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John Allyn here presents for English language audiences one of the most oft-told episodes in Japanese history.  In March 1701, Lord Asano of Ako, having been summoned before the Shogun in Edo (modern Tokyo), was provoked into attacking a corrupt official, Kira, the Shogun's Master of Ceremonies.  Asano was forced to commit seppuku, ritual suicide, and his lands were forfeit.  His death left his samurai masterless, or ronin , but when they learned that Kira had survived his wounds they determined to avenge Asano, following the Confucian edict that :

    [N]o man may live under the same sky with the murderer of his lord.

After biding their time until Kira was in an exposed position--no longer protected by the Shogun's forces--forty seven of Asano's former samurai attacked his castle (December 14, 1702) and killed him, despite the almost certain death their actions were likely to bring :

    [S]ome people live all their lives without knowing which path is right.  They're buffeted by this
    wind or that and never really know where they're going.  That's largely the fate of the
    commoners--those who have no choice over their destiny.  For those of us born as samurai, life is
    something else.  We know the path of duty and we follow it without question.

Their action proved so popular that the Shogun allowed the forty seven to commit seppuku rather than be executed as criminals.  Their gravesite, at Sengaku-ji Temple, remains a national shrine; the story is a staple of Japanese theater under the title Chushingura; and there are several film versions, including one which was used as WWII propaganda by the government.

In Allyn's capable retelling, the story is brisk and thrilling, with a minimum of extraneous philosophizing or psychoanalyzing.  The action, though terrible, takes on a logic of its own, as the ronin seek to redeem their master and preserve their own obligations of honor, loyalty, and duty.  The tale and its continuing resonance reveals much that is admirable, but also unfortunate, about the Japanese character.  You can't help but admire the devotion with which they adhere to their moral code, but at the same time there is something chilling about the automatic, unthinking nature of their actions and the degree to which they are influenced by external factors, like how others will judge them, rather than by internal ethical considerations.  Most disturbing though is the question of whether this loyalty is a one way street, or whether the masters would be similarly willing to sacrifice themselves for their underlings, and whether each samurai would so sacrifice himself for a mere comrade.

Obedience, particularly blind obedience, be it to a man or to a code of conduct, is a very dangerous trait for any culture to glorify, both because it absolves the obedient of moral responsibility and because it stifles innovative thought.  The same qualities which seem so laudable here and which have made Japan a homogenous, orderly, productive, and nonlitigious society, have also made it susceptible to authoritarian government, overt and covert racism, industrial cronyism, economic stagnation, and have contributed to a culture that is simply not very creative and tends to be too inflexible for its own good.

As a pure novel of adventure, the book is terrific and the insight the story provides into the Japanese character is invaluable.  Both the book and two movie versions of the story, 47 Ronin and Chushingura, are well worth tracking down.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A-)

  

Websites:

See also:

Asian Literature
Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "Chushingura"
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "ronin"
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "samurai"
    -Bushidô: The Way of the Warrior
    -HISTORY OF THE SAMURAI: Warrior Class of Japan  (Valerie S. Sestir)
    -ESSAY : Introduction to Kanadehon Chûshingura  (Paul Kennelly)
    -ESSAY : RETHINKING THE STORY OF THE 47 RONIN: CHÛSHINGURA IN THE 1980S
(Henry D. Smith II, Prepared for the Modern Japan Seminar, Columbia University, April 13, 1990)
    -ESSAY : Zen and the Art of Divebombing, or The Dark Side of the Tao ( Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D.)
    -ESSAY : Chushingura: Revenge of the 47 Samurai (Alan Atkinson, Spencer Museum of Art)
    -ESSAY : The True Story Of The 47 Ronin
    -ESSAY : Tale of the 47 Ronin
    -ESSAY : The 47 Ronin
    -ESSAY : Chushingura : Heroes from the past smite the woes of today  (William Wetherall, Far Eastern Economic Review, 6 March 1986)
    -ARTWORK : The 47 Ronin gather for their dawn raid on the mansion of Kira to avenge their late
 master.  (Source: Harry Cook, Samurai: The Story of a Warrior Tradition, 1993)
    -ARTWORK : Chushingura: Revenge of the 47 Samurai  (Spencer Museum of Art)
    -ARTWORK :  Kataoka Gengoemon (The IGS Art Gallery (Chrysanthemum))

FILM :
    -INFO : Genroku chushingura (1941) (Imdb)
    -BUY IT : The 47 Ronin, Parts 1 & 2 (1941) DVD (amazon.com)
    -PROFILE : The World of Keni Mizoguchi  (GARY MORRIS, Bright Lights Film Journal)
    -Keni Mizoguchi  (Strictly Film School)
    -REVIEW : Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Loyal 47 Ronin : The great director’s legendary version of Chushingura finally available in a sparkling DVD transfer (GARY MORRIS, Bright Lights Film Journal)
    -REVIEW : of The 47 Ronin, Parts 1 & 2 (Media Screen)
    -REVIEW : The 47 Ronin, 1941 (Kenji Mizoguchi) (DVD Beaver)
    -INFO : Chushingura (1962) (Imdb.com)
    -BUY IT : Chushingura (1962) DVD (Amazon.com)
    -REVIEW : of Chushingura (The 47 Loyal Samurai) (1962) (Digitally Obsessed)
    -REVIEW : of Chushingura  (DVD Savant)
    -REVIEW : of Chushingura (Branislav L. Slantchev)
    -EPISODE GUIDE : NHK’s 1999 Taiga Drama “Genroku Chushingura” (KIKU TV)

GENERAL :
      -Film Page:  Japan on Film (University of Michigan)
    -ESSAY: The Social Contradictions of Japanese Capitalism: The economic woes of Asia have been much written about -- in purely economic terms. But behind many of those woes lies a social crisis in Japan, whose modern young people inhabit a pre-modern society. It is a crisis that perhaps only a social revolution can resolve. (Murray Sayle, The Atlantic)

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