Production wraps this week in Hungary on “Blade of the 47 Ronin,” a sequel to Universal’s 2013 Japanese-themed action classic “47 Ronin.” The new movie represents a substantial revamp that emphasizes Asian fantasy heroes and female characters and addresses some of the cultural criticisms of the previous Keanu Reeves-starring picture.
The action is moved forward by some 300 years to present-day Budapest, which is intended as a metaphor for East-West confluence, and where a meeting of the five Samurai clans is taking place. In addition to the male clan leaders, the meeting is also attended by three Onna Bugeisha (literally ‘Women Warriors’), though their presence is initially resented.
Production was handled by Universal Studios through its 1440 Productions unit for Netflix. The streamer is expected to release it sometime in 2022, though a specific date is still unknown.
The existence of female Samurai who fought alongside their male colleagues in feudal Japan is well documented. But their stories have rarely been told due to societal pressure and political turmoil. In “Blade” the women lead the campaign to reunite two halves of a mythical sword and keep it out of the hands of a villain who wants power for himself.
The cast is headed by: Anna Akana, a U.S. actor and YouTube creator; U.S. martial artist Teresa Ting; Mike Moh, who played Bruce Lee in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”; veteran Vietnamese-American actor and filmmaker Dustin Nguyen (“Warrior”); Australian Chris Pang (“Charlie’s Angels,” “Crazy Rich Asians”); Japanese actor and model Chikako Fukuyama (“Terrace House: Aloha State”); and seasoned action specialist Mark Dacascos (“John Wick 3,” “Wu Assassins”).
They are joined by Luna Fujimoto (Chinese hit “Monster Hunt 2,” and the upcoming “Wandering Earth 2”) as one of the three female leaders; Koieyama Akira (“Samurai Marathon,” “47 Ronin,” “Sense8”); and Nino Furuhata (“Spaghetti Code Love,” “Tetris,” “The Limit of Sleeping Beauty”).
Where the earlier “47 Ronin” was adapted from a comic book series, the new film is an original script penned by John Swetnam, along with comic book writers Aimee Garcia (“Dexter,” “Robocop”) and A.J. Mendez.
The ensemble is pulled together by director Ron Yuan and producer Tim Kwok. Yuan is an Asian-American multi-hyphenate whose recent acting credits include Disney’s “Mulan” and Warner’s “The Accountant,” and whose latest feature-length directorial work was Lionsgate’s 2019 movie “Step Up China.”
Kwok is a Los Angeles-based veteran with producing credits including Jackie Chan’s “The Medallion,” Maggie Q-starring game adaptation “King of Fighters,” and Malaysia’s 2012 Oscar contender “Bunohan.”
Yuan acknowledges that the preceding film was accused in some quarters of “whitewashing” and by others of distorting Japanese history through the use of elements such as Chinese-style dragons. “We need people who know the genres, people that know the history, people that can understand how to bring these stories, make it fresh and pop off the screen. Not like those old TV shows where every time there’s an Asian theme, or an Asian character, you hear the gong going ‘ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding dang’,” he told Variety. “None of that shit anymore.”
Yuan also wanted to use the sequel to give the franchise a facelift. “It was important that this new samurai and Ninja culture could be opened up to different personalities, not just in the Asian world, but all over, making it more international,” he said.
“It is an English-language film. But I purposely have two of our actresses speak to each other in Japanese. It is a homage, but it is also just to let people know, they can speak Japanese, they can speak English, it doesn’t have to be either-or.”
The film was delayed by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was originally expected to shoot in Thailand. But when that became impossible, the production looked at other destinations including Malaysia, New Zealand and Louisiana. They settled on Budapest, where Kwok was scheduled to shoot “Saint Seiya: Knights of the Zodiac,” a big-budget live action adaptation of another Japanese IP for Toho Animation.
That necessitated another rethink. “Originally, I wanted this whole cyberpunk world with Asian skylines and stuff. But I’d shot for five months in Budapest on ‘Marco Polo’ and I love the Hungarian crews. They work hard and are very talented,” said Yuan. “So, I talked with the production designer and decided [to keep some] cyberpunk elements, but also make it more of a dystopian world.”
Kwok says the result is modern, accessible and relevant. “This is a female-driven story, with our main group of heroes — Luna, Onami, Aya and Mai — fighting alongside Reo, who is a male Ronin (exiled Samurai), for the fulfilment of the prophecy. They are also fighting against ingrained prejudices of the other clans about female warriors,” said Kwok. “The story of strong females fighting against societal pressures and expectations is really timely.”