Written by Mike Richardson
Art by Stan Sakai
Dark Horse Comics, $19.99
The story of the 47 Ronin is a Japanese national legend, one that has been adapted into just about every conceivable medium innumerable times since the historical events it is based on occurred at the dawn of the 18th century. In the last few months, Western audiences have had the story pitched at them in a pair of very different, very high profile forms. In December, the month in which a festival celebrating the 47 ronin is held, an ill-fated big-budget movie starring Keanu Reeves and telling a high-fantasy version of the story was released. And, the previous month, Dark Horse Comics began releasing their five-issue miniseries, which has now been collected into a handsome hardcover edition.
The creators involved should give one a sense of how big the story is, and how seriously Dark Horse took its telling in comic book form.
It’s written by Mike Richardson, Dark Horse’s founder and publisher, who had been planning on adapting the story for about 25 years. In crafting his version, he consulted with legendary manga-ka Kazuo Koike, the creator of the Lone Wolf and Cub comics (which Dark Horse re-published).
It’s drawn by Stan Sakai, who has spent about 30 years now creating samurai comics in the form of his Usagi Yojimbo, albeit ones set in a fictionalized version of feudal Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals. The Dark Horse version of 47 Ronin is the first time in a life-long career in comics that Sakai has drawn a long-form story that someone else has written, and this is also an extremely rare example of Sakai’s work being lettered by someone other than himself (Tom Orzechowski letters the book) and of Sakai drawing human characters, although one will note almost immediately that Sakai’s humans are flat and highly exaggerated in construction, bearing a more “cartoony” than representational look.
The basics of the oft-retold story are these: Feudal lord Asano Naganori was obliged to commit ritual suicide after assaulting the court official Kira Yoshinaka. The samurai in Asano’s service, thus rendered lord-less, became ronin. Led by Oishi, a small number of these ronin—47, to be exact—swore an oath to exact revenge against Kira, for indirectly killing their master and dishonoring his name. They were themselves forbidden from seeking this revenge, however, so after successfully exacting it, they turned themselves in to the authorities, and then they too were sentenced to death. But, like their master, they were given a death sentence with honor, being permitted to commit the ritual suicide of seppuku.
Not the happiest of stories then—what with just about every single character dying at the end—but its extreme example of loyalty as well as its capturing of a particular period of Japanese history as the call of the Western world loomed in the not-too-distant future have given it an undying appeal, to the point that it has been written that to know it is to know Japan (a quote that appears right on the back cover of this collection).
The Richardson/Sakai version builds a framing sequence around the epic, with a minor stinger of a surprise ending, and is a realistic telling (certainly more so than the Keanu Reeves movie!) which spends a great deal of time and attention making Asano seem noble but naive, Kira a hissable villain, and Oishi a rock of a man, a cartoon stand-in for the virtue of loyalty. Attention is also paid to underscoring how much the ronin and their families suffer as they plot their revenge and the restoration of their honor, with Oishi spending a year embarrassing himself by posing as a drunk, publicly divorcing his wife (who here isn’t in on it), and essentially sacrificing his own son to his ideals. Another character turns his back on the woman he’s to marry and even on his newborn son in order to go to his death.
The collection includes some ten pages of supplementary material after the story, including a pair of essays by Richardson (about his fascination with the story and his relationship with Kazuo Koike), an interview with Sakai, and an short but heavily illustrated article about Meiji period artist Ogata Gekko, whose series of woodblock images based on the 47 Ronin legend heavily inspired Richardson and Sakai. All of this serves to let a young reader know that while they’ve just finished the tale of the 47 Ronin, they’ve also just started it.