What does Keanu Reeves have to do with the famous Japanese legend of the 47 Ronin? Everything. He has everything to do with it. Hitting the big screens Christmas day 2013, a movie by the title of “47 Ronin” promises to dazzle and impress. But will it deliver? The original (and true) story sure does. But how closely will this movie stay to the original legend of the 47 Ronin? Wait, what is their story, anyway?
47 Ronin 2013
Judging from the trailer, this movie could either be pretty awesome, or a cheesy and lame disappointment. Judging from the fact that it has two of my favorite Japanese actors in it (Tadanobu Asano and Hiroyuki Sanada), my hopes are higher than normal for this film. Plus Keanu Reeves ain’t too bad either. He’s just inherently entertaining to me. “Whoa!”
Regardless of whether or not this is your first exposure to the story of the 47 Ronin, you can probably guess that the movie isn’t going to be telling the story exactly as it happened. Historians are pretty sure that demons and beastly creatures were not involved in this 18th century tale.
So what is the true story of the 47 Ronin? Well, thanks to my studying Japanese classics in college (and using the internet to refresh my memory) I am fully capable of guiding you through this classic Japanese tale in the most entertaining of ways. Let’s continue.
Fictionalized accounts of the 47 Ronin are known as Chushingura. In fact, it’s one of the most well known historical events in Japan. The original tale took place at the start of the 18th century and is considered a famous example of samurai bushido, honor, and revenge.
But the basic story that all Chushingura is based on tells the tale of a group of samurai who were left leaderless (thus becoming ronin, aka samurai without masters) after their lord, Asano Naganori, was ordered to commit suicide. Asano was ordered to do this after assaulting a court official named Kira Yoshinaka.
After waiting and planning for almost two years, the ronin avenged their master’s honor by assassinating Kira. But since the ronin committed the crime of murder by killing Kira, they were also obligated to commit suicide. Since then the story has been told and retold, embodying the Japanese ideals of loyalty, sacrifice, persistence, and honor.
The Chushingura that spawned from this tale took many forms, including kabuki and bunraku. Because of early censorship laws which forbade portrayal of current events, the names of the characters from the tale were changed. Everybody knew who they were talking about though, so this was kind of silly.
The story is still very popular today, and every December 14, Sengakuji Temple holds a festival commemorating the event. All of the stories and plays and movies I’ve seen concerning the story really don’t do it justice in my opinion though. Since the Keanu Reeves movie is going to stray very far from the truth, I know that it won’t really do it true justice either. So below, I’ve laid out the real story as we know it in a concise and easily digestible manner.
Gimme the Deets
Everything up to this now was just the basics. If you only wanted to familiarize yourself with the big picture, the above info will suffice. From this point I’ll be explaining more details as to the happenings of the 47 Ronin. If you don’t care about all the exciting details, feel free to skip right to the end and just leave a comment about the movie. I wouldn’t encourage that though, because this story is actually really cool and totally worth reading.
Okay, so we have two guys – Asano and Kamei. Asano is a daimyo, and Kamei is a lord. They’re hanging out with this Kira guy who is a powerful Edo official, i.e. above both of them. Kira was supposed to teach Asano and Kamei proper court etiquette but was kind of being an asshat about it. He allegedly became upset with them because they did not offer good enough gifts to him / did not bribe him sufficiently.
Others think that Kira treated them poorly, insulted them, or just flat out failed to teach them properly, but the general consensus was that Kira was being super lousy and offended both Asano and Kamei.
Asano was being all level headed and taking this in stride, but Kamei was pretty pissed off up to the point where he was planning to kill Kira. Kamei’s counselors took notice of this and quickly offered Kira a large bribe which then prompted Kira to be much nicer to Kamei, and Kamei changed his mind about wanting to murder Kira to death. Slicing averted. Whew.
Asano on the other hand was still getting pooped on by Kira at every turn, even more so now that Kamei’s camp had offered up a bribe whereas Asano had done no such thing. The last straw was when Kira straight up insulted Asano, calling him a “country boar with no manners.” Asano lost his composure and attacked Kira with a dagger.
In Edo castle, doing so much as just drawing a weapon was strictly forbidden, so actually attacking somebody like this was unheard of. Asano struck out once, causing a small wound to Kira’s face, then struck again, missing and hitting a pillar.
Kira’s wound wasn’t serious at all, but still, he was pretty ticked off. Therefore Asano was ordered to kill himself, his goods and lands were to be confiscated, and his retainers were made to be ronin. Womp wommmp.
