I’m a sucker for just about anything historically oriented. I don’t care how “accurate” or “inaccurate” the premise, if a comic, movie, or television show is somehow a period piece, I’m more inclined to turn my attention towards it. The passion a person can place in studying or researching not just an historical period in time, but also an historical period completely foreign to their own culture is especially fascinating because it shows our ability as human beings to find connections beyond our little corner of the world. Such is the case with 47 Ronin #1. Written by Mike Richardson with art by Stan Sakai (Usagi Yojimbo) and editorial consultation from Kazuo Koike (Lone Wolf & Cub), 47 Ronin is an adaptation of the legendary, and true story of the 47 Ronin who avenged their daimyo (lord) after he was forced to commit seppuku, and then committed seppuku themselves to uphold their code of honor.
The first statement you read after the front cover is: “To know this story is to know Japan.” It’s a bold statement, but a true one as the legend of the 47 Ronin has come to define the cultural concept of honor in Japan through the way of bushido. It is the way of the warrior, the way of the samurai, and it has come to represent not only the way the Japanese see themselves, but how those of us outside of Japanese culture see them as well. Richardson, in the final pages of the issue, recalls how he finally got to create this passion project, which came from his love for and fascination with Japanese films, animation, and comics. Upon hearing the story and reading about it, he became obsessed with the 47 Ronin, a story rife with relatable themes of loyalty, honor, and revenge.
The term ronin refers to a samurai without a master and the first issue of 47 Ronin sets up the events that will lead to the death of Asano Takumi-Naganori, Daimyo of Ako, creating the titular warriors and setting them on their path of vengeance. Visiting the graves of the ronin at the Buddhist temple Sengaku-ji, a man named Murakami Kiken recounts the “true” events of the ronin and their master to a temple priest. Split into three chapters, we meet Asano as he prepares to leave for the Shogun’s palace to be trained in the ways of courtly etiquette. Asano is presented as a well-meaning, loving father and husband, which puts his chief retainer, Oishi, ill-at-ease about his master’s ability to navigate the court of the Shogun. He cautions him to be careful and fulfill his duties, but nothing else. Asano believes it’s paranoia, but he soon learns the wisdom of Oishi’s words.
The world of courtly politics, as anyone who watches Game of Thrones can attest, is one where your survival entirely depends on the friends you make and how quickly you can remain one step ahead of your enemies. And God forbid your friends should become your enemies. Unfortunately, Asano makes a quick enemy of his instructor in court etiquette, Kira Yoshinaka. Failing to provide a substantial gift for Kira in exchange for his instructions, Asano refuses to bribe the corrupt official any further. Despite several entreaties from others to offer Kira another bribe, Asano remains true to his principles, failing to follow Oishi’s advice to keep his opinions to himself. Kira, because of his powerful position, continues to embarrass and insult the daimyo, pushing the man to his breaking point until he finally, and literally, lashes out at Kira. The issue ends with Asano under arrest and a messenger headed to tell Oishi of what has transpired.
If you feel like I’ve spoiled this comic too much…yeah, I probably did, but the first issue is really just set up. The only action that really happens is at the end and by that point you’re pretty much waiting for the inevitable to happen. Plus the amount of ominous phrases uttered by various people gives you a sense of unease about Asano’s future. From Oishi’s uncertainty of his master’s return, to a servant’s admission that things will not turn out well, to Lord Kamei’s final words of “I fear this can only end badly,” we already know Asano’s fate is sealed. But even if you know where the story is headed, how Richardson sets the pace and brings the characters to life is expertly done. Our main character for most of the issue is Asano, which is a smart move on Richardson’s part. From the beginning, we know Asano is a good man, but good men rarely survive the cutthroat environment of courtly politics. By spending this time with the ill-fated daimyo, we come to understand why his loyal retainers would go to such lengths to avenge his death.
The artwork by Stan Sakai is beautiful. Equal parts the cartoony style that makes Usagi Yojimbo so popular and an homage to Japanese woodblock printing, the characters are distinctive and expressive, especially Kira as he lovingly insults Asano or shouts in anger when denied his proper bribe. There’s a wonderful sense of action with every character, even in panels where it seems like nothing is happening. The composition of the panels are gorgeous with the idyllic scenery of Asano’s home as the cherry blossoms fall to the diverse population of the Shogun’s palace. To put it plainly: pretty.
That’s why I recommend reading 47 Ronin #1. Richardson’s just getting started, so I’m intrigued to see where he’ll take us when the real action starts.