I tried to imagine what 47 Ronin would have been like if Stan Sakai hadn't done the art — if he hadn't been lured into giving up his precious bunny to spend a year adapting one of Japan's greatest stories with Mike Richardson and Lovern Kindzierski. And … it just wouldn't have been any good. Someone with a more realistic style, or (heaven forbid) a "manga" style, wouldn't have brought the same poignancy to the story, the same humanism. (Which is strange, considering how little Sakai draws humans). It would have been a standard issue American samurai story. Still adapted well, but missing that magic.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in this last issue, 47 Ronin #5. This is the grand finale — the final night attack of the 47 loyal retainers on the mansion of Lord Kira, in order to set Kira's head on their master's grave and finally redeem their honor. Everything is here for a classic action battle; the black-clad Ronin storm the castle in the snowfall. Defending soldiers clash, swinging bright steel and leaving swaths of red blood on the snow. It's become almost a cliché.
But Stan Sakai — he doesn't go there, doesn't take the cheap thrills route. Sure, there is action here; desperate sword fights, blood on snow, the whole thing you would expect. But because Sakai is doing the artwork, it never jumps over into ultra-violence or cinematic swordplay. Even the scene (Spoiler for a 100+ year old story!!!) where Oishi takes Kira's head is done with harsh realism, counterpointed by Sakai's characters. There is no dramatic sword swing, no posing. Just business to take care of.
This whole series from issue #1 on down has been tremendous. I sincerely hope that all of you who haven't been reading the singles have been trade-waiting for the eventual collected edition — because you simply must read 47 Ronin. Mike Richardson, Stan Sakai, and Lovern Kindzierski have restored my faith in American's abilities to adapt and interpret Japanese stories. Best of all, they did it not by imitation but by sheer admiration and respect for the source material.
I've already praised Sakai, so here's some appreciation for Mike Richardson and Lovern Kindzierski as well. Richardson did an extraordinary job with the adaptation. 47 Ronin is not an easy story to wedge into five issues. A full Kabuki performances lasts more than an entire day, and most film adaptations run into 3+ hours. Sure, Richardson stripped much of the moral ambiguity from the story — there is no question as who is in the right in this comic — but he kept other dear elements that most people toss. Most importantly, he kept the Samurai of Satsuma.
And that made all the difference. The last page of this comic … beautiful. That was the perfect, quiet moment to end the series on.
Lovern Kindzierski's colors took Sakai's art and transformed it into something poetic. As everyone knows, Sakai normally works in black-and-white, so there was some question as to how his work would look colored. But Kindzierski studied the faded pallets of Japanese ukiyo-e prints and contributed to that Japanese "feel" that was so perfectly crafted every issue. His pinks, blues, and purples were exactly right — especially that "cherry blossom pink" that was highlighted in the Spring issues.
I'm a bit sad that this series is over, but I'm looking forward to going back and re-reading the entire series now that all the issues are out. This was sort of an experiment for Dark Horse comics, I think, sort of a labor of love as well — and it was 100% successful. Well done, Richardson, Sakai, and Kindzierski. Otsukaresama desu.
47 Ronin #5 drops 7/3/2013.
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.