’47 Ronin’ Tanks at Japanese Box Office; Is U.S. Doom Next?

47 Ronan

Universal's pricey tentpole starring Keanu Reeves hopes to avoid disaster bowing Dec. 25 in the U.S.

If a samurai movie can’t work in Japan, where can it?

Universal execs are asking themselves just that after the weekend’s weak performance of “47 Ronin” in Japan, where the mega-budgeted Keanu Reeves starrer launched ahead of the Dec. 25 Stateside bow, with a paltry estimated $1.3 million from 333 playdates.

The troubling local start did land the film first among foreign pics, though it ranked third overall behind two local-language films.

The Japanese territory is notoriously difficult to crack for international films, since the country has such a strong local market. That is true for nearly every foreign-language film in Japan, but for “47 Ronin,” which not only tells a story famous in Japanese folklore (albeit with great liberties taken), it stars popular local talent including Hiroyuki Sanada.

Also, the poor opening is not just bad news for “47 Ronin” locally as a soft set-up for the very competitive year-end holidays, but the sluggish start could forecast a similar fate elsewhere around the world, especially in the States, where the film doesn’t seem to be building much buzz, despite a marketing campaign already mid-swing.

Some box office analysts have the film pegged to gross just north of $10 million opening weekend, with a domestic cume falling short of $50 million. Such estimates could increase as Universal pours more money into the film’s marketing, however.

“47 Ronin” — which cost at least $175 million to produce, with Elliot Inc. as a financial partner — received one of the lowest consumer engagement scores (a composite based on questions measuring the level of consumer interest in a given movie concept) among holiday films from Piedmont Media Research.

By itself, the film’s score means little, though the soft composite often translates to disastrous box office for expensive pics. Universal’s summer bomb “R.I.P.D.,” for instance, received a score of 137, according to Piedmont. That said, Reeves helped raise “Ronin’s” overall score slightly.

Universal is launching the film in select Asian markets before Christmas Day, followed by 15 territories including the U.K. and Spain during the last weekend of the year.

Low-scoring samurai

How some of the holiday’s highest-profile films rank with audience interest:

Film (Domestic release date): Consumer Engagement Score

  • Lone Survivor (Jan. 10, wide): 235
  • Saving Mr. Banks (Dec. 20, wide): 209
  • The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Dec. 25): 170
  • 47 Ronin (Dec. 25): 160

Source: Piedmont Media Research

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  1. AngelRunning says:

    “The Japanese market is notoriously difficult to crack” — I can’t agree with that. I live here and everything from Hollywood blockbusters to European indies are constantly playing to packed houses. If anything, you’ve got highly discerning audiences here who know do-do when they see it. I haven’t gotten the sense that people in Japan are offended by 47, more amused/resigned at Hollywood bombast and the endless exoticization of Asia.

  2. wuzzup says:

    Unless it’s parody, you can really get away with only one of these ninja-themed, fantasmic mega-events. C’mon, Reeves is pushing 50! Ghosts? OK…but, Dragons? That’s insulting and disrespectful to Japanese heritage. I doubt anyone over the age of 10 watched this in Tokyo.

  3. Evan says:

    Let me make something painfully clear, and I would like all executives and not just Universal’s to pay attention – 47 RONIN is probably going to fail not that you made a samurai movie. It is because you made a bad one. Filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan make films that help general audiences build their taste in films and you guys expect this kind of film to do well? Bad movies which succeed due to their SFX extravagance have one place, and that is summer. Some are going to critisize the film because it not staying with the historical event its base on and what not, that is not why the film will fail. It can be fictional and still succeed. It all starts with the script. A good script with themes expressed through well developed characters (not a character who is a pile up of old conventions) is the first step. Invest in good scripts that have those qualities and you’ll be off to a good start.

  4. I’m sorry but I refuse to support any cinema that doesn’t at some basic level stay true its cultural origins without needing a white, western main figure to “sell” it in the US. This isn’t 1960 anymore. Audiences are world savvy and many of us who grew up with anime, manga and even the height of martial arts films in the 70s and 80s smelled the inauthentic BS when Reeves was tapped to “star” in a classic Japanese tale. The Last Airbender and Dragonball should be a warning to all studios who continue to push this type of crap. You can’t “cash-in” on the Comicon community if you continue to push in authentic characters and storylines.

