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December 23, 2016

The Ako Incident and the Forty-Seven Loyal Retainers (Chushingura) in fact and fiction

As I wrote in my ´ŻÉrevious post about the seasonal events of December, the last month of the year is the season that traditionally the story of the Forty-Seven Ronin (also called Chushingura, "the Treasury of Loyal Retainers," after the title of the puppet drama) is performed in the puppet theater and the Kabuki, while on TV both older movie versions are shown as well as newly made TV films. Why December? Because the final act of the story took place on the 14th day of the 12th month of the year Genroku 15 according to the Japanese calendar (January 30, 1703, in the Gregorian calendar). It has become a typically Japanese year-end tradition like playing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in concert halls around the country. December 14 is also the day of the Gishisai or Festival of the Loyal Retainers at Sengakuji Temple in Tokyo - Sengakuji is the temple where they and (some years earlier) their lord were buried after committing seppuku. On December 14, many people visit their graves and also come to watch a parade of persons dressed up as these 47 loyal retainers. In Ako in Hyogo Prefecture, the location of the castle of Lord Asano, a similar parade is held on that date, as well as at the Oishi Shrine in Kyoto's Yamashina.

[Incense smoke billowing over the graves
of the 47 ronin in Sengakuji, Tokyo]

The story of the Forty-seven Loyal Ronin is based on a historical incident, but also has inspired countless fictional media, from kabuki and bunraku to film, theater, novels and manga. That means it has been snowed under by fictional elements and unfounded interpretations. Below I will first look at the facts as they stand; after that we will consider the fiction in the form of Bunraku / Kabuki plays and 20th c. movies.

The Facts
The Ako Incident (Ako Jiken) occurred when a band of forty-seven former retainers of Asano Naganori (1667-1701), the late lord of Ako (in Hyogo - see this post), led by chief retainer Oishi Yoshio / Kuranosuke (1659-1703), raided the residence of Kira Yoshinaka (1641-1703), a direct vassal of the Tokugawa shogun, and assassinated him.

The assassination originated in another incident. Asano Naganori had been in charge of ceremonies such as receiving delegates from the imperial court to Edo castle. In the course of that task, on the 14th day of the 3rd month of Genroku 14 (21 April, 1701, in the Gregorian calendar), he drew his sword and lightly wounded Kira, who was the shogunate's chief protocol officer and therefore Asano's superior. Drawing one's sword in the shogunal palace was a capital crime and Asano was ordered to commit seppuku within that same day. His domain was confiscated by the shogunate and his retainers were disbanded and became masterless samurai (ronin).

Back to 1703. After the assassination of Kira, forty-six of the samurai (one had been sent back to Ako before the actual attack) marched to the grave of Asano in Sengakuji temple where they presented the enemy head to the last resting place of their lord. They also notified the shogunate of their deed, awaiting arrest. It took the authorities six weeks of debate before coming up with the judgement that the samurai were to be sentenced to death by seppuku. Thus they committed ritual suicide in March 1703, all forty-six, ranging in age from 15 to 77. Later their ashes were buried in the small graveyard of Sengakuji, next to those of their lord.

[Corner of the graveyard for the 47 Ronin at Sengakuji, Tokyo]

Historical evidence about the incident is scarce. Why did Asano attack Kira in the first place? Why did the masterless samurai assassinate Kira? Why did they wait a year and half to do so?

The meagerness of facts has led to much speculation. Some seek the reason for the original feud between Asano and Kira in romantic competition about a woman; others in economic motifs (Ako was a small fief, but rich thanks to the salt industry), or again in psychological issues (Kira's purported arrogance). 

There is similar disagreement about the reason for the later attack on Kira's mansion. The modern popular view is that the Ako samurai were motivated by vengeance for the death of Asano, in line with "samurai duty." This is often linked with ahistorical concepts of Bushido - incorrectly, because "Bushido" was an invention from the late 19th century, by the philosopher Inoue Tetsujiro and others; around 1700, Bushido did not exist, the ideology of the samurai was Confucianism (I know this is against popular opinion, but please read the wonderful study Inventing the Way of the Samurai by Oleg Benesch if you still need to be convinced!). Moreover, the action by the Ako ronin was an anomaly: it was the only case in the long Edo-period of a lord being avenged by his retainers! Revenge killings (adauchi) occurred, but only in cases when the killing of a parent had gone unpunished - wholly in line with Confucianism. Confucianism does stress loyalty, but the most important virtue is filial piety, "loyalty to the own parents," rather then to the ruler. 

