The tale of the 47 Ronin has been enshrined in the Japanese cultural canon and will forever be regarded as the principal exemplar of the definition of honor, dignity, and bushido. These 47 loyal retainers, who risked lives and livelihoods to extract their just revenge, serve as a lesson to those who would seek wisdom concerning the heart and soul of a nation. By understanding this story, one truly gets to the core of what it meant to faithfully serve as samurai. As the book’s tagline says: “To know this story is to know Japan.”
This graphic novel adaptation, by writer/producer, Mike Richardson (founder of Dark Horse Comics), and Stan Sakai (Usagi Yojimbo) faithfully captures Japan’s enduring chronicle of loyalty and revenge. To further re-enforce this book’s bona fides, Richardson asked Kazuo Koike (Lone Wolf and Cub) to serve as editorial consultant. This trinity of comic legends produced a rich, authentic, and historically accurate recounting of the 47 Ronin.
The tale begins with a young daimyo named Lord Asano, who was summoned by the shogun to the capital of Edo to serve personally at the court (this practice was typical during the Tokugawa Shogunate, as a means for the shogun to maintain control over his vassals). Asano was required to undergo some training in court etiquette by an official named Kira. Kira, expecting a large and customary bribe for this instruction, confronted Asano privately after learning that Asano’s gift was not as lavish as Kira usually received. Asano refused, offended by Kira’s insult. Kira swiftly moved to make a mockery of Asano in public, goading Asano into illegally drawing his weapon and threatening the greedy official. After the outburst, a series of events is set in motion leading to the suicide of Lord Asano by the order of the shogun.
Word spreads quickly back to Asano’s home, and his highest ranking retainer, a samurai named Oishi, quickly realizes that in order to extract their revenge on Kira, he and his allies must be patient…
Presented in a gorgeous hardcover collection, this six-issue mini-series could not have asked for a better artist than Stan Sakai. The color palette, inspired by the pastels of Japanese woodblock prints, exudes an aura of vintage stateliness, as if the reader were watching a colorized black and white feature film. Powder blues and quiet pinks bring their order to the page, framed in panels that look like storyboards for a forgotten Kurosawa epic. This orderliness is marred only by the streaks of bright, crimson blood, which decorate the action in moments of tense violence.
This adaptation remains brilliantly true to the tale of the 47 Ronin as laid out in historical works, most notably the 1871 account by historian, A.B. Mitford, from his Tales of Old Japan. If the lack of embellishments to the source material could be considered disparaging, then that would be this book’s only failure. 47 Ronin is a fine piece of art to give to a reader of history, fiction or otherwise, who either has no experience with comics, or is comfortable with words and pictures.
by Mike Richardson
Art by Stan Sakai
Dark Horse, 2014