It is no coincidence that ‘history’ ends with the word ‘story’; events from reality really do make the greatest tales. The 47 Ronin is precisely that. A novelized event from the Genroku era of Japanese history (late 17th-early 18th century), it is perhaps the greatest story of revenge ever told, not to mention one of the world’s great tragedies. A deep expression of loyalty, the lengths Oishi and his fellow ronin go to perform their duties defending the honor of their liege arouses a primal sense of emotion, the suffering and triumph unmatched. The men’s tombs standing to this day in Tokyo, the 200 years that have since passed have done nothing to diminish the power of this great story—true history.
The storyline of The 47 Ronin is particularly difficult to comment upon without spoiling major plot points, some of which occur at the very beginning. (For those not wishing to have the story spoiled, it is best not to read many reviews of the book; taking it all in with a clean slate is the biggest part of the enjoyment.) Suffice to say, the book has everything a highly entertaining and emotionally affective story should. Along with the aforementioned attributes, love, trickery, suspense, and sacrifice exist in such proportions as to make the reader doubt the veracity of the book as history. It should thus be noted that there are two versions of the story told: the romanticized version and that closer to the real history. John Allyn’s translation (the version being reviewed here) is of the former.
The timeline, characters, and settings of the romanticized version the same as the historical, the difference amounts mostly to tone. Purists will comment that details are altered, removed, or created, and yes it is true, however, the street-corner storyteller will tell you that it is well-timed and slight exaggerations combined with packaging the story in the language of novels that renders the romanticized version more engaging than the drier historical version. Kira, for example, while following the same historical path in each version, is nevertheless capable of producing more despicable comments and damning words in the romanticized version. Much like the two versions of China’s The Three Kingdoms, each have their advantages, and thus choosing between them is a matter of taste. (If the reader prefers something more historically accurate, versions of that story are also in print.)
While not necessary, a small amount of knowledge regarding traditional Japanese culture, particularly samurai codes of honor and propriety, would help the reader fully understand the sense of duty and propriety underlying the deeds and conduct of the daimyos, shoguns, samurais, sing-song girls, and peasants featured in The 47 Ronin. The translation clear and lucid, Allyn presents the story transparently enough that the mindset motivating what otherwise seems strange behavior to the Western mind can be implicitly understood, extrapolated from context. Though the cultural backdrop gives the story its depth, knowledge as such is not necessary, the bones of the story touching something more primeval in the human soul.
In the end, The 47 Ronin is one of the great tales of revenge, and given its cultural context, may be the greatest. (The number of film and television versions of the story in Japan is mindboggling.) That the story is taken from real history makes it all the more amazing—a thought that trails the reader like a shadow to the end. Though I have not read other translations of the story, Allyn’s version is accessible, well-paced, engaging, and balances nicely on the line between condescending to the reader’s knowledge of Japan and telling an exotic tale. The Tale of the Heike and The Tale of Genji may garner more attention from scholars, but The 47 Ronin is for everybody as beneath the culture, history, and samurai lore is a story that lives and breathes at all levels of humanity. Their monument standing still, Oishi and the 46 other ronin truly deserve a place in people’s hearts and history.