the (forty-)seven samurai (赤穂浪士)

During my vacations in Japan, I read the massive (1096p) book by Osaragi Jiro on the  Akō incident, with occidental title the 47 rōnins. Which I had bought in Paris before leaving. This is a romancized version of an historical event that took part in 1701 in the Genroku era. Where 47 rōnin (leaderless samurai) avenged the death of their former master Takumi no Kami ordered by the current Shôgun after Takumi no Kami stuck an official Kira Yoshinaka who had insulted him publicly. And were also condemned to commit sepuku. (As I suspected while reading the book, it was initially published in 1927-1928 as a series, which explains for its length.) This is a very famous story in the Japanese culture and there exist many versions in novels, plays, movies, one featuring the fabulous Toshirō Mifune (and another one commissioned by the Japanese military during WWII), and prints, including some by Hiroshige and Hokusai. Not only it is a great read, with a very classical style (in the French translation) and enough plots and subplots to deserve the 1096 pages!, but it also reflects [much more than in Yoshikawa’s Musashi] upon the transition from feudal to modern Japan, with the samurai class slowly dwindling out for the merchant class and a central administration. Which the central characters in the book mostly bemoan and hence praise the chivaleresque action of the 47 rōnins, fighting against superior forces, except for some who reflect on the uselessness of a warrior class (and go as far as assassinating random samurai). Interestingly, the conclusion of the real story, namely the suicide of the 47 rōnins, is not included in the book. Which links the head of the revenge to famous characters of the time, including a scholar anticipating the Meiji rise of Japanese nationalism by removing cultural and religious links to China, including the preeminence of Shintoism over Buddhism. The book is also the attention paid to seasons and gardens throughout, which is a feature I found in many Japanese books. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the story involves very few female central characters and, except for one spy, very passive roles.

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