47 Ronin and 50,000 manga highlighted my trip to Japan last month. Our week in Tokyo began with a professional gathering featuring writer Sean Michael Wilson. His recent The 47 Ronin: A Graphic Novel (2013), illustrated by Akiko Shimojima, recounts a series of important, iconic events in Japanese history. Our next week in Kyoto began with a tour of the splendid Kyoto International Manga Museum, which makes 50,000 manga (out of its 300,000 archived materials) available to on-site readers. I am all smiles as I think about these experiences, and am very happy to ‘relive’ them with you here.
My husband Don Larsson and I joined members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators/Japan Chapter (SCBWI/Japan) in an evening of hands-on fun, working under Sean Wilson’s affable direction to produce our own, spontaneous two-page graphic mini-stories. But first we heard a bit about graphic novels in general, how Sean’s interest in the field began in his Scots boyhood, and how he works with illustrators to create a variety of graphic novels and manga. The conversation continued over a post-workshop meal, during which I was pleased to have my own copy of The 47 Ronin (brought all the way from the U.S.) personally inscribed by its author. As I toured historical sites and museums during the next weeks, I came to realize how central to Japanese culture the events and issues in this fine book are.
Honor and loyalty—valued above individual life—are at the heart of the 1701 C.E. events that for centuries have sparked Japanese plays, wood block prints, opera, movies, and television shows, as well as graphic novels. (In fact, Hollywood even recently produced its own glitzy, fantastic version of 47 Ronin, starring Keanu Reeves as a fictional action-adventure hero inserted into these historical events.) Simply put, in 1701 young Lord Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori stomached higher–ranked Lord Kira Kozuke-no-Sue Yoshinaka’s many insults until Asano felt his honor required him to strike Kira. Asano did this, even though he knew that this attack, committed in the imperial palace, was illegal and would require his own death. It would leave his family in peril and his loyal followers leaderless—no longer honored samurai warriors but wandering ronin (swordsmen). Kira survived Asano’s blow, but Asano suffered the expected consequences.
After Asano was arrested and committed seppuku (ritual suicide), 47 of his ronin followed the samurai code of honor, carefully planning an attack two years later on Kira to avenge their dead lord. They did this even though the loyal men knew that they too would forfeit their lives for this deed. Each year, the Buddhist Sengaku-ji Temple where Asano and his ronin are buried hosts a ceremony in honor of their righteous, self-sacrificing bravery. In fact, the day my husband and I visited their tombs and the small museum dedicated to them, we saw an elderly couple placing lit incense sticks in front of each of the 48 gravesites. This “national legend” still is vividly alive for some Japanese—and Wilson and Shimojima’s graphic novel is a fine tribute to its iconic status.
The book’s ten chapters, each introduced on a page featuring a samurai’s hand grasping his all-important sword, make effective use of many wordless pages in its crisply-paced retelling of historical events. Beginning panels range from long and mid-distance perspectives to close-ups on marching feet and a face to convey Lord Asano’s lengthy journey to the capital city of Edo (now Tokyo). Then, a double-page spread reveals the impressive size of his destination, identified as “Edo Castle!” Throughout the novel, illustrator Shimojima continues her deft touch with subtle but telling details: in one panel, a seated Asano, simmering with rage, clenches his fists with unspoken anger. Another extended, nearly-wordless sequence conveys the steps involved in Asano’s blood-drenched ritual suicide, completed by the “SwiiiShhh. .” and “FLIIISH” of a helper’s sword that then traditionally beheads the self-gutted, dying man.
