Anime and the Forty-Seven Ronin

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While reading Paul Varley’s Japanese Culture I was struck by his account of the tale of the “Forty-Seven Ronin.” It shed new light on something that had been bothering me, the question of why the heroine of Fushigi Yugi keeps doing things that are so freaking stupid.

The story is based on actual historical events. On April 21, 1701 a minor nobleman named Naganori Asano, in attendance at the court of the Shogun in Edo, quarreled with a court official named Yoshinaka Kira, and wounded him with a sword. Drawing a weapon in the Shogun’s palace was an extremely serious offense, and Asano was ordered to commit seppuku (suicide by disembowelment.)

This left his retainers as masterless samurai or “ronin“, a miserable and disgraced state. Forty-seven of them got together to decide what to do. They were torn between the demands of loyalty and honor. Some argued that honor required them to avenge their master and themselves by killing Kira. Others argued that they should stay out of trouble and hope that the Shogun would allow Asano’s younger brother to inherit his estates, as he would have wanted.

Soon however they all became convinced that the brother would not be allowed to inherit, which left them with only one option. On December 14, 1702, after a long period of secret planning and preparation, they launched an early morning surprise attack on Kira’s mansion in Edo, overwhelming his guards and killing him. After leaving Kira’s head on their master’s tomb, they turned themselves in to the authorities.

The news caused a national sensation. After a century of peace, many people had become worried that the nation had become decadent and lost touch with the values that had made it great. The spectacle of 47 samurai willing to die for a point of honor seemed to affirm that traditional values still endured. In the face of a wave of popular enthusiasm the Shogun agreed to allow the ronin to die honorably by seppuku instead of being beheaded like common criminals.

The story spawned an entire genre of books, plays and puppet shows. In modern times it has inspired numerous movies and television series. It is probably the most famous story in Japanese popular culture. (An American movie starring Keanu Reeves is reportedly being negotiated.)

(No one knows for sure what, if anything, Kira actually did to provoke Asano’s assault. By some accounts he insulted Asano after Asano failed to give him a gift proportionate to his high office. However literary versions of the story invariably portray Kira as a monster who richly deserved death.)

However not everyone thought that the 47 ronin were praiseworthy. Tsunetomo Yamamoto, a noted commentator on proper samurai behavior, criticized them for taking almost two years to plot their revenge:

The way of revenge lies in simply forcing one’s way into a place and being cut down. There is no shame in this. By thinking you must complete the job you will run out of time. By considering things like how many men the enemy has, time piles up….No matter if the enemy has thousands of men, there is fulfillment in simply standing them off and being determined to cut them all down.

In this view personal honor trumps all other values and requires immediate action if it is lost. Since an honorable death in battle with wipe out any dishonor, actually succeeding in defeating your enemy is relatively unimportant. It should be noted that this represents an extreme view; traditionally most Japanese have regarded the 47 ronin as wholly admirable.

Shunsuke Tsurumi claimed that “If you study [the ronin story] long enough you will understand everything about the Japanese.” So does this give us any useful insights into the behavior of anime characters?

To some extent yes. Charging headlong into the enemy’s fortress, generally with little or no preparation, is a common motif in action/adventure anime. When they do things like that the heroes uphold the ancient values of the samurai.

However anime heroes are not perfect samurai. They never explicitly seek a noble death. They may do things that seem suicidal, but they do this with some sort of notion that the strength of their spirits and the purity of their hearts will protect them. Still, if they do end up dead, they die without regrets.

Although anime heroes certainly have a sense of honor, their primary value is loyalty. It is often explicitly stated that the hero fights to protect his friends and family, as if nothing else can justify violence. Fighting for abstract ideals is something a villain would do. Usually if the hero charges into the enemy’s stronghold it is to rescue a kidnapped friend.

Probably no other anime makes use of the “charge into the enemy castle” motif more often than Fushigi Yugi. Miaka does numerous variations of this over and over again, for reasons involving her deep sense of loyalty, her personal honor and her obsession with food. In this she embodies the highest values of the samurai. (Well, maybe not the food part.)

Wikipedia has a somewhat different take on the story here.