No, no, no, no. Hollywood has once again ruined a classic story, this time mangling the Japanese literature icon 47 Ronin. Not only did the movie feel the need to fabricate demons, dragons and witches, but also to add a white American actor, Keanu Reeves. 47 Ronin is a story of samurai in feudal Japan who avenge their lord and bring honor to his name at the cost of their own lives. A good research paper topic for your Asian studies, Japanese literature or film studies class might be to set the record straight on classic stories from literature.
The traditional story
The story of the 47 Ronin (also known as the Ako Incident) is based on actual events that took place in 1701 in Edo (Tokyo) at the estate of Shogun Tsunayoshi, the military leader of Japan. The visiting Lord Asano of the town of Ako needed to learn proper etiquette from the corrupt and arrogant court official Lord Kira. When Asano refused to pay the bribe Kira expected, Kira (according to John Allyn’s retelling, published by Tuttle) offered to take his payment from Asano’s wife. Enraged, Asano attacked Kira, breaking court protocol. The Shogun allowed Asano an honorable death by seppuku (ritual suicide); his lands were confiscated and his samurai scattered. When Asano’s 47 ronin (lordless samurai) learned that Kira survived the attack, ronin leader Oishi planned to avenge their lord.
For two years, Kira’s spies followed Oishi, but after Oishi was seen visiting brothels and getting drunk, Kira thought he was safe from any reprisals. On December 14, 1701, the 47 ronin infiltrated Kira’s castle. Oishi found Kira hiding in a closet and beheaded him. “While the public in general lauded this violent act of revenge as a heroic deed consistent with the samurai code of absolute loyalty, the shogunate was obliged by its own set of rules to punish the offenders for having assassinated a member of the court,” wrote Stephen Mansfield in his book Tokyo: A Cultural History. Rather than being executed, the ronin were allowed to commit seppuku because of their loyalty. The sacrifice of the ronin restored the Asano name, and the legend of their courage and strict following of the bushido code of honor was praised.
The Hollywood version (spoiler warning!) has the gall to start the film with the statement: “To know the story of the 47 Ronin is to know the story of Japan.” Hollywood also inserted the headlining white American actor, Keanu Reeves (shades of Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai). Reeves plays Kai, a half British, half Japanese outcast servant who joins the ronin in their revenge. This choice is “an inherently problematic attempt to graft a gaijin [foreigner] savior onto the most famous episode of Japanese folklore,” according to David Ehrlich in “Review: ‘47 Ronin,’” posted December 23, 2013 on Film.com. Kai has magical powers he learned from snake-headed monks in the forest. We get to watch him fight a 10-foot armored golem, a mutant, a dragon and a griffon-like beast.
Japanese literature and film studies students will note that the movie removes all human elements of the classic story. Here, Kira employs a shape-shifting witch to create a hallucination that Asano’s young adult daughter Mika is being molested. Asano assaults Kira, and as punishment commits seppuku. Kira takes Asano’s castle and tortures Oishi. A year later, Oishi gathers the ronin and needs Kai to procure enough swords for their revenge. On the day Kira is to marry Mika, the ronin besiege Kira’s castle, Oishi kills Kira and Kai kills the witch. After the ronin are caught, they commit seppuku.
The legacy of the 47 Ronin
“In the end, the Oishi Kuranosuke and his ronin became the stuff of legend, and continue to spawn books, movies, and television shows at a prodigious rate,” wrote a contributor to the Samurai Archives in the article “47 Ronin.” The contributor continued, “The Sengakuji [temple] is still a popular spot in Tokyo and a place for modern admirers of what many feel were the finest examples of samurai loyalty to emerge from the Edo Period.”
The story of the loyalty and courage of the 47 Ronin is still celebrated and recreated in Japan. People visit the graves of the ronin and recreate fictionalized versions of the story called Chūshingura. Every December 14, Sengakuji Temple holds a festival commemorating the event.
My advice—take the new 47 Ronin movie with as much historical authenticity as the movie Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter! For a more compelling and accurate story, read Allyn’s English version or try The 47 Ronin: A Graphic Novel by writer Sean Michael Wilson and artist Akiko Shimojima.
Did you see 47 Ronin? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.