Anniversary Post: the 47 Ronin

47 Ronin GravesOn 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.

11 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: the 47 Ronin

  1. And this is why I could never be a samurai…”fight for honor? That’s stupid. Oh wait, so that way that rich dude can have his land back? Weeeeeeellll, is he any better then the new guy?”

    Loyalty is probably why I would do it though. When you pledge to support someone, following through is important.

    • Zorg: I don’t like warriors. Too narrow-minded, no subtlety. And worse, they fight for hopeless causes. Honor? Huh! Honor’s killed millions of people, it hasn’t saved a single one.
      Gary Oldman in The Fifth Element.

    • It also helped out the other Ronin. But I don’t think the attack was meant to have practical effects. I think they just wanted revenge.

      • Revenge is all well and good I suppose but I don’t like it much outside of wanting it when I am driving. I read somewhere (I literally cannot remember where) that what most people get most upset over the longest is when someone annoys them while driving. Kids failed at school because they burnt it down? Oh well. Guy cuts you off at the intersection? HE MUST DIE.

        I really need to finish The Seven Samurai I was enjoying it then my internet died for a while and never got back to it. Oh wait, as a woman, not supposed to enjoy samurai films by law. Never mind!

        • It’s an amazing film. But I think you need to watch it a dozen times to figure most of it out. There’s so much going on. I tend not to watch the whole thing anymore — just the first half. I love when the rice is stolen and the young samurai drops the coins on the ground. It is wonderfully efficient filmmaking: he’s rich (which he suspected), he’s kind, and he really wants this experience with the Takashi Shimura character.

          But much more fun is Yojimbo and Sanjuro.

  2. I think it was in the movie “The Wild Bunch” where Ernest Borgnine made the point to William Holden that giving your word wasn’t important but who you gave it to. Going back on your word is OK if it was given to the wrong type of person.

    • Be careful. I hear from people that Muslim’s are allowed to lie to the infidel! Sam Peckinpah and Muhammad. That’d back for one badass cinematic duo.

    • Sure. Give it to a friend, that word is bond. Give it to a stupid movie studio executive, it’s like saying “yes, officer, I promise I’ll never smoke weed again.”

      The film critic Pauline Kael was opinionated, acerbic, and often made snap judgments she’d never go back on. She was also a great, perceptive writer, with a kind of insight into films and filmmakers that’s never been matched.

      And you can’t find anything but snippets of her work on the Web. So, to make a dollar or two every now and then, publishing companies own the rights to her work, and she’s gradually forgotten.

      She wrote beautifully about Peckinpah films, and about Peckinpah. Clearly, they were good friends, and she saw how so much of the phony machismo in his movies was really anger at stupid studio executives, and posturing over how an artist should fight for his vision against soulless nonentities.

      (She called him out for being the kind of mean drunk who could, out of frustration, bring a caring friend to tears, but she never stopped supporting his work.)

      Peckinpah’s amazing. Even if his films don’t emotionally satisfy, the way Sergio Leone’s do, there’s an anger which shines through and a love for the visceral power of the medium. (Leone had it, too, but for him the medium came first, the personal obsession with the story second. Which is probably why his films hold up better now.)

      It’s almost gone, now. Movies feel like advertisements to me, or resume ringers for some director to become the next art-house favorite. The last filmmakers working who seem to care about how strangely powerful the art form can be are Tarantino (whose range appears very limited) and an indie filmmaker, Kelly Reichardt. Reichardt’s movies are very much downers. Still, she uses editing/cinematography to create interest in a way only movies can do.

      It’s hard to explain. It’s what Kael called “a movie sense.” Spielberg has it. Scorsese has it. Many fine filmmakers don’t. It’s almost a lost skill.

      Perhaps of note, Tarantino thought Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff” was one of the worst movies he’d ever seen. And in a way, he’s right. Portions of it are borderline unwatchable, and the ending sucks. But it’s a MOVIE. It has that “film sense.” It’s not an intelligent TV show, it’s a movie.

      (Alfonso Cuaron has this “film sense,” too, but now he only makes movies every zillion years or so. Spielberg has stopped trying. Scorsese’s “Wolf Of Wall Street” was fun; it didn’t have the cinematic thrill of his earlier work, even as late as “Casino.”)

      Hard thing to quantify, and unimportant. Good TV is just as great as good movies. There’s a little mystery about “why do I feel this way watching this moment” which TV never has and a handful of movies do, but I’d trade one flawed “film sense” masterpiece, every few years, for lots of fun TV shows, all the time, any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

      But Peckinpah was pretty great.

  3. 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. Where is this information?

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