But even if lord-vassal vendettas had been the rule, the Ako Incident would not have fit the definition, because Kira did not kill Asano. Kira was merely the plaintiff in a case in which the shogunate condemned Asano to death. 

So rather than an exemplary manifestation of samurai behavior, the Ako Incident was unique and anomalous - and that is why it still continues to attract such a lot of interest. Various alternative motivations for the action of Oishi and his fellow ronin have been proposed. By the confiscation of the domain, the Ako retainers had lost their income and position, and perhaps they thought they could regain their former status by demonstrating their prowess via this martial deed. They may also have wanted to distinguish themselves in front of potential new employers. These views are supported by the fact that they did not immediately perform seppuku when offering Kira's head to the grave of their former master - they had no clear course of further action and seem to have waited for the reaction of society. And indeed, the reaction from the authorities took six weeks to formulate, so this was apparently not a clear-cut case.

[The grave of Oishi Kuranosuke]

Fiction - Popular Performance Arts
The uniqueness of the case and the mysterious motivations of its protagonists, soon made this story of the "Tormented Lord" and his "Loyal Retainers" extremely popular as fictional material, although the action had to be transposed back several centuries and the identities of its actors had to be hidden as commentaries and plays about contemporary events and persons were forbidden by the shogunate. Between 1706 and 1892 about seventy Kabuki and puppet plays were written about this hot subject. 

The most famous of these became Kanadehon Chushingura, "Kana practice book Treasury of the Loyal Retainers," an 11-act bunraku puppet play from 1748 (a Kabuki version of the same play also soon appeared; in Kabuki it became customary to perform just a few selected acts and not the whole work). The "kana practice book" in the title refers to the coincidence that the number of ronin matches the number of kana syllables. In this play, the personal relation between Oishi and his lord is the central element; he takes possession of the dagger used by Asano during his seppuku and this becomes his keepsake, almost a fetish; in the end he will plunge the weapon into his lord's enemy. Kanedehon Chushingura also made the loyalty of the retainers a central theme and as the shogunate saw this as a desirable virtue, they allowed the Forty-Seven Loyal Retainers to become popular heroes - in 1703, the historical retainers had rather been seen as a threat to the state as they had upset the order in Edo. The virtue of loyalty was thereby promoted among commoners - samurai, by the way, did not visit Kabuki or the puppet theater, their form of theater was the Noh.

[Graves of the rank and file of the retainers in Sengakuji]

In Kanadehon Chushingura the names of the protagonists have been changed and the story is transported several centuries back. Asano Naganori becomes Enya Hangan, Kira Yoshinaka becomes Ko no Morono and Oishi Kuranosuke Oboshi Yuranosuke. The division of the story is as follows (note the generous addition of fictional elements):

Act I: The Hachiman Shrine (Introduction in which Ko no Morono tries to seduce the wife of Enya Hangan)
Act II: The Mansion of Wakanosuke (Wakanosuke, a colleague of Enya Hangan, wants to kill Morono but is prevented by his retainer)
Act III. The Pine Corridor (The taunted Enya Hangan attacks Ko no Morono)
Act IV: Enya Hangan's Seppuku (The seppuku scene; with his dying breath Enya Hangan asks Oboshi Yuranosuke to avenge his death)
Act V: Musket Shots on the Yamazaki Highway (Kanpei, a former retainer of Enya Hangan who wants to join the vendetta, by mistake shoots a robber and finds a purse with cash)
Act VI: Kanpei's Seppuku (Kanpei mistakenly thinks in the previous scene he has killed his father-in-law and commits suicide)
Act VII: The Ichiriki Teahouse (Yuranosuke pretends to be debauched by making fun in Kyoto's licensed quarter)
Act VIII: The Bride's Journey (Konami, the betrothed of Yuranosuke's son Rikiya, travels to Yamashina)
Act IX: The Retreat at Yamashina (Yuranosuke's wife is against the marriage of her son with Konami, but relents when Konami's father Honzo commits suicide to atone for his act of restraining Enya Hangan in the past)
Act X: The House of Amakawaya Gihei (The ronin test the trustworthiness of Gihei, a Sakai merchant who will transport their weapons to Edo)
Act XI: The Attack on Morono's Mansion (The assassination of Morono, whose head is then carried to Hangan's grave)

Certain elements of this Bunraku / Kabuki play became standard to the story; others proved more extraneous. Central were acts III, IV, VII, and XI.

