Dioramas in Film – Ronin

Ronin (1998) is a classic espionage flick featuring exotic European locales and first-rate performances from Robert De Niro and Jean Reno. It’s the only film I know of whose title is explained with a diorama. The diorama is not a special effect but an actual “character” in the movie.

When Sam (De Niro) is wounded during a mission, Vincent (Reno) takes him to the country mansion of his old acquaintance Jean-Pierre (Michael Lonsdale). After treating Sam’s wound, the kindly Jean-Pierre recounts the tale of the 47 ronin—masterless samurai—of feudal Japan who avenged their master, sacrificing themselves for his honour. We see Jean-Pierre at work in his study, putting the finishing touches on a miniature samurai figure. He then places the figure in a diorama depicting the climactic battle waged by the 47 ronin. The diorama is fairly large and features several beautifully detailed samurai figures engaged in battle.

The famous ronin displayed in the diorama are of course paralleled by Sam, Vincent, and the other mercenaries depicted in the film. Sam is portrayed as ex-CIA, and Vincent is presumably a retired agent gone freelance as well, making them both ronin of a sort. Like the ronin of old, they are masterless, but continue to devoutly follow a shared warrior code. Through Sam, we learn some of the strict rules of this code. Whenever asked to reveal vital information, his response is “I don’t remember.” When asked who his contacts are, it’s “We went to high school together.” You get the idea.

What makes the film especially satisfying is the camaraderie which develops between Sam and Vincent. Through their easy banter, we learn about the unspoken discipline which governs their world. In the final scene of the movie, the two men are having a coffee in the same café where the story began, and we hope they’ll stay friends. But the code prohibits it. So when Vincent picks up the tab and Sam says “I’ll get the next one,” we know there won’t be a “next one.” And as Vincent leaves the café and turns up his collar against the cold, we get one last glimpse into the secret code of these modern day ronin.

-Ivar