Adaptations of 47 Ronin are legion. There are probably 20-30 film and TV adaptations (of which I am hard-pressed to include the recent Keanu Reeves debacle.) Maybe a hundred books and novels. Who knows how many comic book adaptations. The story is a mélange of fact, fiction, and legend and has been dissected and studied, told and retold more times that I could conceivably count. The only Western equivalent I can think of is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which gets reimagined year after year after year.
Why is it revisited so often? Because it’s a great story. Great enough that I always look forward to a new version, to see what nuances the storyteller will bring, what parts they will emphasize, how factual they will be, and what life and art they will breathe into the familiar tale. The recent adaptation by Mike Richardson and Stan Sakai was brilliant, for example. Richardson and Sakai brought a heart and beauty to the tale that was touching to read. (Highly recommended!)
This new adaptation from Shambhala Press by Sean Michael Wilson and Akiko Shimojima shoots for accuracy over embellishment. The press release touts it as “the only historically accurate account of this event available in graphic novel format.” That is a bold claim to make.
Normally, I don’t judge adaptations of 47 Ronin on how factually accurate they are—I am much more concerned with what they do with the human story than the clinical facts. Sure, the basic framework needs to be maintained, but the story is the living embodiment of the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance paradigm “When the fact becomes the legend, print the legend.”
However, Wilson and Shimojima specifically call out their book as factually accurate. And at the same time that slams EVERY SINGLE OTHER comic adaptation as being inaccurate. That is the yardstick that they laid out, so that is the yardstick I am going to use
Now, I’m no expert, but I know something of the 47 Ronin. I’ve read Samurai scholar Stephen Turnbull’s book, and some of the scholarly articles in Monumenta Nipponica’s series 300 Years of Chushingura. I have a good idea of what is known and unknown from a factual perspective. I’ve been to the graves of the 47 Ronin, seen their museum. I even have one of their death poems tattooed on my left arm.
And I know that Wilson and Shimojima’s claim is simply not true.
Because their adaptation of 47 Ronin is anything but accurate. The greatest unknown in the story—the single little pebble that becomes the keystone of any adaptation—is “Why did Asano attack Kira?” That it happened is an historical event. That it set into action the chain of events is unquestionable. Most of what we know of the story—what was accepted as fact for years—came from A.B. Mitford’s book Tales of Old Japan. But Mitford’s version was written 170 years after the incident, is highly speculative, and largely fictional. Here is what is known for sure:
14 of the 3rd month, 1701: Asano Naganori attacked Kira Yoshinaka (Western calendar: April 21st)
He committed seppuku the same day.
Nobody knows the “why.” And this makes it the key point. Are you going to make Asano an unambiguous hero, wronged by Kira and seeking rightful vengeance? Are you going to show Asano as a foolish, weak leader who sacrificed everything in a moment of anger? There are many ways to play this, and none of them are wrong. At the same time, none of them are factually accurate. Any choice here is pure speculation.
In fact, in order to have “the only historically accurate account of this event available in graphic novel format,” you would need to leave out this part of the story. Asano goes to Edo. He attacks Kira and is sentenced to suicide, but no one knows why. No one gets to watch that part of the story unfold. Leave it to his loyal retainers to speculate and fill in the gaps, but with no one ever knowing the truth of what happened. Now THAT would be historically accurate. (And damn cool, now that I think about it. No one has ever done an adaptation like that.)
Instead, Wilson and Shimojima spend a full third of the book on the events in Edo. They go out of their way to show Asano as a moral, honorable man. He is resistant to corruption, and even lectures his friend Kamie on the dangers of fighting in the Shogun’s castle. Asano is represented as a shining patriarch. This is a man pushed as far as he can reasonably go, and he strikes out of honor, not anger. He accepts his punishment as just.
For a storyteller, it’s a bland choice. It also isn’t historically accurate. I would go so far as to say that—of all the options available here—it is the safest and most boring way to portray the story.
And that choice, safe and boring, haunts the rest of the book as well. The details of the plan and its execution, of the night attack on Kira’s house, go exactly as legend demands. The dominoes all fall into place and there is nothing new or interesting here. (Although – strangely– some important details are left out, like the rest of Asano’s other retainers who weren’t so loyal.) It is a clinical representation that takes no risks and has no life.
The art is good, if not exciting. Akiko Shimojima does a decent job. She is a fine, capable artist who isn’t going to wow anyone, but neither does she disappoint. Strangely, the art focuses almost completely on faces. This is a story told almost entirely in close-ups, which gives it a claustrophobic feel and a sense of a director shoving a camera into his actors faces. More variation of scene, more long shots mixed with close-ups, would have given the comic a greater sense of scope and depth.
And that goes for this entire adaptation. It lacks scope and depth.It lacks excitement. It comes off as a school project more than a vital comic book.
Now that Keanu Reeves’s adaptation is playing in the theaters, I have had quite a few people ask me about the tale of the 47 Ronin, and asking me what adaptation I would recommend. Every time I say the same thing—if you want a true, factual account, read Stephen Turnbull’s book. If you want a poetic, beautiful, and emotional version, read Mike Richardson and Stan Sakai’s 47 Ronin comic. I really can’t think of any circumstances where I would recommend this version over any of the others.