Japan’s Most Legendary Samurai Tale—In Comics
Mike Richardson and Stan Sakai bring the ‘47 Ronin’ to life
The tale of the 47 ronin is one of Japan’s most treasured stories. It’s a story of honor, betrayal and revenge. Many consider it to be one of the best illustrations of the samurai honor code of bushido.
It’s often called “Japan’s national legend.” Retold for generations, the nucleus of the story is factual. Artists have recreated the tale in just about every medium in Japan, from puppet shows and stage theater to film and television.
Many Americans became familiar with the story through the 2013 American film 47 Ronin starring Keanu Reeves. This American version had a lot more vampires, magic and white people than most other versions of the story. It was a box-office flop.
But during the same year, Dark Horse Comics released a retelling of 47 Ronin as a comic mini-series written by the company’s founder and CEO Mike Richardson and illustrated by Stan Sakai, creator of the fan favorite samurai comic Usagi Yojimbo.
In 2014, Dark Horse released the mini-series as a graphic novel. Based on years of research, Richardson and Sakai’s take on the classic story is fun, informative and beautifully drawn.
The story is about a group of samurai who became leaderless after the death of their master Asano Naganori. In feudal Japan, a samurai without a leader was known as a “ronin”—translated into English meaning drifter or lost one.
Naganori’s death left the Asano clan’s warriors unemployed and dishonored. In response, 47 of the nobelman’s most loyal soldiers banded together to avenge their master’s death by dispensing justice on the man they held responsible—a court official named Kira Yoshinaka.
You can skip this section if you want to avoid spoilers — but after the first century or so, it’s pretty much fair game.
During a raid, the samurai killed Kira, and re-established the Asano clan’s honor. The ruling shogunate sentenced the men to death for killing a high official. But officials mitigated the sentence … because honor motivated the warriors’ actions.
The authorities gave the men the option of committing hari-kiri—ritual suicide—allowing them to die honorably as samurai. With the clan’s honor restored, the other Asano warriors could once again be samurai.
The 47 ronin are buried at Sengakuji Temple, where there’s a commemoration of the battle every December.
Richardson is fascinated with Japanese history, and samurais in particular.
He first heard the story of the 47 ronin while talking with a friend about samurai movies shortly after he founded Dark Horse in 1986. The publisher has since translated several Japanese mangas into English for an international audience.
Richardson pored through books and articles on the subject. He even made several visits the samurais’ graves at Sengakuji to burn incense.
During one of his visits to Japan, he spoke with Kazuo Koike, a famous manga writer. Koike encouraged Richardson to tell the story and offered to help consult. After several drafts and revisions, Richardson was ready to find an artist. He settled on longtime Dark Horse illustrator Stan Sakai.
Sakai—a Japanese American born in Kyoto—was drawn to his homeland’s culture and history. His art is heavily influenced by manga as well as traditional Japanese woodblock prints, and much of his stories draw heavily on Japanese themes and folklore.
Sakai’s illustration shines in telling the story. Enhanced by the coloring of Lovern Kindzierski—the art vividly recreates feudal Japan. The settings are beautifully rendered, capturing the architecture and landscapes of the era.
The simple but expressive character designs effectively convey the warriors’ rage, resolve and ferocity in battle. 47 Ronin is a worthy addition to the library of any fan of Japanese history, medieval warfare or comics.