On this day in 1701, two feudal lords met. Asano was the weaker of the two and he was visiting Kira. Kira treated Asano very poorly for uncertain reasons. This led to Asano attacking Kira, wounding him slightly. However, to attack a feudal lord in his own home was consider the gravest of offenses, and Asano was forced to kill himself. This made all of his hundreds of retainers lose the title of samurai and become ronin. Forty-seven of these ronin plotted revenge against Kira, killing him exactly two years later. Then the 47 were allowed honorable deaths. That is the story of the 47 ronin. It is perhaps the most famous story in all of Japanese art, having been rendered in painting, literature, and theater. It’s been made in movie form countless times.
Given this, I had always assumed that it was just a myth, but it really happened. It is generally now seen as an act of honor, but certainly at the time, opinion was mixed. Ultimately, it is just a tale of revenge. “They raped our queen, so we raped their city, and we were right!” Even the story we have leaves it open to interpretation. It matters quite a lot if Kira had a good reason to be rude to Asano.
But it does show an amazing amount of loyalty. And for those who believe in hierarchy, the act is laudable at least on those grounds. And the attack was successful in the sense that it allowed Asano’s heir (his younger brother) to re-establish his feudal reign. And the other ronin were allowed their titles back (basically, allowed to make a decent living). Still, a lot of people died.
In the film Ronin, there is a wonderful scene in which the great French actor Michael Lonsdale tells the story of the 47 ronin. It is in the context of honor among thieves. Lonsdale’s character seems to know that Sam (Robert De Niro) works for the CIA. He is making the case that the ultimate master is not the employer but that sense of honor. Sam at least pretends not to understand, but then Sam is not a very interesting character. Ultimately, Lonsdale has nothing to worry about because Sam is an American Good Guy™. The story of the 47 ronin is much more complex, even if American screenwriters have begun playing with it.