Mike Richardson

47 Ronin

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47 Ronin Summary

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Mike Richardson’s 47 Ronin is a graphic novel depicting historical events from eighteenth-century Japan with illustrations by Stan Sakai. Richardson is the founder of Dark Horse Comics (est. 1986), which published the book in 2014.

The story of the forty-seven ronin (the name given to a samurai bereft of a master) gained popularity in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Japan as the country modernized. Lord Asano was a feudal lord who, in the year 1701, went to visit governmental overseer Kira Yoshinaka, a kōke charged with maintaining court etiquette. The legend holds that Yoshinaka personally insulted Lord Asano while the latter was visiting him concerning matters of political etiquette. These public insults enraged Lord Asano, who conspired to kill Yoshinaka at the Edo Castle. The attempt failed, and Lord Asano was forced to commit seppuku (ritualized killing). After two years of plotting, the forty-seven ronin, all former samurai who had sworn loyalty to Lord Asano, vowed to kill Yoshinaka at any cost.

Richardson’s graphic novel (whose captions indicate temporal and physical setting) begins on December 14, 1703, at the Sengaku-ji temple. A stranger identifying himself as Kurakami Kiken approaches a priest. Kiken explains that the samurai class is struggling to find purpose in a world without war. When asked by the priest, he agrees to tell the story of why he is so tortured.

Captions helpfully introduce the settings, the first of which is Lord Asano’s court in March 1701. Lord Asano bids farewell to his family as he prepares to visit the shogun’s palace 400 miles away. His retainer, Oishi, suggests that he leave early in order to receive training in court etiquette.

The next scene moves to the shogun’s palace in April. The court official, Kira Yoshinaka expresses disapproval at not receiving gifts from Lord Asano in exchange for his instructions in etiquette. Lord Asano refuses to give a bribe in exchange for Yoshinaka performing his defined role under the shogun. A series of insults follow, and, after shogun publicly humiliates Lord Asano in front of a group of court officials, they exchange blows; Lord Asano wounds Yoshinaka. Because of this affront, Lord Asano is ordered by the shogun to commit seppuku. Lord Asano’s wife is notified of her husband’s death and forced to abandon the castle and their possessions.

Oishi assembles a group of more than one hundred of Lord Asano’s retainers, who debate among themselves what should be done about their Lord’s unfair death. Oishi is resolute in his decision to petition the shogun to reestablish the house of Asano with his younger brother, Daigaku, as its head. Sixty-two of the retainers sign Oishi’s petition, and the others disband.

During this conference of retainers, an old man, Muramatsu, approaches Oishi and asks to be allowed to aid in defending Lord Asano’s honor, but Oishi tells him that he must depart. Muramatsu kills himself outside of their assembly. The shogun’s agents arrive, ordering the retainers to leave the castle, while Oishi quietly affirms that he has not forgotten Yoshinaka’s wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, at Yoshinaka’s residence near the Uyésegi clan, Yoshinaka protests that he has not been given the proper level of protection, as he fears retaliation by Asano’s men. It is agreed that, as he is related by marriage to the Uyésegi clan, he be given retainers at their expense.

Meanwhile, Oishi, who lives modestly with his family, is told that the late Lord Asano’s brother, Daigaku Asano, is being kept in confinement in the family’s villa. Noticing a spy outside his home, Oishi bids farewell to his wife and child in order to reassemble Lord Asano’s former retainers in a tavern outside of Kyoto. Oishi announces that they will indeed avenge Lord Asano, but at the expense of their own lives. He releases those unwilling to make this sacrifice. Oishi explains that his plan is for the retainers to convince the public that they have abandoned their loyalty by living debauched lives. Shortly after this meeting, Oishi is seen in brothels and drunk in the streets. His plan works; Yoshinaka releases his bodyguards. One of these bodyguards, who suspects that Oishi’s plan is a ruse, sets out to investigate the rumors about Oishi. Oishi confirms this man’s suspicion by killing him.

When Oishi gathers Lord Asano’s retainers a third time, it is for the execution of their plan to attack Yoshinaka. One of the men has procured plans the of Yoshinaka’s house by marrying the daughter of one of the builders. Thus, on the evening of December 14, 1702, the retainers attack the palace of Kira Yoshinaka. They kill many of the palace guards, but at first cannot find Yoshinaka, who is hiding beneath a pile of cloth in a shed outside. Once the band discovers him, they cut off his head and bring it to the Sengaku-ji temple.

Several weeks later, as the retainers predicted, the shogun, who is conflicted in his decision, announces that these forty-seven retainers be put to death. In recognition of the loyalty with which they acted, they are given the option of an honorable death by Hari-Kiri (seppuku). Oishi is the last to kill himself.

The final scene flashes forward to the present, where the stranger telling the story introduces himself as one who spit on Oishi in the street. He reports that he is also returning the blade he took from Oishi when he thought that Oishi had given in to moral dissolution. The book’s final page provides a list of these forty-seven ronin whose story is told within.

Japanese-American Stan Sakai, the illustrator of the volume, is best known as the creator of the Usagi Yojimbo series of comics, which features a rabbit in the role of a samurai. Both Sakai and Richardson have won Eisner Awards for American comics as well as various other accolades for creative accomplishments.