ADVANCE REVIEW! 47 Ronin #1 will go on sale Wednesday, November 7, 2012.
The opening of Mike Richardson and Stan Sakai’s adaptation of 47 Ronin says “To know this story is to know Japan.” While I don’t think I would go quite that far — Japan is too complex a country and culture to be encapsulated so easily — it is not an exaggeration to call the legend of the 47 Ronin one of the greatest Japanese stories of all time.
In fact — along with its entwined, sister-story, the ghost/revenge tale Yotsuya Kaidan — the legend of the 47 loyal retainers is THE Japanese story; a story at the very heart of the country. Since that fateful night in 1703, the loyal retainers have captured Japan’s imagination and they have never stopped talking about them. In movies, TV shows, books, comics, operas — not a single storytelling medium remains untouched. Only Yotsuya Kaidan has more adaptations. 47 Ronin is a story re-told for every generation.
And it is a true story. Mostly true. The 47 Ronin is a perfect example of that cowboy chestnut “When the fact becomes the legend, print the legend.” Classic myth-making. The closest possible American equivalent would be the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral — a fact that has become legend, an incident that defined a people. But not a people as they are. A people as they want to be.
Richardson and Sakai took a deep plunge when they decided to do this comic. As you can see, the 47 Ronin isn’t something you can do half-assed. It carries a huge weight of history. This is — as far as I know — the first American comic adaptation. So it had better be good. Damn good.
When I first saw Richardson as the writer, I wasn’t sure what to make of that. He is the owner/publisher/God of Dark Horse, but I don’t know him as a writer. He has been shepherding around this pet project for more than ten years. High-concept pet projects from the owner of a company are a big gamble; I have seen more than one that outright stunk. But when I saw Stan Sakai’s name on the book, I stopped worrying.
And then I saw the comic, I knew I was right. The story opens at the Sengaku-ji temple. This is a real place, and I have been there, so trust me when I say that Sakai captured it perfectly. In fact, all of Sakai’s art is perfect. He isn’t drawing his famous anthropomorphic animals here, but his mix of high-detail coupled with cartoony, simplified figures gives the story the appropriate weight, while still being visually enjoyable enough that you are not drowning in history. I have seen adaptations of 47 Ronin that take themselves too seriously, and are lifeless and staid and self-important. Not here. The art is… charming. Inviting. Stan Sakai draws like a true artisan, one of those life-long masters of their craft that can make something deep and complex look simple and clean.
And the story; By the second page, I got goosebumps as I realized exactly whose story Richardson was planning to tell. With that opening, I can already see how the book finishes, and I am dying to read the journey. The pacing of the story, the dialogue, are all masterfully executed. Brilliant stuff. This is the one of the best comics I have read all year.
My one caveat to all the praise I am heaping is the simplification of the story. When adapting 47 Ronin you have some choices to make regarding the moral ambiguity of the main characters, especially Lord Asano. In some adaptations — probably the more historically accurate ones — Lord Asano is a boorish, rude, and uncouth country bumpkin who doesn’t understand established etiquette and tromps around the Shogun’s palace like a pig farmer at the White House. He does the equivalent of propping his muddy boots on the desk of the Oval Office, using the First Lady’s water glass as a spittoon, then punching out the Chief of Staff who tries to smooth over the issue. He condemns his entire clan and the thousands that depend on him to ruin because he can’t keep his temper.
Because the moral of the 47 Ronin is loyalty. Blind, unswerving loyalty that is made all the more important when it is loyalty to a master who doesn’t deserve it. Like sports fans of a perennial losing team, the loyalty of the 47 Ronin is more pure precisely because Asano is a jackass.
Richardson has taken the other tact, and made Asano into a heroic, high-minded hero. He is the kind of man who earns the loyalty of his people, who is a kind and generous master and a loving father. His act at the Shogun’s palace that destroys his clan and sets in motion the events of the story becomes a point of defiance, of personal honor over corruption.
This is the… I don’t want to say “Disneyfied” version of the tale, because I love Disney and I don’t want that to be seen as negative… but it is the “safe” version. From this first issue, Richardson has removed the ambiguity and distinctly drawn the battle lines of good and evil, with Asano and his retainers on one side and Lord Kira and his greed on the other.
And honestly, that is probably the right choice. Few Americans would count “blind, unswerving loyalty” as an admirable character trait. It is much easier to enjoy if you know that the righteous are upheld, and the wicked punished. That makes for a much more palatable story, without the need to swallow moral quandaries along with the heroism. But it does make 47 Ronin a less interesting one.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the ’90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.