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47 Ronin (Ilan Eshkeri)

December 21, 2013

Cover_47Ronin47 RONIN

Ilan Eshkeri, 2013, Varese Sarabande
22 tracks, 70.27

A troubled film, this re-imagining of a legendary tale. The soundtrack didn’t come together easily. Two composers came and went before Ilan Eshkeri stepped up to the plate. And delivered.
Review by Pete Simons

What is it?

Carl Rinsch’s directorial debut, “47 Ronin” did not receive great reviews. Whilst praised for its production values, it was slaughtered for its re-interpretation of a classic Japanese tale of loyalty, bravery and honour. In this version evil warlord Kira (Asano Tadanobu) uses magic to kill his rival Assano, cease his land and make a move on his daughter. The daughter however rather fancies Kai (Keanu Reeves), who is some sort of human-demon half-breed. 47 of Assano’s most loyal samurai set out to avenge his death. What follows is what was once a true tale being turned into a fantasy adventure. Atticus Ross (“The Social Network”, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) was the first composer attached to this project, but he found himself being replaced with Javier Navarette (“Clash of the Titans, “Pan’s Labyrinth”). Whilst the latter at least seemed a more logical choice, he too didn’t last. Finally it went to Ilan Eshkeri (“Stardust”, “Centurion”). He grabbed the opportunity with both hands and delivered one of the year’s most exciting action scores.

What does it sound like?

Eshkeri’s presents his main theme in the opening track “Oishi’s Tale” – Oishi being the general of the ronin. It’s a short 6-note theme, with a sense of noble heroism, especially when performed by the brass section. It being so short makes it very flexible from an orchestrations point of view; and it recurs many a time, in many a guise, throughout the score. As a melodic line it hasn’t got much room for manoeuvre though, and some might consider it a motif rather than a theme.

The opening cue is a great indicator for the rest of the score. There is dense string writing and taiko percussion (obligatory, though always a treat), yet there is also a mournful theme for solo cello (skillfully made to sound like an erhu by Caroline Dale) and bamboo flute. I believe this may be the love theme for Mika and Kai (and is wonderfully reprised in the later stages of the score). There is great sensitivity here and throughout, which is what ultimately lifts this score above the norm.

The score unsurprisingly has a number of action set-pieces, such as “Kirin Hunt” (which includes some Goldenthalian dissonant brass clusters) and “Tournament”, marked by lively percussion and fast racing strings. The composer applies a 5-note string arpeggio to most of the action cues, which (again) really helps bind this score together. “Dutch Island Fugue” initially comes across as a chase scene for chamber orchestra, though soon expands to include brass and percussion. It’s an exciting piece, masterfully executed. The later parts of “Tengu” reveal some distorted demonic chanting, as if Eshkeri put a choir through a vocoder. There are some further synthesized effects, presumably to augment the fantasy elements of the film, though they are kept to an absolute minimum and blend in well with the orchestra.

Further action cues like “Shrine Ambush”, “Palace Battle” and “The Witch Dragon” are nothing short of epic, courtest of the racing strings and fat brass chords. There are plenty of big drums here but, contrary to a lot of modern scores, they are not the means to an end. At all times Eshkeri maintains melodic (or at least harmonic) writing that brings life and genuine excitement to these cues. The string writing in particular is breathtaking; with the London Metropolitan Orchestra doing a stellar job keeping up the pace.

Despite the abundance of big music, there is plenty of space for reflection. “Assano Seppuku” sees the 6-note main theme performed poignantly by cello and dense strings. “Kira’s Wedding Quartet” is a suitably Eastern-sounding piece, sparsely orchestrated for cello and minimal accompaniment. On few occasions, and here particularly, the score reminds me a little of “The Last Samurai” (Hans Zimmer). Considering both films’ subjects and locales, it’s impossible to say whether it’s temp-track influence or mere coincidence. Personally, I’m not too concerned either way.

Before the album closes with a rousing rendition of the main theme, Eshkeri offers us two incredibly emotive cues. “Mika and Kai” is a beautiful love theme for strings and bamboo flute. It is so gentle, yet feels so tragic. “Seppuku” sees dense strings continuing this love theme and countering it with the score’s main theme. Absolutely sublime!

Is it any good?

Eshkeri is having a great year. Earlier he provided the romantic comedy “Austenland” with a beautiful, classically-tinged score; and he got to perform his lovely score for “The Snowman and the Snowdog” live at the Union Chappel in London over several nights. He also contributed to the popular “Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa” film. Admittedly his score for the flawed animation film “Justin and the Knights of Valour” didn’t quite live up to my (arguably high) expectations, despite being technically flawless.

“Necessity is the mother of invention” is a Japanese proverb that seems quite apt where replacement scores are concerned. Sometimes, not having the time to second-guess yourself, when you just need to go with your musical gut-reaction leads to the best results. I think that’s the case here. With “47 Ronin” Eshkeri provides one heck of a finale to the year 2013. What makes this score so great is its fine balance between balls-to-the-wall action writing and beautifully refined dramatic material. Not every cue has to sound like the end of the world. And what helps it even further is a set of solid themes and motifs that are employed regularly throughout the album, giving it a strong sense of continuity. Even at 70 minutes, the score does not outstay its welcome, and for me it’s the first one of this length this year that doesn’t! Superficially one might argue that there is nothing tremendously original here – and really, there isn’t. However, the writing, the orchestrations (Julian Kershaw, Jessica Dannheisser and Teese Gohl) and the performances are top-notch; and with each listen you’ll pick up something new. Pretty bloody impressive at the best of times, let alone for an 11th hour replacement.

Rating [4,5/5]


1. Oishi’s Tale (6:44)
2. Kirin Hunt (3:03)
3. Resentment (1:41)
4. The Witch’s Plan (2:29)
5. Ako (2:13)
6. Shogun (2:10)
7. Tournament (3:45)
8. Bewitched (3:36)
9. Assano Seppuku (2:41)
10. Dutch Island Fugue (2:05)
11. Reunited Ronin (3:11)
12. Tengu (6:29)
13. Shrine Ambush (2:11)
14. The Witch’s Lie (3:19)
15. Kira’s Wedding Quartet (4:32)
16. Palace Battle (3:11)
17. The Witch Dragon (3:37)
18. Return To Ako (2:24)
19. Shogun’s Sentence (2:02)
20. Mika And Kai (2:47)
21. Seppuku (3:45)
22. 47 Ronin (2:43)

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