    Newsflash Hollywood: It’s okay to have a major blockbuster film with an Asian star.

  5. Zvejas says:

    This is one of the worst movies i have ever ever seen in cinema! And this countig, that i love fantasy, i like samurai, war and swordfighting movies.
    This “thing”, however, is a complete waste of time and money… the movie itself is boring, acting lame, everything worse seeing – you see it in the treiler, there is nothing more to be gained if you sit for 2 hours.
    Nobody tries to act, and japaneese try to speek english with horrible accents, the scul guy from the porsters is only in the movie for 10 seconds!!!!!! the main vilans do not put up a fight…. all in all this movie pis…es on the Japanees history.
    I hope those guys from marketing that made the treiler will not be sleeping any time soon, because the councions should torment them for the lies, that they created.

  6. joe says:

    “The Japanese territory is notoriously difficult to crack for international films, since the country has such a strong local market.” – THE AUTHOR IS CLUELESS!!! Seriously?

    Japanese is one of the many Asian cultures rich in history and you’re expecting them to be well receiving with Hollywood bastardizing their thousand of years history by injecting a half breed man into the honorable Samurai circle? Why didn’t they just hired Tom Cruise again for this movie since he already had experience being the “Last Samurai”? This movie is very stupid. If you want to make something at least make it real.

    Why doesn’t Hollywood start shooting Cowboy movies with Asians as the main stars. Will you expect that to sell well?

  7. It never bodes well for a film when its release date is delayed – much less when it’s been pushed back a whole year, ostensibly to accommodate reshoots that would bump up Keanu Reeves’ completely imaginary role in a Western blockbuster take on a classic, awe-inspiring tale right out of the Japanese history books. That way lies disaster and madness, one would think – and certainly the bland, monster-heavy trailers for 47 Ronin did the film no favours. Smack down your inner critic, however, and this epic fantasy flick – for that’s what it is – turns out to be reasonably palatable fare.

    The bare bones of the true story are all there: the kindly Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) is ordered to commit seppuku – ritual suicide by disembowelment – when he almost mortally offends Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano – a nicely ironic name if ever there was one). This renders all the honourable samurai in Asano’s service masterless i.e., ronin. Led by the noble Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), the loyal band of 47 ronin vow to avenge Asano – even though they have been ordered by their Shogun (top military commander) not to do so.

    What’s less accurate, of course, is pretty much all the rest of it. Reeves plays Kai, a half-British, half-Japanese orphan who’s taken in by Asano but treated like an outcast by everyone in the household – except, of course, for Asano’s loving daughter Mika (Kou Shibasaki). Kira’s nefarious plans have the support of Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi), a witch who can apparently take any form she likes: wolf, snake or dragon. It’s all a bit nonsensical, especially when Kai tries to get swords for the ronin amongst some pretty creepy folk who have gone from society’s outcasts to being part of what looks like a supernatural cult.

    In other words, 47 Ronin is a faintly ridiculous addition to the wealth of Chūshingura – fictionalised accounts of the 47 ronin tale – that already exist in Japan. It’s the kind of big, dumb blockbuster in which the good guys literally live to die another day as long as the plot calls for it. These fearless ronin even survive when the villain is protected by a witch with crazy mystical powers! She can set an entire field on fire, create poisonous spiders and turn into a dragon! And the ronin – at least 47 of them – live anyway! It’s crazy! That’s what makes it all the more surprising when 47 Ronin turns out to be… well, actually not half-bad. Once you’ve accepted the sillier aspects of the film for what they are, it’s easy to get swept along by its very earnest drama and spectacle. Reeves’ storyline is a made-up jumble of nonsense, but is played very straight – this is, in effect, Sad Keanu: The Movie – and it just about works. Casting Reeves as the outsider allows him to do what he does best: play the role with stony-faced reserve, whether he’s levelling up by battling demons in cage matches or pining moodily after Mika. Kai’s restrained love story with Mika is fairly predictable stuff, with the girl fading a little too much into the background (don’t expect any bloodletting from Shibasaki, Battle Royale fans), but it’s salvaged by the rather non-Hollywood way in which it all ends.

