So, the greatest of all Japanese folk tales is to be re-imagined at a cost of 175 million dollars. November 2012 sees the 3D release of the latest of nine film versions of The Revenge of the 47 Ronin. Readers of this blog and visitors to the Toshidama Gallery will no doubt be familiar with the 18th century story of the revenge vendetta carried out by members of the Asano Clan. There have been eight movie versions of varying quality over the years but this latest is far and away the biggest budget and will receive the most publicity.
In 1702 Lord Asano of Ako was provoked by Kira Kozuke-no-Suke (a minor official of theShogun’s) into drawing his sword in the Shogun’s palace, an offence for which Asano was ordered to take his own life. His lands were confiscated, his family ruined and his retainers sacked, forcing them to become leaderless samurai… Ronin. Forty seven of them vowed revenge on their leader, biding their time and assuming the identities of drunkards and womanisers to put Kira’s spies off the trail. They attacked Kira’s palace the following year in a coordinated ambush, killing sixteen of the defenders and eventually finding Kira cowering in a woodshed. They respectfully asked him to take his own life, according to the bushido, (the samurai code) but in his terror, he was unable to. They forcibly decapitated him and carried his head to lay on Asano’s grave. They in turn took their own lives at the order of the Shogun despite numerous public appeals for clemency. The events became a hugely popular play, The Chushingura.
The 47 are buried at Sengakuji Temple along with their master and the Temple quickly became a place of pilgrimage, and is still revered to this day. There is also a museum there which houses the original uniforms of the gang and various other items. The woodblock artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi is perhaps the artist most associated with these events. There are countless ukiyo prints recounting the story, the participants and the famous play but it is Kuniyoshi who set the image of the heroes in the visual arts with his complete portrait series Stories of True Loyalty of the Faithful Samurai in 1847.
I suppose the question is what can Keanu Reeves and director Carl Erich Risch bring to this epic tale and Japanese national treasure? I suspect very little… there are several pitfalls that the film may blunder into. Most obviously is the fact that neither Reeves (the star) nor director Rinsch are Japanese and neither are the writers, Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini for that matter.
The Reeves character has been created especially for the film which is itself something of a mistake given that the names and the biographies of the actual men are revered still in Japan and are widely known. Each Ronin had a specific part to play and most were comparatively old for Japan at that time, the only youthful Ronin being Chikara, the son of Oishi who was the architect of the plot and he was spared execution because of his youth.
I fear though that the film will falter on the deeper and more complex issues of the story. The fact is that although it has been at times revered as the great illustration of the principles of bushido – the way of the samurai – the plot and the events are morally complex and some say morally flawed. Lord Asano would have known that it was dishonourable to draw his sword in the palace at Edo and to strike an unarmed man and would also have been fully aware of the penalty. His death through seppuku, whilst honourable, was to amend a dishonourable act. The raid by the Ronin should have been carried out immediately – samurai would have avenged their master regardless of the outcome – the act of bravery being key here rather than the victory. By waiting over a year and by using subterfuge to put Kira at his ease was also a dishonourable strategy. There are further problems over the raid itself. The castle was not well armed or defended and none of the Ronin suffered as a consequence against the sixteen deaths that they inflicted on Kira’s staff. Some say that the Ronin expected a pardon and if so this sets the whole of the plot and the raid itself outside of the traditions of bushido.
Kuniyoshi, in his great and definitive series of illustrated biographies, alludes to this moral equivocation. In each of the portraits, heroic though they appear to be, the warriors are shown amidst the debris and the trappings of the domestic sphere… curtains, braziers, a small dog in a decorative collar, paper screens and so on. Kuniyoshi does not choose to picture combat, heroism or the ways of samurai battle at all. Instead he shows a disturbing picture of cumbersome men stumbling clumsily through a different world altogether. Compare this series with his Suikoden heroes and we see a very different image of the warrior hero. It seems inevitable that the film of the 47 Ronin will major on the fight scenes (something which Reeves is having to train for) and give the impression of an evenly matched and pitched battle. I suspect that the film makers have missed an opportunity here to make a much more thought provoking film for the sake of a Kurosawa style epic that maybe never was.
Nevertheless everything Ronin will be popular for the run up to the film’s release next year. With that in mind why not visit the Toshidama Gallery and buy an original Kuniyoshi print from 1847 of the great epic and presumably have the pleasure of seeing it reproduced everywhere from posters to fridge magnets. A limited number of original Kuniyoshi Ronin prints are available for £340 here, already conservation mounted and ready for framing or storage. We will be having a Ronin exhibition sometime in the next twelve months.