Thursday, November 14, 2013

The 47 Ronin

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The 47 Ronin (Shambhala, 2013).

I once took a course in medieval Japanese history taught by Dr. Karl Friday, the author of Legacies of the Sword and learned that, for any number of reasons, people's imaginations get really fired up by this period. I think it's because we admire the moral strength of the protagonists in the incidents from that time, while simultaneously we are fascinated by a culture so very unlike our own. The tale of 47 soldiers left without a master in the wake of his death, who undertook a two year-long plot to avenge him, has been popular for centuries and has inspired at least six feature films, including a new one with Keanu Reeves that is due for release later this month.

The story goes that in early 1701, a lord named Asano arrived at the estate of a wealthy official in the emperor's court in order to undertake a few weeks' instructions in proper court etiquette for receiving imperial guests and emissaries. The official, named Kira, spent the days being deliberately rude and insulting to both Asano and one of his peers, who quickly sought to tame the problem by arranging for a quiet bribe. But this just made Kira more insulting to Asano, who had no intention of paying a government official to act decently. Asano finally had enough of the insults and broke the court's peace bonds by drawing a sword. Although he didn't murder Kira, he did dole out a whipping. The combined offences of breaking the peace bond and committing assault on the emperor's man earned Asano a death sentence. Asano accepted his punishment - ordered to commit suicide - and the region's governor ordered and warned Asano's soldiers to disband and not attempt to seek revenge.

The soldiers - more than 200 - dispersed as commanded, but almost a quarter of them conspired to avenge him while working various jobs, usually as laborers and builders. One of their number was identified as the obvious ringleader, and so he spent two years posing as a drunkard, eventually convincing the agents spying for Kira and the governor that he was harmless and there was no danger. Once the surveillance ended, the soldiers were able to move, and stormed Kira's estate, taking no casualties as they captured him at last. After they'd killed him, they turned themselves in. The governor showed clemency and, instead of executing them all as criminals, allowed the soldiers the same face-saving suicide that their lord had received, excepting the one who had arranged for their surrender and whose life was spared. The story of the 47 "ronin" - rogue soldiers, without an officer - has passed into legend, with the soldiers seen as heroes for honoring the memory of their lord.

I don't find this story as inspiring as many people seem to, although I certainly find it fascinating from a historical standpoint, and impressed by the intricate planning and long game of the revenge. I admit to being in the minority here, because Asano is seen by many as a hero whose honor was insulted by Kira. It's this code of honor and face and everything that I've always found problematic. So Kira was a boorish jackass who abused his position and authority and expected bribes. Asano's still the criminal who struck first.

Well, my point of view isn't at all the romantic one, and it's not shared by writer Sean Michael Wilson and artist Akiko Shimojima, who've adapted the incident into a 160-page comic. I think that they did a superb job capturing more than just the basics, and fleshing out some of the characters, most notably Ōishi Yoshio, the leader of the gang. The artist has a really thankless job keeping this moving and comprehensible - after all, it involves a huge number of characters who all dress alike, and wear identical haircuts, which is no problem in a film, but it forces Shimojima to avoid the typical comic book shortcuts of using these as distinctive traits - but I was never lost or confused by the flow of the story at all. It is an excellently paced and balanced book.

The part that impressed me most comes when Wilson deviates from the historical narrative and allows two characters to debate the complicated issue. One of the rogues' cover is blown and he has a fireside chat in the woods with somebody, bringing up the ethical problems behind the plot, and the other possible actions that the gang could have taken. I think that Wilson was somewhat constrained by the page count, because there's a lot more like this that could have been explored. I leaned on Wikipedia for some background to this story and learned that some researchers believe that, according to the guidelines of the soldiers' code, called "bushido," neither victory nor defeat were important, only honor. Planning the long game caper ensured Kira could be slain when his guard was dropped, but the guidelines of their social structure actually demanded revenge to be taken as quickly as possible.

I think this contradiction is really interesting, and would have liked to have seen more of this debate between "honor" and "revenge" in the book. Given the page count and the limitations imposed on the story, however, Wilson did an excellent job detailing the historical facts, writing sympathetic characters, and keeping readers unfamiliar with the incident interested in what will happen next. I'd happily recommend this for anybody interested in the period.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your books (typically comics or detective fiction) featured here, send me an email.

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