47 Ronin Cheat Sheet

A column article by: Zack Davisson

With the spectacular 5-issue series from Mike Richardson (Founder/President/Publisher of Dark Horse comics) and Stan Sakai (Usagi Yojimbo. And if you didn’t know that, shame on you) coming out this year, followed by a major Hollywood film starring Keanu Reeves (because yellowface never goes out of style, and God forbid America actually produce an Asian film starring actual Asians) coming out in 2013, you can bet you will be hearing a lot about the tale of the 47 Ronin.

Now, comic and films geeks love to be well-informed—I am sure even now there are countless people scrambling to Wikipedia so they can properly applaud the Dark Horse comic for its authenticity, and properly boo the Keanu Reeves flick for its ludicrousness. But don’t panic! Your resident Comics Bulletin Japan guru—that would be me—has put together a Cheat Sheet on the 47 Ronin so you can absorb the pertinent information with maximum efficiency. 

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Who are the 47 Ronin?

In 1701, two young and inexperienced lords—Asano and Kamei—were ordered to arrange a reception for the Emperor’s envoys in the Shogun’s palace. Being essentially country bumpkins, this was like the mayor of Fishtrap, Washington, being ordered to host an official visit from the Queen of England. In the White House. To keep from embarrassing themselves, Asano and Kamei were assigned a protocol expert, Lord Kira, to teach them some manners.

Now, Kira expected to be tipped for his work; that’s how things were done in the big city. Kamei paid up, but Asano stiffed him. This got Kira’s panties in a bunch, and like a snooty waitress he did the equivalent of “accidentally” pouring coffee in Asano’s lap and spitting in his hamburger.  Asano, being a calm and collected lord, took this all in stride. Just kidding—he lost his temper, whipped out his sword and took a swing at Kira.

He missed and Kira got away with a scratch on the head, but this was like the mayor of Fishtrap taking a pot shot at someone in the White House. It was frowned upon, to say the least. This being Edo-period Japan, Asano was ordered to kill himself and his entire domain was dissolved—the thousands of people who depended on him had to find someone new to live. Most people just sucked it up, because that’s how things were back then. But 47 of Asano’s soldiers weren’t going to take that lying down. They went to work plotting revenge.

It was a hell of a revenge—for two years they evaded spies and did everything they could to drop suspicion. They got married. Had kids. Became farmers. Got drunk and shacked up with dancing girls — all as a ruse to get Kira to lower his guard. Finally, after two years Kira started to relax. That’s when the 47 ronin snapped their trap. They snuck into Kira’s house in the middle of the night, cut off his head, and then threw themselves on the mercy of the court. No mercy for them though—they were ordered to kill themselves as well.

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Is this a true story?

Yep. Mostly. Like many legends, the details have been expanded on by enthusiastic writers over the years, but the basic story absolutely happened. The graves of the 47 Ronin are at Sengaku-ji, in Tokyo. Arms and armor from their raid are preserved in a few places.

What’s a Ronin?

Ronin means "wave person," and is basically a masterless samurai. All samurai had to serve a lord—to word "samurai" actually means "those who serve."  If for some reason your master lost his position, or you were discharged from his service, you had limited choices  Kill yourself, find a new master, or go ronin.

It sounds cool, but ronin were the equivalent of discharged soldiers acting as freelance mercenaries—not a very honorable profession.

Why is the story so popular in Japan?

Even when events were unfolding, the Japanese were impressed by the 47 Ronin.  Although not as highly valued in the United States —where we like our personal independence—loyalty to a lord and personal sacrifice for the sake of higher-ups remain important qualities in Japan.  This was also the Edo period, a time of great change in Japan, and the 47 Ronin were seen as embodying some of that old-fashioned chivalry that was becoming so rare in modern society. 

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Why was the story banned post-WWII?

Same reason—loyalty to a lord.  The tale of the 47 Ronin was used by the government as propaganda during WWII to encourage Japanese citizens to willingly die for their lord, the Emperor of Japan.  One of the first things the U.S. did when we took over the country was to ban performances.  It didn’t become legal again until the U.S. returned control of the country to the Japanese government.

Where they really all that chivalrous?

If there is a controversy around the 47 Ronin, it is this—that they did not follow the code of bushido.  Literally translated as "The Way of the Warrior," bushido is a set of ideals and manners true warriors were supposed to embody. 

Yamamoto Tsunetomo, author of the bushido bible Hagakure (which you should know from Ghost Dog) didn’t think the 47 Ronin embodied these ideas at all. True samurai, he said, wouldn’t have plotted, planned, and then stabbed in the dark when their enemy was weakest.  They should have immediately stormed the gates, knowing they would die, but at least die with honor.  He also said that the fact that they didn’t immediately kill themselves but waited for an official judgment showed they were hoping for mercy.

The other real controversy is the issue of fate—if Kira had died accidentally during their two years of planning, then it would have been for nothing. They would have been nothing more than the shiftless ronin they appeared to be.

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What is Chushingura?

Most Japanese people will know the story by the name Chushingura­. However, they most likely won't be able to tell you what the word means.  It’s one of those words wrapped up in religions significance that roughly means "someone who gave their lives for a greater cause, and now should be honored for it."

It's called Chusingura, because that is the name given by the three guys who wrote the bunraku puppet play that was the first "official" adaptation, Kanadehon ChÅ«shingura, in 1748.  (A few other plays had borrowed some scenes but changed the names to protect the innocent).

Since that first puppet play, Chushingura has been adapted roughly once a minute in Japan.  The first kabuki production soon followed the puppet play. The first film came out in 1907, and it has been filmed at least once a decade ever since. There have been around 21 television productions of Chushingura, and uncountable comics, books, and other adaptations.

Jefferson Airplane even has a song called Chushingura.  There is no word on whether this will show up in the Keanu Reeves flick or not.

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Bonus Ghost Story Connection!

So if only 47 ronin stayed loyal to their lord, what happened to the other 453 or so?  Well, at least one of them, Iemon, set himself up as an umbrella maker before marrying Oiwa—and thus entering into one of Japan’s other famous stories, the ghost/revenge drama known as Yotsuya Kaidan.

If fact, originally kabuki productions of Chushingura and Yotsuya Kaidan were performed as a linked double-feature, a practice that has fallen out of fashion today.

Want to learn more?

Of course, this is just the briefest of run-downs of the many versions of47 Ronin.  There are entire books written on the subject—multiple books actually—not to mention the countless adaptations.

Several film adaptations can be found on American DVD releases. Inagaki Hiroshi’s 1963 Chushingura is probably the most famous, due to the presence of superstar Mifune Toshiro.  Watanabe Kunio’s 1958 The Loyal 47 Ronin is another popular version, with Zatoichi star Katsu Shintaro. Kon Ichikawa’s 47 Ronin from 1994 is a more humanist take on the story.  All of those are great flicks.

Or you could even see Ronin, the 1998 Robert de Niro / Jean Reno action flick, which is awesome and gives a short run-down of the story. 

For books, you can’t do better than Samurai-scholar Stephen Turnbull’s The Revenge of the 47 Ronin - Edo 1703.  There are lots of fictional accounts, but Turnbull has the facts for you, and is a great place to start.

And of course—read Dark Horse’s comic version!

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