The Ronin’s Revenge Plan Forms
Originally Asano had somewhere around 300 some men, but only 47 refused to let this transgression go unpunished. They banded together and vowed to avenge their master’s death, even though revenge was strictly prohibited in a case such as this. They knew they would be punished severely for doing anything to harm Kira, but they had their master’s honor to avenge, so they didn’t care.
The leader of these ronin was known as Oishi. Oishi really thought the whole situation through, and he had a pretty good plan laid out for revenge. Immediately after Asano was forced to commit suicide was when Kira was most afraid of backlash from the now masterless retainers. Knowing this, Oishi just started going to brothels and taverns, getting wasted and acting as though he just didn’t give a crap about anyone or anything.
Oishi knew he was being spied on by Kira’s men, so he even went so far as to divorce his wife of 20 years and send her away with the children. He did this so that no harm would come to them when the ronin finally took their revenge. Kind of sucks for his wife and kids, but at least they were safe.
Oishi started acting even more odd after this, whoring it up, getting trashed, and acting like a fool in public. This was all part of his plan to throw off Kira and his spies.
After about a year and a half of nothing happening, Kira was pretty confident that he was safe. Some of the ronin became workmen and merchants in Edo, gaining access to Kira’s house and getting a good feel for the place. One guy even married the daughter of the builder of the house just to obtain the house’s design plans. Talk about dedication.
The ronin eventually learned of a secret courtyard entrance. They broke into Kira’s house and killed any of his retainers that got in the way. Eventually they found Kira, and offered him a proposal.
Oishi was very calm and composed. He got down on his knees and respectfully addressed Kira. He told Kira who they were and what they had come to do. He said that Kira should die as a true samurai should – by killing himself. Oishi said that he would personally be Kira’s second, and even offered him the same dagger that Asano used to kill himself almost two years prior.
However, Kira was being a total coward. Kira refused to say anything and just crouched there, trembling in fear. Finally, Oishi and company just pinned Kira down and cut off his head with the dagger. The lesson we learned today is that you should always choose door number one.
The ronin then extinguished all the lamps and fires in the house, leaving with Kira’s head.
The story spread quickly, even as the ronin traveled to their lord’s grave ten kilometers away. Everyone was praising and cheering them on, some even going so far as to offer them refreshments on their way. Sounds like most everyone hated Kira just as much as they did.
At Asano’s grave, they cleaned up Kira’s head and set it down next to the dagger in front of the headstone. After offering prayers and giving the abbot of the temple all their remaining money, they turned themselves in.
The ronin had followed the precepts of bushido by avenging the death of their lord, but they had also defied the Shogunate by exacting a revenge which had been strictly prohibited. Also, an overwhelming amount of the general public was in support of what the ronin had done and even sent in petitions. The government wasn’t quite sure what to do with them.
In the end, the ronin were sentenced to death. They were given the honor of committing ritualistic suicide instead of being executed as criminals. Not exactly a happy compromise, but the ronin were sure they were going to die at the end of this anyway, so it’s about the best they could have hoped for.
Changes Brought About as Result
Not only did this act avenge their master’s death, but it also served to re-establish the Asanos’ lordship. Hundreds of samurai who served under Asano had been left jobless and were unable to find employment having served under a disgraced family. The revenge of the 47 Ronin unsullied the Asano name and many found employment again after the 47 Ronin ended their lives.
There are some critics of the 47 Ronin, though. Some do not believe they did everything the way that they should have. Some call it a good story of revenge, but not the best example of bushido. Regardless, I still think the story is pretty awesome and it’s one of the most entertaining Japanese classics I’ve ever run across, at least.
In the 47 Ronin film coming out this year, Keanu will be playing a made up character who was not present in the original tale. When the main character is made up, it’s a pretty good indicator of how not close to the original the story it will be. Tadanobu Asano is playing Kira, and Hiroyuki Sanada will be playing Oishi. I’m pretty excited for Sanada to be Oishi, but it kind of sucks that Tadanobu Asano got stuck being Kira the pompous ass. Oh well, still cool he’s in the movie.
So after reading the true tale, are you looking forward to Keanu’s version of the 47 Ronin? What about the actions of the 47 Ronin themselves? Justified? I mean, if they didn’t do all this we wouldn’t have so many plays, stories, and blockbuster Hollywood movies based on it!
Think of the sequel opportunities! Who else is thinking of an “Ocean’s 11” series sort of thing where we go “48 Ronin”, “49 Ronin”, and then the made-for-TV final sequel, the “49 and a Half Ronin” starring Charlie Sheen? Okay, maybe not. The whole cast would have to commit seppuku then, and then who would avenge them??