Saturday, December 3, 2016

A New Wrinkle in The 47 Ronin Story

Fresh details emerge of the famed 47 ronin attack in Tokyo

The Asahi Shimbun  by JIRO OMURA/ Staff Writer  December 3, 2016

A document from a collection of copies of letters that the Nishi-Hongwanji in Kyoto sent to Tsukiji Hongwanji in Tokyo shows the word “ranshin” (lose one’s head), describing Asano Takuminokami’s sword attack on Kira Kozukenosuke on March 14, 1701. (Jiro Omura)

KYOTO--Historical documents have come to light that paint a fresh picture on a famed 18th-century tragedy centering on samurai loyalty, revenge and the 47 ronin.

The incident is celebrated in Japan in the form of a play titled “Chushingura” that continues to fascinate more than 300 years later.

The discovery by a research institute affiliated with Nishi-Hongwanji, a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, was announced Dec. 2. The records describe how Kira Kozukenosuke (1641-1702), the villain in the tale, was faring after he was attacked by a sword-wielding Asano Takuminokami (1667-1701) in a corridor of Edo Castle, the home of the Tokugawa Shogunate, in what is now Tokyo, and the site of the imperial palace.

The archives consist of copies of letters that an aide to the top monk at Nishi-Hongwanji, with whom Kozukenosuke had close ties, sent to Tsukiji Hongwanji, another Buddhist temple, in Tokyo.

According to the institute, the letters document reactions by the temples and Kozukenosuke's aides to the incident in the castle and the slaying of Kozukenosuke between Jan. 20, 1701, and Dec. 24, 1702.

On March 14, 1701, an enraged Takuminokami, the young lord of the Ako Domain in what is in today’s Hyogo Prefecture, struck Kozukenosuke, an official of the shogunate, with his sword. The two men had been on bad terms for a while.

Ukiyo-e depicting Asano Naganori's assault on Kira Yoshinaka in the Matsu no Ōrōka of Edo Castle 

The shogun immediately ordered Takuminokami to commit “seppuku” ritual suicide as punishment. His family was evicted from their castle in Ako and his retainers became “ronin,” or wandering samurai without a lord.

After laying low and plotting their revenge for months, 47 of these warriors staged a raid on Kozukenosuke’s residence in Tokyo. During the Dec. 14, 1702, attack, they cornered Kozukenosuke, decapitated him, and carried his head to Sengakuji temple in the capital, where they reported their deed before their lord’s gravestone. The ronin subsequently committed ritual seppuku suicide.

They were lauded as “devoted samurai,” and their loyalty has been the inspiration for many plays and TV dramas.

In a letter dated March 21, 1701, a week after the fateful incident, Nishi-Hongwanji asked Tsukiji Hongwanji to dispatch a messenger to Kozukenosuke to express sympathy, describing what happened at Edo Castle as “unexpected.”

Two of the Forty-Seven Ronin - Horibe Yahei and his adopted son, Horibe Yasubei. Yasubei is holding an ōtsuchi. 

An April 5 letter stated that the temple understood that Kozukenosuke’s injuries were “light” and that he had “no trouble eating.”

The monks were deeply interested in learning more about the initial attack that was to figure so much in Japanese history, ordering the Tokyo temple to flesh out rumors that were circulating at the time.

“We would like to know how Asano Takuminokami acted in such an insane manner, but few details are available,” the letter said.

In a letter dated Dec. 24, 1702, after Kozukenosuke was killed by the former retainers of Takuminokami, the temple referred to the raid as “astonishing and unspeakable.”

Naohiko Daiki, a senior researcher at the institute, called the letters “significant finds.”

“There is little documentation about the circumstances in the immediate aftermath of the sword attack at Edo Castle,” he said.

The letters, he added, reveal the keen interest people felt at the time in learning more about the incident.

