Racists are right about at least one thing (how’s that for a controversial opening statement): Other cultures are weird. The part that they miss out on is that weird can still be incredibly fascinating and cool. 47 Ronin is a story that doesn’t entirely make sense to Western sensibilities and yet exposes the underlying humanity that transcends culture. And if you aren’t interested in that, it’s got them samurai swords. Lots of ‘em.
Previously in 47 Ronin: Typical fish-out-of-water hijinks ensue when Lord Asano was called to the Shogun’s palace and he encounters the complicated, Byzantine rules of court. Too proud to pay the necessary bribes, Asano is goaded into striking a court official, which is a major no-no, the penalty for which is ritual suicide. Ignorance of the law is no excuse.
“To know this story is to know Japan”
This is a comic version of Japan’s “National Legend” and has for an Editorial Consultant Kazou Koike, the author of Lone Wolf and Cub. Which is cool because it is totally Japanese… but… it also restricts the story because it has to follow the traditional tale strictly. This was a problem for me in the first issue. It was difficult for me to read because, even if you never heard of this story, you could see what was coming: Asano was going to commit a breach of etiquette that would condemn him, his family and his retainers. The pre-determined doom was painful for me to get through, but I also had problems watching the British version of The Office, so your mileage may vary.
That said, this issue does not have that problem. Now that Asano has committed the offense, the aftermath begins, which really sucked me into the story. This comic is split between Asano being sentenced and executed (not much of a spoiler) and his loyal retainers getting and reacting to the news. The storytelling is cinematic in the opposite way of the usual “Widescreen action” comics. The pacing is slow but meaningful. The comic doesn’t necessarily delve into each character’s deep, internal life, but you get the feeling that they each have depth.
Looking back at the seppuku scene (wanting to look away but unable), I realize that this comic is spoiler-proof. The Lord is unjustly condemned…his retainers bide their time then get their bloody revenge. There, I have told you everything that happens, and yet I have told you nothing about what is great about this book. The greatness is in the mastery of the execution. It is a simple story that is as complex as the people that make it up. If you’re like me (God help you) then you might need some perseverance to get started in the story, but that’s only because the storytelling is so effective. It pushes buttons and makes you feel things. Which, lest we forget, is why we tell stories in the first place.
TELL ME ABOUT THE RABBITS, GEORGE
The art is by Stan Sakai and it is perfect. If you are not familiar with Usagi Yojimbo, what’s wrong with you? And if you are, then this is finally proof that he can draw samurai that are not rabbits. The art is sparse but masterful. If you removed all the text you would still know the emotions (often subtle) going on in each character in each panel. With just a few lines, each face captures the inner life of the character, without being exaggerated or cartoony. It is the perfect choice for this story, capturing both the otherness of the time and place of the story and the commonalities that resonate between people of any nation.
THE BOTTOM LINE: You will believe a man can fly
I give 47 Ronin #2 five stars—the first time I have awarded such a rating. It is an ambitious book, aiming to tell a tale that encapsulates the essence of a culture to an audience of a different culture but it accomplishes that—bridging the cultural divide by embracing the characters’ vital humanity. One of the few books I will buy in the original issues and the eventual collection.
DID YOU READ THIS ISSUE? RATE IT!