Alasdair Stuart writes;
The 47 Ronin are having a big year. The mammoth Keanu Reeves movie based on the story arrives at Christmas but first off, we have this graphic adaptation from Shambhala Publications. It’s adapted by Sean Michael Wilson and illustrated by Akiko Shimojima with letters by Ben Dickson. It’s also quietly rather impressive and takes a much, much different tone to what we’ve seen of the movie to date.
Wilson grounds the story and gives it context, opening with Asano and Kamei arriving at Edo Castle for instruction in the ways of the Court. Their teacher is Lord Kira and he’s aggressive, derisory and bullying from the outset. The two younger men grow closer as a result of their shared problem and their friendship is drawn with minimal but effective strokes. One is fiery and quick to anger. The other is serene and calm and only one of them will make it out of Edo Castle alive.
That death is the heart of the story and Wilson and Shimojima give it precisely the space and emotional weight it needs. They also take the interesting step of jumping forward in time a little. I’m unclear if the original versions of the story do this but here it works extremely well. We see their Lord’s death and then the story jumps to the plan already in motion, with Shimojima using a particularly nice campfire version of Twitter to show the discussion that led to the plan. With the decision made, the Ronin let themselves appear to be scattered. Some turn to drink and womanizing, others vanish, others take jobs as servants. All of them being a patient, two year march to the point where they have the information they need to exact revenge.
Where the book really shines is in how we see that revenge being built and carried out. These men surrender everything; their honor, their names, their families and do so not just willingly but happily. The original story is held up as an example of perseverance and discipline and it’s easy to see why. This level of dedication would be fanatical if it wasn’t presented so calmly.
That calm gives the book a tone unlike any other I’ve read this year. This isn’t a fight for glory or conquest, it’s a fight meant to redress a balance and the book never forgets that. The Ronin are hard working, courteous and respectful to the point of announcing their attack and assuring the local townspeople they have nothing to fear. There’s anger and brutality, certainly, but there’s also that ever present calm. It’s as heroic as it is unsettling and leads to some of the book’s best scenes. One Ronin letting his eldest in on the plan is a highlight, as is the scene where a Dojo owner discovers the truth about another one of the 47. That same calm also carries them, and the book, through to the only ending the story could ever have. It’s a victory, that much is certain, but that’s as much due to the 47 finally being able to rest as it is due to their martial prowess.
The 47 Ronin is a dignified telling of a dignified story. It’s violent when it needs to be, precise and calm when it’s called for and never once loses focus. This is a tightly focused, perfectly pitched retelling of the story and a perfect entry point for anyone coming to the story for the first time. The Keanu Reeves version may have all the spectacle, but this version has all the heart. It’s out in December from Shambhala Publications, priced $14.95 in the US and £12.99 in the UK.
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