Dark Horse Comics continues to come out with some excellent trade editions of some of my favorite comic stories of 2013. Being published next month on February 19th is the trade collection of 47 Ronin, a five-issue mini-series that was published last year.
First off, for those of you who don’t know the true story of the 47 Ronin, you need to disregard the trailers you’ve seen for that movie with Keanu Reeves that shares the same title. Although the movie looks like it takes place in Japan, as far as I can tell, that’s where the similarities stop.
The tale of the 47 Ronin is actually a true story, based on real events in Japanese history at the beginning of the 18th Century. As the author of this particular version of the story, Mike Richardson, tells us in his introduction, “To know this story is to know Japan.”
That’s a big claim, but one that I’ve found to be true. This is the story of a daimyo, Asano Takumi Naganori, who is wronged by a member of the Shogun’s court (Kira Yoshinaka). For the purposes of this review, we’ll refer to them as “Asano” and “Kira.” Asano’s samurai retainers eventually become ronin (masterless samurai), and the remainder of the story tells the tale of this group of loyal retainers plotting against Kira to get revenge for their former master.
To be clear, this is not a revenge story. This is the revenge story against which all others should be measured. The lengths to which Asano’s former retainers go to gain justice for Asano is astounding, and this is where readers get a true understanding of the concept of bushidō, the “way of the warrior,” a samurai code that involves holding true to concepts such as loyalty and honor.
Asano is actually in the story very little, but his character is established in the first few pages where we find he is a true family man, and a daimyo (powerful landowner) who lives far outside the political corruption of the Shogun’s court in Edo. As such, Asano is not fully prepared for life at court, and is to be instructed in etiquette by Kira, who becomes the villain of the story, as he expects to be paid bribes simply for doing his job.
The true protagonist of the story is Oishi, Asano’s chief retainer. As the leader of Asano’s former retainers, Oishi embodies the true spirit of bushido. It is mainly through his character lens that we view the story and learn much about the culture of Japan in general, and the samurai in particular. More than just a stereotypical stoic samurai warrior, Oishi is a master planner, a loyal servant, and a true friend. His quick wits and keen eye for seeing many steps ahead define his character much more than his quickness with his blade.
Amazingly, with a cast of 47 different ronin to deal with, Richardson and Sakai still manage to differentiate most of them very effectively. We don’t actually get to “meet” all 47 individually, but the cast includes dozens of different samurai and all have unique characterizations to make them stand out.
Kira is a great villain, but perhaps a bit exaggerated here. He’s seen as a sneaky, manipulative, and greedy sycophant with absolutely no redeeming characteristics at all. While this works in the context of the story (we need to hate Kira in order for us to understand the actions that Lord Asano’s former retainers take against him), it is of course very unlikely that the true character of Kira was quite so one-dimensional.
In terms of the art, no better illustrator could have been chosen for this story than Stan Sakai. His drawings have a cartoon-like style to them, but the amount of detail is outstanding. His years of research conducted for his series Usagi Yojimbo provide him with the knowledge of Japanese architecture, weapons, armor, clothing, topography, and family crests that are essential to the telling of this story.
This trade version includes the ubiquitous cover gallery as well as a short essay by Richardson on what the story means to him and why he wanted to tell it in comic form, an interview with Stan Sakai, information about series consultant Kazuo Koike, and information on a series of wood-block prints by Japanese artist Ogata Gekko that served as visual inspiration for the story.
If you want to know the real story of the 47 Ronin, skip the movie and buy this trade edition of the comic mini-series. It will become a treasured part of your comic collection and a story you’ll revisit often.
Review copy provided by Dark Horse Comics.