Duty, Honor, Revenge: The Samurai Legend of the 47 Ronin

My posts rarely include spoilers, but I want to say at the outset that not only should you read John Allyn’s telling of the 47 Ronin Japanese legend, but the less you know going into it, the better the experience will be.

So go read it. Now. Then come back and finish this post. Or if you’re still not convinced, read on.

The best way to convey why 47 Ronin is, above all else, a thoroughly fun story, is to walk you through my experience. First, I knew nothing about the story except that it involved samurai, and the main reason I was intrigued by it was I had just finished watching Akira Kurosawa’s excellent film Seven Samurai.

And like Kurosawa’s film, 47 Ronin is a beautiful samurai story, full of honorable warriors who live according to a strict code of ethics that, to a modern Western reader, seems at time incredibly noble, and others downright unjust.

The story itself is simple enough – Asano, a young lord, is executed for striking a corrupt government official named Kira, and his legion of samurai, loyal to his house and family, swear revenge for their master. Taking revenge, though, will prove to be a problem. First, Kira is well protected and has spies watching the samurai’s every move. Second, a samurai without a master became, in Japanese society, a ronin. The ronin is a tragic figure, a kind of wandering warrior with no one to fight for and who, as a result, tends to either become a mercenary going from job to job, arguably putting his loyalty up for sale, or living a life far less honorable than the one he was forced to leave behind.

Thus Asano’s band of samurai – now ronin – struggle to figure out just how to take their revenge. Interestingly, the greatest challenge they face isn’t fighting Kira or his forces directly, but maintaining the unity between them over the years it takes before the right time to strike back arrives. Different ronin react in different ways to their sudden loss of a home and master, with some staying true to their samurai principles, while others abandon them entirely. The journey of each of these men makes up the majority of the book, which makes the inevitable battle that much more exciting and, in some ways, a relief. There are almost times when you think the ronin might not be able to try for their revenge after all (whether they succeed or not, you can find out for yourself).

After reading the story, I read the preface, written by John Turnbull, a Japanese military historian. I was honestly shocked to discover that 47 Ronin was based on real events. Granted, I knew the setting was roughly around 1701 A.D., but still, I suppose I just assumed that such a heroic tale of honorable warriors fighting against overwhelming odds had to be fiction.

And in a sense, it is – Turnbull lays out precisely what is actually known about the events surrounding the revenge for Asano’s death, some of which contradict the uplifting and moral story I’d just finished reading. I should stress that some of these discrepancies drastically alter one’s understanding of the whole affair – to give one example, Kira was not nearly as nefarious in reality as he is presented in the story. Turnbull even calls into question the supposed nobility of the revenge cause.

In some ways, this preface is a bit of a downer, splashing cold historical truth on a fiery and inspiring tale. But it also demonstrates the fascinating power of literature to transform an event into something radically different from the truth, and in a very real way supplant the truth. What really happened to Asano and Kira and the forty-seven ronin is interesting in its own right, but the legend of the forty-seven ronin has seeped into Japanese culture and become a force unto itself., the subject of countless retellings in literature, theater, and film (Keanu Reeves even starred in an adaptation of the story that, as you might have guessed, is quite far from the historical record). It’s not too dissimilar from how the modern myth of Dracula has transcended the historical record of Vlad the Impaler. After all, can you say for sure what is really true about Vlad the Impaler, as opposed to myths and legends that developed over time?

47 Ronin works as an adventure/revenge story, a testament to the power of fiction to absorb, transform, and transcend history, and a powerful evocation of a world and code of ethics that, like the figure of the samurai, that has passed out of our modern age and into legend.

So go read it. Now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Japanese works published by Tuttle

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