Yes, “47 Ronin” is a real story. But it isn’t exactly the same one in the new movie. Which isn’t to say that the film, starring Keanu Reeves, is a bad thing.
In the movie, set in Edo-era Japan (1603-1867), an evil warlord kills the master of 47 samurai. These warriors are now “ronin,” masterless samurai. The title ronin is a mark of shame, as it implies these warriors failed to protect their master, which is a samurai’s chief duty. A samurai has honor and all the respect that comes with it; a ronin does not, even though their physical skills and training are identical.
Further, these ronin are now homeless, and disperse across the land in a shameful diaspora. They vow vengeance, though, and seek the help of Kai, a half-breed they’d previously rejected (Reeves).
Kai leads the ronin in a battle against all sorts of fantastic threats, such as mythical beasts, shapeshifting witches and other spectacular threats.
That sort of special-effects extravaganza is exactly what Hollywood does better than anyone. Which makes for a very good movie — just not one the same one Japanese kids have been reading for generations.
That story is one of Japan’s most important and legendary events. It’s the sort of story that is imbedded in a culture’s DNA, explaining who and what they are.
In the historical tale, Lord Asano is driven by insults to attack a rude member of the emperor’s staff. This is an unforgivable sin, and the lord is asked to commit seppuku — the ritual self-execution sometimes referred to as hari-kiri. The death of their master means Asano’s 47 samurai are ronin, who are now not only without honor, but also homeless, once the emperor confiscates all of the dead lord’s lands. Even more galling, the man who insulted Asano is still alive, and receives no punishment whatsoever.
Vowing revenge, the 47 spend two years insinuating themselves in Edo (the capital of Japan at the time) and in the emperor’s household. The leader of the ronin, who is being watched, commits the ultimate act of self-abasement to continue the charade, pretending to be a drunk who whores around Edo and sleeps in the gutter.
I don’t think I need a spoiler alert to say that the ronin succeed. After two years, the rude guy finally relaxes his guard, and the ronin attack and kill him. Then, they all commit seppuku.
Why? Because that’s the only honorable end for all this. The bushido code, which is what distinguishes a samurai from lesser people, is one of honor, loyalty, sacrifice, duty and persistence. The 47 ronin exemplified all these traits in spades, but their plan would still just be simple murder if they had failed to put the exclamation point on the end. That final act, the ultimate expression of self-sacrifice, is what distinguishes an honor killing from simple revenge.
In other words, by dying they retain honor. Had they remained alive, it would have been without honor. And honor, obviously, was more important to them than life.
If you want to read the story for yourself, “The 47 Ronin: A Graphic Novel” ($14.95, Shambhala), adapted by writer Sean Michael Wilson and artist Akiko Shimojima, was released in November. Or you can wait until February, when Dark Horse will publish a hardback version by DH Publisher Mike Richardson and artist Stan Sakai. As comics fans know, Sakai has been blowing away audiences for years as the writer/artist of his unlikely but terrific samurai epic “Usagi Yojimbo.”