[The well where the Ronin washed Kira's head at Sengakuji, Tokyo]

In the 19th c. the story of the Forty-Seven Loyal Retainers also was taken up by Kodan storytellers. Kodan evolved out of lectures on historical topics given to high-ranking nobles and samurai. Because of these origins it is usually performed sitting behind a lectern, and using wooden clappers or a fan to mark the rhythm of the recitation. In the Edo-period it became a popular form of entertainment. Kodan storytellers were mainly responsible for further developing the character of Lord Asano. He was turned into a sincere and pure youth (reason why in later films he is usually clothed in light blue), who suffers various humiliations because he refuses to give his mentor Kira a bribe. While in Kanadehon Chushingura Kira's lust for Asano's wife had been the impetus of the tragedy, the role of women became rather insignificant in the Kodan versions of the story and the theme of loyalty among men was further emphasized.   

That submissiveness became even more important in another genre which came up at the beginning of the 20th c., rokyoku or naniwabushi, a form of storytelling with shamisen accompaniment, often about sad subjects. All romantic interludes were cut and complete loyalty was stressed. This also fit the atmosphere after the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, when feudal loyalty was associated with loyalty toward the emperor. 

[Souvenir shop selling replicas of the drum used to sound the attack at Kira's mansion]

Fiction - The Movies
This is also the period when the first film versions of Chushingura were made, often combining episodes from Kabuki and Kodan. Chushingura films were generally box office hits, they served to propagate the ideal of loyalty and self-sacrifice on a massive scale. In total about 70 film versions of the story were made in the 20th c. (mainly between 1907 and 1962), plus about 30 TV versions.

The first Chushingura film based on a Kabuki play was made in 1907, and Japan's pioneer director Makino Shozo shot his first (of many) Chushingura films in 1910, with Japan's first star actor Onoe Matsunosuke in the main role, that of the leader of the 47 Ronin, Oishi Kuranosuke. The whole movie (including the sub-stories) consisted of 130 film rolls, so it rivaled the large films of D.W. Griffiths in length. This is the oldest surviving version of the story, and the oldest surviving print of any Japanese feature film. A completely static camera just films scene by scene from a performance of Onoe's Kabuki troupe. Onoe starred in at least eight other versions of Chushingura, but these were all lost. In contrast to naniwabushi, Makino Shozo tried to attract women viewers by drawing out the parting scene between Oishi and his wife. But "male bonding" remained paramount, as can be seen in the "tender parting looks" exchanged between Asano, on his way to seppuku, and one of his retainers in many later film versions.

Some of the more important prewar film adaptations were the 1928 version by Makino Shozo, called Jitsuroku Chushingura (A true record of Chushingura), made to celebrate the 50th birthday of the director (although the negatives were destroyed by a fire, about an hour of this film has been restored from existent prints); the 1934 Nikkatsu version with Okochi Denjiro as Oishi; and the 1938 Nikkatsu version with Bando Tsumasaburo as Oishi.

[Gate of Sengakuji, Tokyo]

Renewal in this period came from the popular novel, which had also picked up the 47 Ronin theme. The most famous of these was Ako Roshi or The Ronin from Ako by Osaragi Jiro from 1927. In line wth the liberal trend of the 1920s, Osaragi turned the loyalty of Oishi and his fellow retainers into anger at the injustice of their lord's death sentence, and interpreted the assassination of Kira as protest against a corrupt government. But also in nationalistic accounts of the story, it became common to describe Oishi's times as degenerate. And Osaragi's theme of upright men in corrupt times also appealed to rightists, who saw themselves in a similar position. Osaragi's novel, by the way, had much influence on Chushingura films from the 1950s and early 1960s. 

