Fidelity in Revenge

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Mase Chudayu Masa-aki takes aim

What great tale that comes to us through the fogged lens of history has not been inflated, top-heavy with embellishment? The Chushingura—the “Treasury of Loyal Retainers”—is perhaps the most famous of samurai narratives and requires no exaggeration.

In 1701, a young nobleman named Asano Naganori was slighted by an older nobleman named Kira Yoshinaka. It is impossible to say whether the quarrel began because Asano did not offer Kira a sufficient bribe or gift for teaching him court etiquette—perhaps the younger nobleman was offended by what he considered a corruption of Confucian ideals. Whatever the case, Asano struck Kira and wounded him on the forehead for his rudeness. It was well-known that it was a capital offense to draw a weapon within the Shogun’s palace and a harsh punishment was handed down: Asano would be forced to commit seppuku. Despite entreaties from those familiar with the two men (and the consensus that Kira probably deserved the comeuppance), the sentence stood. In holding with the conventions of the Tokugawa shogunate, the lands of Asano’s clan were dissolved after his death, and his retainers cast out as ronin, or “wave men.” One of the men, the sharp-witted Oishi Kuranosuke, gathered 46 of the retainers and agreed that they would not act hastily, but instead wait until they were assured victory. Many became tradesmen and monks, and in the case of Oishi, a convincing drunkard. The ruse worked: Kira’s spies reported that Asano’s men were not strong enough to take the expected action. But on a snowy night at the end of 1702, they took their vengeance, as well as Kira’s head, presenting it to their master’s grave in a final act of fealty. Upon turning themselves over to government officials, the men were afforded the final honor of committing seppuku as samurai rather than being condemned to execution as prisoners. Dramatic and literary versions of the Chushingura began to appear almost immediately after the men’s deaths in 1703. Bunraku and kabuki productions were extraordinarily popular, and the first silent films appeared with the advent of the medium in the early 20th century. Mizoguchi Kenji made his version of the story as a morale-booster in 1941 at the behest of the Japanese government. Inagaki Hiroshi (having made his trilogy of films on Miyamoto Musashi with Mifune Toshiro in the 50s) came out with his Chushingura in 1962. Keanu Reeves is linked with a production of The 47 Ronin slated for release in 2012. Artists were not immune from the draw of the tale. One of the great woodblock artists of the 19th century, Kuniyoshi Utagawa, revisited the series no less than eight times. Masterful in composition, bristling with action, his ronin defy the confines of their two-dimensional plane. If I sound excited, I have good reason, as our buyer has just procured a complete set of the Seichi gishu den (“Stories of the true loyalty of the faithful samurai”) printed around 1847-1848. According to B.W. Williams’ excellent study of Kuniyoshi’s warrior prints, “This is the earliest, and seems to have been the most popular, of Kuniyoshi’s series on the Forty-Seven Ronin.” It’s not unusual for the museum store to carry woodblock prints, but most have ranged from a few 1890s prints to those done anywhere from the 1920s-1970s (excluding the modern woodblock prints). The faithful samurai are off to the framers to get matted, so expect to see them in the windows of the store the first week of June.

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