    For all that Reeves takes centre stage in the publicity campaign, the film belongs just as much to Sanada’s Oishi. He undertakes a more arduous emotional journey: one that takes him from grudging to full-hearted acceptance of Kai’s worth as a warrior and comrade. His relationship with his family is more fully examined than Kai’s unwavering loyalty to the Asano clan. As Oishi plots his course of action, one that will bring him shame for disobeying the Shogun even as he avenges his master, he warns his wife and son Chikara (Jin Akanishi) to disavow him. Their reactions provide some of the most emotionally resonant moments in the entire film.

    All things considered, the title of the film is a bit of a misnomer – it would more accurately be called 2 Ronin, subtitled Oishi And Kai’s Excellent Adventure – and it suffers from a lamentable lack of humour and historical accuracy. But it’s not a complete travesty. Tucked away beneath a layer of mystical beasts and witches lies a story with enough heart, nobility and soul to survive even the oddest twists and turns.

    More about the movie you can also find it here

  8. ThatOneGuy says:

    HAH! If a movie was made about a 21st century western cowboy from California who rode on a magical unicorn that spit flames, I’d probably leave it to its own device. The Japanese have the same reaction to 47 Ronin. Besides, there are bigger things in Japan than a samurai movie with CGI in it.

  9. EnoughIsEnough says:

    Perhaps the poor showing in Japan is due to the lack of respect of a classic story by filling it out with bogus crap that doesn’t belong. 47 Ronin is a story about honor and loyalty. Too bad the movie makers didn’t show either to the original. If the tickets were free I wouldn’t disgrace the story by seeing this.

  10. merantau says:

    The movie should never have come out but since it did I’ll watch a bootleg of it for free , I’d never pay to see anything Hollywood.

  11. tomo says:

    Japan has changed. Nationalism is rising.

    Many Japanese stop getting interested in a Hollywood film,and came to see only Japanese movies.

    On the other hand, American productions with Japanese elements are increasing.
    U.S. people in the film industry might not have understood the state of Japan.

  12. diego says:

    Theu should’ve given Mark Dacascos the role Keanu Reeves is playing. To turn an item of japanese culture into a half-assed hollywood babble is despicable. Mark Dacascos would’ve been perfect for the role, hell, he even has Japanese blood. His mother’s family lived in Hiroshima until the A-Bomb was dropped. Killing her entire family.

  13. NotAFanOfBadStorytelling says:

    This film has about as much to do with the historical 47 Ronin as 300 had to do with greek history; Nothing except the number itself.

    • Judskin14 says:

      300 was actually a very accurate description of what the people of that time believed had happened. They believed in a lot of that mythology. If you were to ask someone in that time what had happened, you would have gotten an account very similar to what happened in 300.

  14. What Japan-themed films have done well in the U.S.? Not many. THE LAST SAMURAI (2003) succeeded because it had a major American star, Tom Cruise, playing an American who gets to fight like a samurai and do all sorts of cool stuff. THE WOLVERINE (2013) did well because it was about a popular superhero character who just happened to go to Japan to do lots of cool stuff. BLACK RAIN (1989) did well because it was about an American tough cop, played by Michael Douglas, who goes to Japan and throws his weight around. But any film that tried for a more “immersive” experience in Japan did not do well. THE YAKUZA (1975) with Robert Mitchum falls into that category and only found a niche audience in the U.S. It’s one of my favorite Mitchum films but then I’m in that niche audience. 47 RONIN should not have had that high a budget. You could have financed every Japanese samurai film made from SEVEN SAMURAI and the SAMURAI trilogy in the ’50s to every Zatoichi and Lone Wolf and Cub movie made in the ’70s for the money spent on this one film and still have cash left over for every Godzilla movie pre-1998.

    • saldiven says:

      Memoirs of a Geisha did quite well, commercially. The production cost was $85 Million, but it grossed $162M. Revenue from the US alone almost paid for the entire production, and international consumption made the production quite profitable, despite a degree of controversy in some Asian countries.

  15. Babba Lou says:

    The film’s budget was over $250 million, pre marketing

  16. seren says:

    This film may work better in other countries where they don’t really care if the story is supposed to be based on a historical event or not. People in other countries may find it entertaining fantasy film. I actually think the Universal should have focused on the fantasy side without mentioning much of the true story.

  17. seren says:

    None of the Japanese cast is actually popular enough to draw the audience to the theatres in Japan., especially Rinko Kikuchi is not really known here. And may I point out that our year-end holiday isn’t called “Obon” — that is the summer holiday time.