In 1934 another stage in the development of the 47 Ronin story was reached with the modern Kabuki play Genroku Chushingura by Mayama Seika ("Genroku" is the name of the period in which the incident took place). The author placed emphasis on historical accuracy and took for his central theme the fear of Oishi that his loyalty toward his dead lord could be construed as disloyalty toward the emperor (this theme was of course totally ahistorical, as the emperor in Kyoto did not play any role in the minds of samurai living around 1700). This was a new interpretation and one of the high points of the play is that Oishi is secretly told of the emperor's approval. Overjoyed, he is now determined to act on his decision. Heavily based on the naniwabushi version, Mayama in fact celebrated modern patriotism.

[Oishi's mansion in Banshu-Ako]

This modern Kabuki play became the basis of the film made in 1941 and 1942 by Mizoguchi Kenji. The film shows its wartime origin in its sober and grave dignity. On top of that, Mizoguchi left out the final vendetta in the snow, as well as the tormenting scenes between Kira and Asano, which were Kodan additions. But in this way Oishi's loyalty was made into something unconditional and impersonal, simply directed toward anyone in a higher position. This is most dramatically illustrated when Oishi bows in front of the ancestral altar of Asano and is shot by an overhead camera as if bowing for some kind of god. After the assassination of Kira, he bows in the same way for the proclamation allowing him to commit seppuku. In other words, what we see here is total submission to authority - Mizoguchi has given perfect expression to Japan's wartime ideology. The military had demanded this film from Shochiku because the studio had failed to make a sufficient number of "national policy films." This internalized, ideological version of the famous story, however, flopped at the box office as Mizoguchi had left out the fighting scenes people enjoyed most. Despite the monumental visuals (which have made the film posthumously famous), I find it rather boring and certainly not one of Mizoguchi's best films.

How did the story of the 47 Loyal Retainers fare in Japan's democratic, postwar period? The large number of films on this subject made between 1952 and 1962 demonstrates that, while very few postwar Japanese would support the feudal virtue of loyalty toward a superior, Oishi's devotion to his dead lord was still considered as appealing. Many of the films were based on Osaragi Jiro's novel, and the element of criticism of a corrupt government was strong.

During the Occupation period (1945-1952) feudal subjects had been forbidden in films, so immediately after Japan was free from foreign authority, a veritable flood of such subject matter was released in cinema houses around the country. The popularity of period films remained strong until the early 1960s, when the genre moved to TV and yakuza took the place of samurai on the big screen.

[A restored corner tower of Ako Castle]

Between 1952 and 1962 there were at least nine major productions of Chushingura films: four by the Toei studio, two by Daiei, two by Shochiku and one by Toho. As the Japanese knew this often repeated story by heart, most directors took a certain familiarity with the story-line for granted, although usually none of the famous scenes were entirely cut. In fact, the films made in this period are rather similar and also include literal remakes (sometimes by the same director and with the same group of actors).

Toei was a new studio especially set up to make period films. The company managed to gather many great period film actors under its umbrella and soon grew into the largest producer of films. It made the first film about the loyal retainers immediately after the ban on period films had been lifted, in March 1952 (Ako Castle (Akojo) by Hagiwara Ryo, with Kataoka Chiezo as both Asano and Oishi). The other Toei Chushingura movies were made by one and the same director: Matsuda Sadatsugu (1906-2003), a Toei genre director who was the son of pioneer director Makino Shozo and half-brother of the better-known director Makino Masahiro: in 1956 Ako Roshi (The Ako Retainers), based on the above mentioned "liberal" novel by Osaragi Jiro, with a screenplay by Shindo Kaneto; in 1959 Chushingura, and in 1961 a remake of Ako Roshi. Oishi was played either by Ichikawa Utaemon or Kataoka Chiezo.

In the 1956 version I especially like the scene where Ichikawa Utaemon is finally on the way to Edo for the vendetta; he hides his identity and pretends to be a certain "Tachibana Sakon." But to his consternation suddenly the real Tachibana Sakon appears in front of him (played by Kataoka Chiezo). The confrontation between the two great actors consists of a largely non-verbal "conversation," with as result that the real Tachibana Sakon clears the field to help Oishi.

