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Examining yet another historical piece, Bellarius takes a look at the comic adaptation of 47 Ronin by Mike Richardson and Stan Sakai.
“A great adaptation of a famous tale made real by the fantastic talent behind the wheel.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
For those who’ve only heard of this though the recent film, no this has nothing to do with Keanu Reeves. It has no supernatural elements and no dragons. What an unfortunate number of people in cinemas don’t realise is that this is not some version of the Hobbit with samurai but a famous Japanese folk tale.
The story is famous for its involvement of bushido, symbolising the themes of loyalty and the importance of honour within feudal Japan. While there are many versions and variations of this tale, this being just one, they all share common elements: An incident in the Shogun’s Palace results in the death of Lord Asano, who is provoked into attacking the court official Kira Yoshinaka. Following him committing seppeku, his retainers soon depart and are disbanded, some such as Asano’s chief retainer Oishi falling into drunken disgrace. However, not all is at it seems, and many still loyal to Asano are playing a long game to achieve retribution…
The real problem with the 47 Ronin as a story is that, well, from a western perspective it makes very little sense. Looking at the original tale requires an understanding of bushido of this time and provides no obvious answer as to why Kira’s actions were seemingly ignored or the eventual end many of them meet by their own hand. This left the writers with the challenge of trying to remain loyal to the tale itself while making sure the reader keeps up with them. As such certain details are expanded upon and, while there are no lengthy descriptions outlining a reason behind certain actions, certain events are presented in a more understandable light. It’s not dumbed down so much as presented for someone who may not be familiar with the culture for when it is set.
These efforts to ensure the audience keeps up with the tale are most obvious surrounding the events leading up to Asano’s death and the decisions made. Kira’s actions make it clear why he was attacked and remain largely true to the core of the tale, giving reasons for why Asano would assault him. Other details however have been added or seemingly expanded upon such as the investigations into the incident to try and make it appear as if Kira had effectively escaped justice. It apparently isn’t enough that it is established that drawing a weapon and Asano did is a grave offense, but any investigation was also intentionally makings efforts to absolve Kira of any crime. On the one hand this may have been in some version of the tale, one I have not heard of, but on the other it just seems to have been something to try and mount tragedy to the story. As such while some elements work extremely well in helping some readers comprehend the story others seemed unnecessary.
Despite this, what can definitely be praised in their entirety is the depiction of Oishi’s planning in their efforts to gain revenge. The actual plan is not simply spoon fed to the reader and is allowed to evolve naturally. Known for his work on Star Wars: Crimson Empire, Mike Richardson especially has shown he knows how to tell a story of revenge and that is clear here. There is a degree of uncertainty to his approach so while you know how this tale will end, you are kept invested to know how they will eventually accomplish their final goal. You are not simply kept waiting for the predictable to finally happen and are allowed to fully enjoy the tale. The story might be a very old and very well-known story, but not once does that ever feel as if it is hindering the development of the plot.
Speaking of aged styles is the artistic talents of the famed Stan Sakai, who perfectly captures the exact look the book needed for this tale. Resembling certain artistic qualities of the time with their brilliant simplicity and minimalism, there is a sense of age on the paper which lends itself well to the tale. Each panel feels as if it has been done in part as an individual piece, utilising the reader’s eye to make the movements from one panel to the next. It’s an aspect often seen the artwork of certain people, Frank Miller being just one example, and here it feels as if you are looking at multiple depictions or recordings of events. Not a story from the book so much as a compiled series of artworks telling a single tale. This works surprisingly well, especially with the action, as it doesn’t become so obsessed with it as many comics are today. Showing just enough to make the bloodshed meaningful but primarily letting the drama give that meaning, not some showy set pieces.
If there is something to be criticised, truly criticised, it’s the handling of the final scene. The end to the story feels rushed and doesn’t offer too much in the way of closure. For all the build-up, with Kira dealt with, it only lasts two pages and makes the story feel as if it just came to a halt, not a suitable end. A slightly longer conclusion would have helped a few of the more under-developed ronin definitely feel more meaningful to the story. The handling of the fate of the narrator does help give a greater sense of closure in some respect, but even that seems oddly brief.
Having read though this, many aspects seem oddly reminiscent of I.N.J. Culbard’s adaptation of At The Mountains of Madness. It’s an effort to adapt a tale never intended for the medium to comic format and do the story justice while leaving it open to new readers. As such, while there are obvious flaws, it’s still a major accomplishment and proves to be a great tale, largely thanks to the devotion of the creative team behind it.
Give it a look if you’re not familiar with the story or want to introduce someone to the tale.
47 Ronin will be released on the 19th of February and can be found on Amazon.com