their quest. And last but not least, is the cause of the incident itself. While it is true that Lord Asano committed seppuku because he attacked and injured Lord Kira, the reason behind the attack are wildly different in the movie. While the reel-life Lord Kira is a jealous and vindictive man who uses trickery and witchcraft because he wants to gain control of Ako, the real-life Kira merely kept taunting Lord Asano because he was offended by the token gift the latter had offered him on his visit to Edo to meet with the shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi.

This essentially puts ’47 Ronin’ in the category of a Chūshingura, which is the term used to describe a fictionalized version of a story in Japanese. There have been many Chūshingura made on the forty-seven ronin, exemplifying their courage, honor, and commitment to their master, their province, and justice. In an interview with Xtreme Network Entertainment, director Carl Rinsch spoke about what first attracted him to the story. “I knew the history of the 47 Ronin, but when I saw the script the thing that was really interesting about it was this take is so different,” he said.

Carl Rinsch added, “We in the West have to a certain extent a romanticized idea of Japan and I wanted to bring that to life in a way you haven’t seen before. So instead of it being a historical epic, I wanted to turn it into a fantasy and bring a new world to life.” Being an action film, ’47 Ronin’ has a lot of sword fighting sequences, many of which Keanu Reeves is a part of. To train for these fights, he took lessons from Tsuyoshi Abe, a stunt coordinator with a focus on using Japanese swords in films. But Keanu also credits his co-star, Hiroyuki Sanada, for helping him out on set.

“What’s great about working with someone who’s so experienced is he’s [Sanada] very generous with help. ‘Look here, put your balance here, move like this, checking form.’ He’s great with all of the cast and everyone, he’s making sure everything’s right. How do you wear your swords? He’s [Kuranosuke] Oishi. He’s this guy who’s looking out for everybody. He’s looking out for Ako, he’s looking out for the cast, he’s looking out for the production,” the actor said in an interview with Collider.

Though a fictionalized retelling, at its core ‘47 Ronin’ stays true to the historical tale of the band of brave warriors who took on an army and prevailed. Their devotion and sacrifice to the true values of Bushido won the hearts of the citizens of Japan, which led the shogun to grant them all seppuku, an honorable death, even though they had committed the criminal act of murder. These same values are reflected in the film, despite its obvious fantasy elements.

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