Other wordless sections in which Wilson’s planning and Shimojima’s execution shine include a montage page depicting five different groups at one point in the ronins’ lengthy plotting of their revenge. We see ronin who have inserted themselves as workers and merchants near their target Kira’s home; Kira himself with two servants; the departing family of chief ronin Oishi Kuranosuke Yoshio, whom he has spurned to protect them; and—at the center—Oishi with his son, a teen who has seen through his father’s pretense and remained to join the avenging ronin. That planned attack, on a snowy winter night, also contains several very effective wordless sequences, examining the event from multiple perspectives. These include the blood spatter and spray as Kira’s guards are killed; an attacking archer’s overhead view of the guard he is about to shoot; and a close-up of Kira’s worried face when he hears the first suspicious noises.
Writer Wilson’s dialogue seamlessly intertwines with these images, propelling the action smoothly and clearly. From Kira’s first sarcastic, biting remarks to Asano to Kira’s frantic screeches when he realizes he is under attack, their tone reinforced by the angular word balloons in which they appear, Wilson effectively communicates Kira’s personality and character. We are not surprised when Kira, captured by the ronin, is too cowardly to accept their offer of an honorable death by suicide. The avenging ronin slay him. This graphic novel, unlike others about this iconic series of events, is the first to tell them with historical accuracy and balance. Wilson depicts the ronins’ disagreements about whether and when to slay Kira. To this day, there are still questions about whether it would have been more honorable to have immediately avenged Asano rather than wait as long as the 47 did. Yet Japanese admiration of their loyalty and honor remains paramount: the novel ends with a young family paying their respects at the Sengaku-ji tombsite—the one I saw being solemnly honored by that elderly couple during my own, more casual visit.
Kyoto’s delightful International Manga Museum may also be visited by the curious and the committed. Scholars and teachers may make serious use of its research library or ask to see some of the 250,000 manga stored underground, preserved in climate-controlled archives. (Kyota Seika University and the city of Kyoto sponsor the museum.) Casual visitors and manga fans may just take pleasure in the museum’s exhibits and its touchable “Wall of Manga”—shelves full of mostly paperback manga (from 1945 onward) that range across the three floors of this former junior high school. My own visit was a wonderful combination, as it began with a personal, professional tour generously provided by the museum’s public relations officer Hiroko Nakamura and also included a brief talk with university researcher Sookyung Yoo. I learned about the Genga’ (Dash) project, designed to digitally reproduce and thus preserve some important manga from the 1920s onward. I also learned how local school children and families as well as fans from around the globe make this museum a place humming with excitement and fun! I spent the next hour or two being one of those happy fans.
Rotating special exhibits may be the draw, or you may find readers heading straight for the separate floors devoted to boys, girls, and young adult manga. There are also shelves highlighting manga and graphic novels from around the world and a “best of the year” collection. If you stop in at the right times, you may be lucky enough to see and hear some ‘old-fashioned’ kamishibai (picture-story) storytelling, see manga artists at work, or have your own portrait drawn ‘manga-style.’ The “What is manga?” display in the main exhibition area is an excellent, thoughtfully detailed introduction (in both Japanese and English) to the subject.
Besides zooming in on the manga produced during important years in our lives, my husband and I particularly enjoyed two other features of Kyoto’s International Manga Museum. Its hallway walls are lined with pictures of maiko (apprentice geishas wearing traditional kimonos) drawn by 174 different manga artists. It was great fun to see how they had interpreted this ‘assignment,’ with results ranging from grumpy to silly to scary figures in kimonos. There was even a cat geisha there! Professional manga makers who visit the museum are also asked to have a plaster cast made of their dominant hand holding a pen or brush. Seeing these replicas showcased in waist-high glass cabinets was another sort of thrill. These small-scale delights were offset by another, gigantic one: a huge sculpture of a phoenix hanging in the museum’s atrium. The Phoenix is both a traditional symbol of Kyoto and a central character in a manga series by influential Japanese artist/author Tezuka Osamu. When we stood under that giant carved Phoenix, we were smiling hugely—as our photo shows!
Visiting Kyoto was a rare opportunity, but I have bookmarked the Kyoto Manga Museum’s website to keep track of its rotating exhibits. That information is itself a resource I intend to use, and one I can heartily recommend to you as well.