  18. salsa pants says:

    47 comes across as schlock – with it’s cheesy dialogue and non-Asian Reeves. Did anyone in the USA go see Lone Ranger?

  19. say says:

    Those acters are definitely popular in Japan and I think they were really good in this movie. But Japanese people are simply fed up with being shown such a mistaken settings of Japan on screen.

  20. cadavra says:

    Ironically, Reeves’ other martial arts film this year, “Man of Tai Chi,” turned out to be a surprisingly good picture, made for a fraction of a fraction of what “Ronin” cost–and it was thrown away by its distrib. I’ve seen the classic Inagaki trilogy, and it did not have CGI ghosts or appallingly cliched dialogue. “I’m not afraid of you.” “You should be.” Arrgghh!!!

  21. this says:

    mountains of corpses…

  22. David_C says:

    We’ve done work with Piedmont Media Research before, their numbers are really accurate. It’s not that by itself a film’s number means little, it’s that it has to be taken in context with other factors too. A movie that scores well but has terrible reviews, a low theater count, etc. will be projected to the lower end of the curve accordingly. The fact that 47 Ronin is scoring that low, though, with that big a budget is a really bad sign.

  23. Michael Maloney says:

    Keanu is not Japanese and you tweaked their tale. Come on, its for us, not the real thing!

  24. T.K. says:

    > but stars popular local talent including Hiroyuki Sanada and Rinko Kikuchi.

    Hiroyuki Sanada is a well-known actor in Japan, but is not someone who can open a movie as a leading star.
    Rinko Kikuchi is not a well-known actress in Japan.

    > Also, the poor opening is not just bad news for “47 Ronin” locally as a soft set-up for the very competitive year-end Obon holidays,

    Obon holidays are for August.
    The proper word would be Oshogatsu.

  25. Tetsuo Shima's little brother Ned says:

    Hope the people behind the Americanized live-action version of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira are taking note of this. No, Akira isn’t as uphead a cultural story as the tale of the 47 Ronin, but they don’t take it well when their stuff is taken and revamped into fluff like this. It’s looked upon as dishonorable. No, Akira isn’t Japanese cultural folklore, but it IS upheld over there as something that is intrinsic to their culture and beloved. To do an Americanized Akira (as has been the case since WB got their hands on it and it’s started and stopped repeatedly), could have a very similar outcome once released over there in Japan. If a live-action Akira is to be done, do it with Japanese performers and such with respect and dignity to their culture (the story is tied to them in ways) and to the source material. If not, then just drop it and don’t do it at all.

  26. Dave says:

    Best trailer I’ve seen since GRAVITY’s. Looks very promising–enough to entice me into a theater for it. Will go!

  27. Carl R White says:

    I hate to be mean because he seems like a nice guy but isn’t Keanu Reeves a negative for a movie financially unless it is a tiny budget independent film that will not be seen or heard of otherwise?
    And do not tell me about The Matrix, no one went to see that because of Keanu. Lets be honest, he cast perfectly for 2 films in his career, Bill and Ted and The Matrix.
    I am not giving this movie a chance simply because of him. I do not think of any great movie casting him because if it had a chance of being great it would attract better talent.
    OK, that is my personal limit of negativity on the Internet today.

    • Anakin McFly says:

      I can’t think of any more famous part-Asian actor working in Hollywood at the moment, though. Or any Asian actor, sadly; and if they had cast a white guy instead, there would be a lot more warranted outrage going on.

      • Just because you can’t think of one, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Hollywood sells white to the world, You’re lucky if you see a non-white in a leading role made by hollywood. Heck, they rarely even let Jews take the stage.

        That, is what’s sad because the real losers are the audiences.

  28. We are excited and can’t wait to receive 47 Ronin in the U.S.

    • Bob says:

      I made a movie called “ronin” once….it was good, really good. 47 ronin?? (Head slightly bobbed, shaking it) “no good” …..”no good”

  29. Glenn C. says:

    This film’s trailer looks good. But it’s a trailer. It’s interesting how these big studios will spend zillions making one of these and yet better scripts out there never get picked up or made into a film! I guess it’s all about the star package and the stars! They think it’s a sure thing then! Well….surprise!!!

  30. Uncle Morty says:

    Flop like dead feeesh

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