Graves of the 47 Ronin at Sengaku-ji temple, Tokyo.
From: Wikipedia
The play has been made into a movie at least six times in Japan, the earliest starring Onoe Matsunosuke. The film's release date is questioned, but placed between 1910 and 1917. It has been aired on the Jidaigeki Senmon Channel (Japan) with accompanying benshi narration. In 1941, the Japanese military commissioned director Kenji Mizoguchi, who would later direct Ugetsu, to make Genroku Chūshingura. They wanted a ferocious morale booster based on the familiar rekishi geki ("historical drama") of The Loyal 47 Ronin. Instead, Mizoguchi chose for his source Mayama Chūshingura, a cerebral play dealing with the story. The film was a commercial failure, having been released in Japan one week before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese military and most audiences found the first part to be too serious, but the studio and Mizoguchi both regarded it as so important that Part Two was put into production, despite lukewarm reception to Part One. Renowned by postwar scholars lucky to have seen it in Japan, the film wasn't shown in America until the 1970s.
The 1962 film version directed by Hiroshi Inagaki, Chūshingura, is most familiar to Western audiences. In it, Toshiro Mifune appears in a supporting role as spearman Tawaraboshi Genba. Mifune was to revisit the story several times in his career. In 1971 he appeared in the 52-part television series Daichūshingura as Ōishi, while in 1978 he appeared as Lord Tsuchiya in the epic Swords of Vengeance (Ako-Jo danzetsu).

Chushingura - 1962 featuring Toshiro Mifune as as spearman Tawaraboshi Genba
Many Japanese television shows, including single programs, short series, single seasons, and even year-long series such as Daichūshingura and the more recent NHK Taiga drama Genroku Ryōran, recount the events of the Forty-seven Ronin. Among both films and television programs, some are quite faithful to the Chūshingura, while others incorporate unrelated material or alter details. In addition, gaiden dramatize events and characters not in the ChūshinguraKon Ichikawa directed another version in 1994. In 2004, Saito Mitsumasa directed a 9-episode mini-series starring Matsudaira Ken, who also starred in a 1999 49-episode TV series of the Chūshingura entitled Genroku Ryoran. In Hirokazu Koreeda's 2006 film Hana yori mo naho, the events of the Forty-seven Ronin story were used as backdrop, with one of the ronin being a neighbour of the protagonists.

Hana - 2006 “Hana” is also sub-titled as “The Tale of a Reluctant Samurai”, which completely describes the main story of the movie, mostly presented in a comedic and humorous way, with very light demonstrations of emotion, contradicting the usual heavy setting Koreeda usually presents. I’d classify this movie as a comedy-drama, and Koreeda’s first and only major comedy-drama, proving his technical polyvalence, never ignoring his roots fiction-wise. The action takes place in the 18th century. Aoki Sozaemon was sent by his clan from Matsumoto to Edo to avenge his own father’s death.

After a long search, he eventually finds the culprit and now has to decide whether or not to kill him. The comedic side of the story is mainly brought by the eccentric characters living in the slum where our young samurai lives. Meanwhile, Aoki learns the value of life, not only with his neighbors, but also with Osae and her son, learning the value of family and its importance to one’s life that will eventually help him decide whether to avenge his father. Another comedic moment is the reluctance of a group of samurai in attacking their target, marking this situation as another factor and creator of humorous moments.

The movie was actually released at a strange time for Koreeda. In 2004 he released his masterpiece, “Nobody Knows”, and in 2008 he would release “Still Walking”. Both movies have drama and heavy emotional settings that brought immense value to his filmography. This proves his diversity of genres, and despite his inclination toward sentimental movies, Koreeda is still quite capable of introducing different surroundings, such a samurai movie, with awkward and eccentric characters as main attractions for this movie’s comedic moments.Superb, and available at for about 8 bucks

Most recently, it was made into a 2013 American movie, titled 47 Ronin, released on December 25, 2013, and then again into a more stylized version titled Last Knights, released April 3, 2015.

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