Lord Asano has been called to the Shogun’s palace to receive the Emperor’s emissaries. Because he is not familiar with the ways of the court, Asano is assigned to the court official Kira who will give him a crash course in court etiquette before the emissaries arrive. Kira is a corrupt official who demands a bribe in order to help Asano effectively, but Asano is a true samurai and follower of the bushido code. He refuses to pay more than the customary gifts to Kira.
And thus begins Asano’s undoing. Because of Asano’s refusal to bribe Kira, Kira begins mistreating and intentionally miscommunicating with Asano. Asano stoically bears this mistreatment and discourages his friend from responding to Kira in a negative way. Asano’s stoicism expires when Kira begins to insult him in front of the emissaries. Asano, in direct violation of the rules in the Shogun’s palace, draws his sword on Kira and slashes his face. Both offenses are punishable by death.
Asano is ordered to commit seppuku, his lands are taken from his family, his name is disgraced, and his retainer samurai are disbanded to become “ronin” or masterless. Kira, despite his provocation of Asano is complemented by the Shogun.
When word of Kira’s involvement in Asano’s ruin reaches Oishi, Asano’s chief retainer, a plan is made. Oishi calls all of Asano’s samurai and asks them abide by the Shogun’s ruling and not go after Kira immediately. This is hard for many of the samurai to take–they’d rather avenge their master’s death and die than have the dishonor of being truly ronin. Ultimately, only 46 other samurai trust Oishi enough to follow his plan.
Little do the other samurai know, Oishi’s plan is only to pretend to be ronin. They spend over a year convincing Kira’s spies that they have nothing more to think about than drinking and debauchery or manual labor and that avenging their master’s death will never happen.
Once Oishi is fully convinced that Kira’s guard is down, they infiltrate his newly built estate and exact their revenge.
“47 Ronin” is based on true events that happened in 18th century Japan (you can even visit the tombs of Asano and his most loyal retainers) and is one of the most enduring legends in Japan, so I feel confident telling you most of the story. There are numerous plays, books, movies, and other adaptations of this story in both Japanese and American culture (including a 2013 movie with the same title starring Keanu Reeves).
This iteration of the story is wonderful. The script by Mark Richardson (with editorial consulting by Kazuo Koike) is impeccably researched and the art evokes the amazing woodblock prints of Japan while giving the story a life and style of its own. Sakai’s art also portrays each character’s depth and emotion while giving readers an accurate and fascinating view into 18th century Japanese architecture and costuming.
Despite the fact that many murders take place within its pages, “47 Ronin” isn’t a very bloody book. Yes, you know people are being murdered (or are committing seppuku), but most of the deaths (and bloodshed) take place off camera.
I would highly recommend this title to anyone interested in Japanese legend or history as well as anyone who enjoys stories about loyalty and subterfuge.