I am excited to begin 2018 with a column series that will focus on a subject I have loved since the fifth grade: samurai. While I am in no way saying that the works discussed through this column or subsequent columns will be enough to truly help a reader grasp the full depth of samurai history, I do hope it might provide various entry points for discussion and exploration within the “genre” of samurai comics and fiction.
Concerning Romance and History
I feel it is important to start by saying that samurai, like any historical group, are subject to romantic treatment just as any other social class with hundreds of years of history behind them. There is a key distinction between what a samurai represents as historical figures and what they represent as romantic figures. I believe that there are manga comics which accurately illustrate the importance of historical samurai, but it is worth noting that the draw of romantic samurai is exciting because of one concept above all else, that being bushido. Typically, bushido is a series of philosophical tenants and sayings which are heavily tied to the romantic image of samurai, mainly as a code of living that demands warriors behave according to rigorous social and moral standards. Western readers might tend to believe that, in a romantic sense, bushido is a social mirror to chivalry. The key distinction between these two terms in largely that bushido instructs warriors in how they are to behave in relation to a diverse and demanding social strata, i.e.: bushido was meant to help samurai understand how and why they needed to serve their lords, where-as lords needed to know in what way they were expected to administrate and control the loyalty of their soldiers. Romantic bushido tends to stress more of a reliance on personal devotion to either a person (often a samurai’s superior) or a code of ethics. There is perhaps no greater story for extolling the beauty of romantic bushido than The 47 Ronin (also called Chushingura). I want to introduce readers to the beautiful adaptation of this story by Stan Sakai and Mike Richardson which was released by Dark Horse Comics in 2014.
The Story of the 47 Ronin
The story of the 47 Ronin begins when a samurai lord named Asano travels to the palace of the Shogun (the eminent military lord of Japan) as a guest. While present, he becomes involved in a dispute with another lord named Kira. Kira was instructed in teaching the guests, such as Asano, proper etiquette and decorum so as to not fall short of the expectations placed on the samurai while in the presence of the Emperor’s vassals and emissaries. Kira, believing that Asano did not offer his ‘compensation’ for his teachings and time, began to beset Asano with trouble and grief. Asano saw Kira’s requests for compensation as a code for bribery and all the grief inflicted upon him as punishment for not giving the greedy man what he desired. In turn, after an altercation, Asano draws weapons on Kira and even injures him. After this disastrous exchange, one might expect, things go sideways for everyone. The tragedy of the story is what happens to those who served Lord Asano after the ramifications of Kira’s injury are made public. What happens to those who serve a man who was accused and punished for dishonorable actions? How are samurai to comport themselves within bushido and yet believe that they have served their lord’s memory? The heart of the 47 Ronin’s story is in the actions of a samurai named Oishi, one of Asano’s most loyal retainers. Oishi’s determination to obey the will of the Shogun while also honoring his lord is part of they key conflict within the narrative. Even more tragic is the depths Oishi feels he must descend to so that his lord can be avenged, depths which bring his family despair and which also ruins his reputation among those he has personal ties with.
So how does the Dark Horse adaptation stand out in telling this story in a unique and important way? If I had to pick just one thing, it would be Stan Sakai’s amazing art.
The Art of The 47 Ronin
One of the things that Mike Richardson comments upon when he recounts how Stan Sakai became involved with the creation of their adaptation of the Chushingura story is how Stan Sakai’s art closely resembles woodblock carvings by Ogata Gekkō. If you explore the inking and lines of Gekkō, you’ll notice how and why Richardson makes this claim. Far from being lavishly detailed, Sakai and Gekkō share a similar kind of ink and coloring style, one which is smooth and without exaggerated detail unless it highlights a silhouette. Take for example the way Sakai presents faces. In the comic, Lord Kira is highlighted both by his nose, his scar, and his sunken/aged expression. Oishi, by contrast, has a unique expression which is ‘his own,’ so you’d never say Oishi and Kira are the same person. The fact that Sakai employs such minimalist stylings while also relying on rich colors is a testament to how good the man is and how well he presents forms in action without clutter or unnecessary lines.
Those who are interested can view woodblock prints of the 47 Ronin that Gekkō made through this link.
If readers look at the designs depicted in the sequence where Asano strikes Kira, you won’t see exaggerated or lavish details. What readers will see is unbridled rage and anger, a clear emotional response in a comic full of characters who frequently eschew rash action. Sakai’s ultimate depiction of Asano’s outburst is beautiful and minimalistic, a technique which renders the work as emotional as it is romantic. While Asano’s actions are flawed, they are the all-too real catalyst for the events of the Chushingura story
The back-matter for Issue #1 of Richardson and Sakai’s adaptation of The 47 Ronin story references the fact that “a fictionalized version of the actual incident, titled Chushingura (with names and dates changed to avoid censorship), caught the imagination of the Japanese people and was retold through bunraku (puppet plays) and kabuki (Japanese theater).” I find this quote important because while Richardson and Sakai’s graphic work in the Dark Horse adaptation of the 47’s story is pure romance, there is plenty of real history within the story. Separating the romance from the history is something within the pages of The 47 Ronin is important, so stick around for Part 2 where I will compare scenes from the comic alongside other opinions on the accounts concerning the incident at Akō.
I would like to close out this Part 1 column by commenting how what are merely entertaining comics for our culture are sometimes historically significant stories for others. While there is certainly debate about what the “right” thing Oishi and his companions should have done (which the comic addresses), the key thing to remember is that these figures were real. The story of Oishi and his companions are rooted in history, even if certain aspects of the narrative have become mythic. I am grateful to Dark Horse comics, Stan Sakai, Mike Richardson and editorial consultant Kazuo Koike-san for their respective contributions to this famous narrative. There is importance for both the historical and the romantic elements within the story, so I hope all aspects can be explored in depth during Part 2.