Writer: Mike Richardson
Artist: Stan Sakai
What They Say:
Among the best-known tales in Japanese history, the legend of the 47 Ronin and their epic mission to avenge their disgraced master epitomizes the samurai code of honor. It has been said, “To know the story of the 47 Ronin is to know Japan.” Retold through the ages, the legend at last comes to comics in a meticulously researched and beautifully illustrated miniseries from Mike Richardson, Stan Sakai, and editorial consultant Kazuo Koike! Recounting this sweeping tale of honor and violence in all its grandeur, chapter one details the tragic incident that would seal the fate of Lord Asano and set forty-seven of his vassals on a years-long path of vengeance!
The Review: (please note that content portions of review may contain spoilers)
Most comic readers are likely to recognize the medium as one that often presents some fictional, larger than life characters that go about their days doing tasks that often match that stature that they were created with as the grapple with troubles familiar enough to resonate yet big enough to be thought of (at times) epic much like the tales of heroes from centuries long gone. Sometime though the medium can be used for other purposes, such as presenting fact based stories to an audience that might not otherwise see it by wrapping the tale in a familiar package and to an extent this isn’t exactly a new concept as for as long as there have been comic books the various publishers have tried out a wide range of material to coax readers into buying their books, which has included trying to reach a subset of fans that aren’t (only) interested in the spandex brigade.
As the afterword explains the story of the 47 Ronin is perhaps one of Japan’s most cherished tales of honor and avenging a wrong, the lasting impact of which can be seen in the multiple times in multiple formats the story has appeared in while entertaining many in its original country as well as many of the films having been exported out to the rest of the world and the production ranks are soon to be joined by a major motion picture in the works based on the theme from Hollywood as well. With Dark Horse Comics having chiseled out a space among fans of Japanese manga and with a domestic movie on the way what better time was there for Dark Horse founder Mike Richardson to bring a tale he had been planning for a quarter century to the printed page.
In order to accomplish this task of brining his idea to life he teamed up with Stan Sakai, probably most famous for creating and drawing his sword wielding rabbit Usagi Yojimbo character that combined many Japanese themes and folklore into stories that have made the character a hit among no small number of comic fans and beyond as the character managed to sneak out into even larger pop culture recognition by appearing in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon and toy line. In his art for Usagi Yojimbo Sakai uses some fantastic elements that mix both simplicity and complexity in his drawings along with a vivid color scheme that creates an almost fairy tale like atmosphere for his characters, and while he swaps out his anthropomorphic themes for human designs the same gentle yet masterful strokes that serve his famed creation well also emphasize the emotions and mood that the story sets here.
Given that the tale takes place over the course of years the initial issue doesn’t attempt to bite off too much at first as it works to set up the initial framework that lead to the later events as it presents how Lord Asano wound up falling out of favor with the Shogun and the issue set the stage for Lord Asano’s downfall due in large part to his novice and naïve approach to the politics of the court when he winds up studying under the corrupt court official Kira Kozukenosuke Yoshinaka whose insistence on bribes rankles the Lord and refuses to capitulate. In return for the lack of being given what he feels he has coming to him by Lord Asano, the official uses his powers to humiliate Lord Asano and it becomes an almost contest of wills to see who will triumph in an arena of ideals, customs and tradition where a misstep can at least as dangerous as making a misstep on the battlefield. With Lord Asano’s fate a matter of historical record the comic shows just how this seemingly simple year of service at the main palace lead to Lord Asano’s death and how it set in motion a tale that continues to fascinate to this day.
Given that the comic deals with historical fact it has to walk a careful line of trying to build drama and give its audience a reason to care for the doomed central figure while still being faithful to the original story. The comic chooses to do this by first presenting a small scene with Lord Asano and his family to ground him as a man before throwing him into the Shogun’s court and enduring the humiliations that the Yoshinaka forces upon him. In an oddity it is hard to figure out if this first issue runs too long or too short as the tale of the 47 Ronin really begins with Lord Asano’s death and so his importance to the story is almost secondary in many respects yet the author chooses to establish the character to about as much of a degree as one can in the 26 or so pages with a particular focus being given to what finally drives Lord Asano to respond in anger which seals his fate. In addition the comic walks a fine line of trying to balance out its historical nature while also creating a narrative to allow the characters to feel real, a balance which the comic isn’t entirely successful at creating when judged as pure entertainment but which does succeed for the most part when one factors in the need to weigh history with narrative and limited pages available.
Since it is only the first issue one can’t expect everything to be reveled and the comic serves well in its task of introducing readers to the period and to Lord Asano, though the comic likely is a tale that isn’t going to be for everyone as its pace and focus may leave those looking for action coming away a bit unsatisfied though the issue leaves the stage set for the following chapters to try to fill in these places for those waiting for some swordplay. Still those who enjoy the original story that this comic is based on and those who would like to experience this tale that has played such an impact on Japan’s psyche will find that the comic creates an easy entry point that may whet their appetite to explore further the ripples that the original events have left across both history and Japanese (as well as American) pop culture.
One of the most iconic stories that has captivated the attention of many in Japan for centuries comes to America in this new telling from Dark Horse Comics in a story that the author had been contemplating for a quarter century. With Stan Sakai on board as artist the tale covers the fall of Lord Asano which will lead to a need for bloody revenge in the series future as the man’s subordinates fight to reclaim his honor and demonstrate their own along the way.