Wednesday, October 14, 2015

YALSA top ten GNs 2015: 47 Ronin

47 Ronin
Written by Mike Richardson. Illustrated by Stan Sakai.
Published by Dark Horse (2014).

Hey! Now I've read all of the 2015 top ten GNs! Of course I've only reviewed half of them, but that's because I'd read the other five before the YALSA list was announced.

I started this project (long ago) because I was looking at a list of YALSA top ten graphic novels (for 2013 I think) and realized I hadn't read any of them. As someone who reads a lot of comics, and who intends to work in libraries, that kind of bothered me. Shouldn't I have read these? Or at least know what the are?

So my initial goal was just to read all of the YALSA top ten graphic novels (or at least all of the ones I could find), and I read a bunch! But then I realized it might be a better project if I also reviewed them. That would help me figure out what made a good graphic novel for these lists (and for library collections).

Of course, it really shouldn't have taken this long (I think I've average 1.5 reviews a month since I started), but I guess I'm a huge slacker. Still, it's nice to have something to force me to write stuff other than Two Fisted Librarians.

The story of the forty-seven ronin is one that is well known in Japan. It's based on a real event that happened in the 18th century (here's the Wikipedia page) that has been adapted into various media multiple times, and shows the complete and utter insanity and stupidity of codes of honour.

Lord Asano is summoned to the shogun's court in the capital. He journeys there, but before he can begin his duties he has to learn proper court etiquette. He's taught by Kira, a court official, who while a good teacher, is also pretty corrupt. He demands a bribe from Asano, but Asano refuses to pay. Kira then begins to act in ways so as to lead to Asano appearing foolish in front of others. He doesn't tell him that meeting places have been changed, he claims to have given different instructions than he actually gave, and he finally just insults him in front of other people. Asano manages to keep his cool for a while, but eventually  is driven too far and freaks out, attacking Kira with his sword.

Now, the attacking might have been justified, but apparently drawing your sword in the shogun's palace for any reason is punishable by death. There is a overly quick investigation into the incident, Asano commits ritual suicide, and his holdings are seized by the government. The samurai who worked for Asano want revenge, but are convinced by Oshi (who had been Asano's right-hand man) to wait until the right moment to strike.

[Spoilers follow.]

After a couple of years they accomplish their goal after some misdirection (pretending to be drunken idiots, etc.) and kill Kira. Then all 47 of them surrender, and they are given the option to die an honorable death and commit ritual suicide. As interesting a historical story this may be, it really just indicates to me how completely and utterly insane Japanese culture was (and is?).

The idea that because of committing a "shameful" act you should kill yourself is stupid. But I can't say "these characters act like idiots so this is a bad book" because these are events that actually happened. The story is well told, and all of the relevant details appear to be included (though I'm not sure how much people with absolutely no knowledge of 18th century Japanese culture would have trouble understanding).

The real important part of this comic is the artwork, by Stan Sakai. Sakai is best known for his creation Usagi Yojimbo, a samurai rabbit character that he's been creating adventures for since 1984(!). He's written and drawn more than 200 issues of Usagi Yojimbo, but 47 Ronin is (by far) the longest project he's ever drawn that he didn't also write. If you're familiar with Usagi Yojimbo you'll know that Sakai is really good at drawing cartoon animals having samurai adventures. In fact, it's kind of weird seeing him drawn humans in this story, but it doesn't take away from the quality of the artwork.

Sakai's art is never going to be mistaken for being incredibly realistic, but even with the lack of detail (people generally just have dots for eyes) what is there is capable of showing a lot of range. The facial expressions and body language in his characters is capable of conveying a lot of information, and their actions seem natural and not posed. Sakai has also clearly done a lot of research into the buildings, clothing, and events from this time period, and while I can't say it's all accurate, it definitely at least feels accurate to me.

The historical event this comic is based on is incredibly stupid, but this version of the story was clearly created with a lot of care, craftsmanship, and attention to detail. If you want to read a samurai comic that's not excessively bloody, this one is worth reading. Though really, I think I'd rather just read more Usagi Yojimbo.