I was struck, looking at some of the very beautiful images from Kuniyoshi’s 1847 series of the 47 Ronin, by the bathos of the figures – the tremendous sense of anticlimax that runs through so many of the prints. This was after all, the defining set of prints on the subject of an era-defining action by a group of samurai carrying out a revenge attack to honour the memory of their late master – an attack that would certainly end in their honourable (though potentially dishonourable) death.
There’s a link here to a detailed explanation of the Chushingura story, but the bones of the tale are straightforward. In 1701, Lord Asano of Ako was insulted in the Shogun’s Palace by a minor official, Lord Kira ( known as Moronao in the kabuki drama). On drawing his sword and inflicting a minor injury, he was obliged by law to take his own life. His considerable lands were forfeit and his retainers (samurai) were made Ronin – leaderless. Over the next two years, 47 of these Ronin plotted and schemed in great secrecy to revenge their master. They did so in 1703, launching a night attack on Kira’s compound, killing him and many of his own retainers. None of the Ronin lost their lives. The 47 took Kira’s head and laid it on their master’s grave before turning themselves in, at which point they were ordered to take their own lives. Their graves are revered to this day and over 100 plays and novels have been written about them including Hollywood movies. David Weinberg in his book on Kuniyoshi’s huge series writes:
The nation, stunned by the decision of the shogun to punish the ronin, identified with their heroism. Something fundamental in the character and spirit of of the culture had suddenly and dramatically been expressed by these warriors. An event occurred in the history of this people, and the result has been an endless stream of artistic and cultural re-enactment.
One would imagine that Kuniyoshi – the great artist of the musha-e (the warrior portrait) – would portray these heroes fighting against insurmountable odds… clashing blades, ferocious grimaces, blood curdling encounters in the dark and so on. In fact the reverse is true. The great warriors are pictured in diffident poses – standing, seated or kneeling and always on their own on the page. There are no enemy combatants pictured and the other devices in the pictures are the paraphernalia of domestic life: a fireplace, a curtain, a mirror, a paper screen and so on. In sheet 8, Yukukawa Sampei is seen warding off a paper lantern with his sword. His pose is classical and martial and yet his fighting stance – all samurai bravura – is undermined by the nearly comical assault of such a flimsy domestic object. In sheet 23, Katsuta Shinemon is seen holding a lantern but pursued by a dog… however, the dog here is not a guard dog, fangs bared and ready to attack, but a toy dog, its domestic childishness emphasised by a decorative silk ruff at its neck. These sheets are not just illustrations. The accompanying text is long and descriptive and is written in an authoritative, journalistic style. What it describes though is a familiar story: angry men, well armed and organised, storming a palace – a domestic space. Here is the description from the sheet with the small dog:
The shouts and crashes and noises of entrance at the back gate fell like thunder in the house, and panic-stricken occupants ran about in their underclothes. A child and its nurse screamed. Some crawled under the verandah… The attackers saw none of this but struck against those that opposed them.
This diffidence and awkwardness among Kuniyoshi’s raiders reminds me of the many recent images of rebellious mobs storming the grandiose palaces of dictators from Ukraine to Libya, from Baghdad to Cairo. I think that Kuniyoshi here is dealing with something universal and very complex. The prints from this series are to my mind about the embarrassment of victory, about the mundanity of death and the tragic collision of the weapons of destruction and killing, against the pleasantness of the domestic. Kuniyoshi was not afraid of picturing the realities of death and mutilation; his vital series of Suikoden heroes shows each warrior, again pictured on a single sheet, braving assault by demons, soldiers, arrows, snakes and dragons. But this series of Ronin pictures, to my mind represents something universal and infinitely more subtle, and plays out scenes that are by now familiar from news pictures of drably luxurious villas invaded by heavily armed and righteous freedom fighters. The sentiment is the same, as is the at least nominally honourable impulse; and yet the outcome of so much violence against a backdrop of household objects is in the end dispiriting and banal.
The fate of Kira is well attested. He attempted to escape the attack, hiding in his nightclothes in a dark and filthy charcoal shed. He was discovered, dragged ignominiously before the ronin and beheaded before his body was mutilated by each of the rebels. The scene at the end of act XI of the dramatised version of events is often pictured. Kira (Moronao) pleads for his life, a miserable old man facing a certain and brutal death. Again, the pictures of the defeated Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gadaffi being dragged by the mob from equally ignominious holes before their execution have many of the same depressingly familiar shades… the awfulness of their crimes and the tawdry, drab way in which their lives are ended. There is precious little that is hopeful or life affirming in the portrayal of these events. Kuniyoshi I think, bravely sets about picturing the complexity of victory over a dishonoured and yet essentially helpless foe. Our own equivocation at the sight of the dangling and mutilated corpse of a dictator or his cronies perhaps needs someone like Kuniyoshi to contextualise our natural feelings of despair.