I can just imagine the Hollywood meeting that led to Carl Rinsch’s 47 Ronin:
Rinsch: Boy, Mr Movie Producer, have I got a project for you! It’s called 47 Ronin and tells of a group of samurai whose master, Lord Asano (Tanaka Min), was unjustly executed, so they set out to avenge him, even though the shogun (Tagawa Cary Hiroyuki) forbid it. In feudal Japan, that was an offense punishable by death, you see, but honour and–
Studio Executive:: I don’t get it. Where are the white people at?
Rinsch: There… There are no white people in 47 Ronin, but we can sign on some of Japan’s most renowned actors like Asano Tadanobu as the rival lord responsible for the initial frame-up, Kikuchi Rinko as the power-hungry temptress manipulating him, and Sanada Hiroyuki as Oishi, the emerging leader of the Ronin, a man driven by duty and really the main character of the film. His relationship with his wife, Riku (Kunimoto Natsuki), is particularly beautiful, though it might not get enough screen time.
Studio Executive: What about Jet Li or Michelle Yeoh?
Rinsch: They’re Chinese, but I assure you Sanada Hiroyuki has never given a bad performance in his forty-year career, and I’m certain he’ll inject his heroic part with depth and majesty far beyond the page. Having said that, all these Japanese actors may struggle with English pronunciation, making some bits of exposition a bit harder to understand. I don’t suppose we could shoot 47 Ronin in their native language and release it with subtitles?
Studio Executive: If I wanted to read, I’d buy a comic book. Besides, moviegoers need a real hero they can root and feel for. In fact, make that two white guys in case marketing wants to put up different posters.
Rinsch: But 47 Ronin is based on real samurai from the eighteenth century. Their plight has been adapted into countless plays, movies, and even television series throughout the years, and the Japanese have embraced it as a symbol of the values that lie at the very heart of their culture: loyalty, sacrifice, perseverance… It’s a celebrated part of their history, and historically there were no white samurai!
Studio Executive: Tom Cruise is white.
Rinsch: I don’t know what to reply to that.
Studio Executive: Okay, fine, I’ll meet you halfway and let you cast Keanu Reeves. His father’s a quarter Hawaiian or something. That’s like Japanese, right?
Rinsch: Well, his acting is notoriously rigid, but at least he’ll get on board with the spirit of 47 Ronin. If I say yes, can we move on? I really want to talk to you about the various war film clichés we’ll use as subplots to flesh out the supporting characters. For example, the forty-seven Ronin will include a jolly fat guy with a heart of gold (Yonemoto Takato), a snotty liar who looks down on non samurai (Haneda Masayoshi), and a streetwise servant eager to transcend his caste. Maybe Reeves can play the latter with a couple of rewrites–
Studio Executive: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s nice, but where are all the giant monsters and kung fu witches? Even the three Hobbit books had a Smaug.
Rinsch: The Hobbit is just one book, and you realise Asians aren’t fictional creatures.
Studio Executive: Just dump all that stuff about Japanese culture and character motivation. Replace it with an ancient order of demon monks and a sorceress that turns into one of them swirly dragons you find in Chinatown on their Valentine’s Day new year. I went out to dim sum once.
Rinsch: I’d like to stress again that 47 Ronin is based on a real historical event.
Studio Executive: How about a giant pirate ogre like in Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006)? That movie’s based on a historical event.
Rinsch: I’m concerned that if we make all these changes, all that’ll be left of 47 Ronin is an empty, melodramatic revenge tale that barely makes any sense. Next, you’ll ask me to alter the ending so that none of the Ronin die at the end.
Studio Executive: Some of the Ronin die at the end?
Rinsch: They all do in the original tale.
Studio Executive: Better not cast a second white guy then. Otherwise, the audience might find it sad.