[Ukiyoe depicting the assault of Asano on Kira
in the Great Pine Corridor of Edo Castle]

Daiei was known for its magnificent period films as Rashomon and Ugetsu, and also the lavish color film The Gate of Hell. The Daiei Chushingura version of 1958, with Watanabe Kunio as director, shines through the large number of actresses taking part (typical for Daiei), albeit in minor roles: Kyo Machiko as a spy on behalf of Kira; Yamamoto Fujiko as Asano's wife; Kogure Michiko as the top-class prostitute (Taiyu) Ukihashi; Awashima Chikage as Oishi's wife; and Wakao Ayako as Orin, a carpenter's daughter who obtains a map of Kira's mansion for the assassins. Hasegawa Kazuo played Oishi and Ichikawa Raizo Asano. A solid classical version that however looses a bit steam after the first 30 minutes. An interesting scene is when Oishi brings Ukihashi, his new "girlfriend" home and asks his surprised wife to kindly clear out of the premises - despicable behavior that is even too much for the Taiyu Ukihashi! But Oishi wanted to demonstrate that he was totally debauched and not anymore interested in vengeance.

The 1962 Chushingura version by Inagaki Hiroshi made for Toho is usually considered as the best of these classical postwar versions. It is a lavish adaptation in two parts (Hana no Maki, Yuki no Maki), with Matsumoto Kojiro as Oishi. Sets and scenery are gorgeous. Lord Asano is presented as the incarnation of sincerity. The film pays much attention to the detailed political dealings between the very large group of characters, sometimes dropping the pace to a crawl, but ends with a riveting, climactic battle scene. Hara Setsuko played her last film role here, as the wife of Oishi. Among the all-star cast was also Mifune Toshiro, for whom a new subplot had been devised.

[Ukiyoe version by Yoshitoshi of the attack on Kira's mansion]

After 1962, only two major films on the subject of Chushingura were made in the rest of the century, simply because the period drama had moved to the new medium of television. That is where many Chushingura adaptations saw the light of day, in fact until the present times. Some major productions are the NHK drama Ako Roshi from 1964 (with Hasegawa Kazuo as Oishi); Dai-Chushingura with Mifune Toshiro by Asahi TV; the same company's 1979 version called Ako Roshi with Nakamura Kinnosuke; and the 1990 Chushingura with Beat Takeshi by TBS, to name a few.

The two feature films - the only ones remarkable in the last five and half decades - are Akojo Danzetsu (The Fall of Ako Castle), by maverick yakuza film director Fukasaku Kinji (Toei, 1978), with Nakamura Kinnosuke (Oishi), Chiba Shinichi and Watase Tsunehiko; and Shijushichinin no shikaku or Forty-Seven Assassins made in 1994 by veteran director Ichiwaka Kon. Fukasaku's film sparkles in the mob scenes, like his Battles Without Honor and Humanity film series, but for the rest his treatment of the story is remarkably conservative. More interesting is the film by Ichikawa, featuring Takakura Ken as Oishi, and based on a novel by Ikemiya Shoichiro, which provided a fresh perspective on the old story. For example, it starts in medias res, the story of Asano's seppuku is told in flashbacks; Takakura Ken's Oishi is cool and stoic, in contrast to the emotional performances by Kataoka Chiezo or Hasegawa Kazuo; he falls in love with a young woman (Miyazawa Rie) who joins him while he is lying low in Yamashina and even bears his child (no playing around with geisha or taiyu here) - therefore Oishi is torn between a new beginning or a violent finale to his life; Asano is not taunted by Kira for private reasons, but becomes the victim of an economic power struggle with the strong Uesugi clan (more convincing); Kira has defended his mansion with ninja-like traps, what leads to a riveting fight scene. Is the last major film version also the best? Contrary to other critics who are generally more negative about this film (they find that it is too far removed from the classical story), it gets my vote - together with the classical Inagaki version.
Partly based on information from Archetypes in Japanese Film by Gregory Barrett and Inventing the Way of the Samurai by Oleg Benesch, as well as Japanese Classical Theater in Films by Keiko I. Macdonald.