Graphic Novel Review: “The 47 Ronin” (2013) by Wilson & Shimojima

Front cover of THE 47 RONIN (2013) -- image source: Amazon (Fair Use asserted)

Front cover of THE 47 RONIN (2013) — image source: Amazon (Fair Use asserted)

The eighteenth-century Japanese historical account of the 47 ronin (samurai who have lost their master), which is a classic story in Japan, has had a resurgence of popularity in the West of late. In December of 2013, Keanu Reeves starred in a new American film adaptation of the story that did not go over well with either critics or fans. Praised for its relative fidelity to the historical facts, it was panned for being over-serious and therefore boring. However, any new movie about this topic is immediately at risk because of the instant comparisons with classic samurai films, such as Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. Moreover, there have been many Japanese stage and screen adaptations of the saga of the 47 ronin. According to Wikipedia, the story is also “one of the most popular themes in [Japanese] woodblock prints, or ukiyo-e, and many well-known artists have made prints portraying either the original events, scenes from the play, or the actors.”

Against the background of this history, Sean Michael Wilson, a Scottish author who lives in Japan, and Akiko Shimojima, a mangaka from Tokyo, have teamed up to produce a graphic novel version of the story, The 47 Ronin. Published by Shambhala in late 2013, it also features lettering by Ben Dickson.

Wilson’s general approach to the story is that of historical fiction. Staying close to the historical facts, he recounts the tale in a way that helps Western readers to understand early 18th century Japanese society and customs, especially the bushido code of the samurai. His writing also brings the historical figures to life, showing us their internal motivations and developing their relationships with each other. Unlike the 2013 American movie of the same name, Wilson does not take an over-serious approach; as a result, the story grabs the reader’s attention and sustains it to the end.

Shimojima’s illustrations, including Dickson’s lettering, are contemporary in style, but portray the eighteenth-century Japanese setting well. The covers are in color and the panels within are black and white. Given the subject of the novel, there are scenes of fighting and bloodshed, but the artwork is not especially gory, except in the ninth chapter, which includes a graphically-portrayed beheading which is nonetheless historically accurate. When sexual behavior is a part of the story-line, the artwork is subtle and tastefully done.

I read The 47 Ronin as a possible international text for young adult readers at the high school level. Although I think that a few parents might object to the violence, I believe that most would not. Students will not only be able to handle the subject matter, but will also enjoy reading this graphic novel. In the last chapter, the author includes information on the relevance of the story of the 47 ronin to contemporary Japanese society that complements the historical information in the preceding text. This feature makes The 47 Ronin a very entertaining way to learn about Japanese history and culture, whether or not the reader is a student.