‘47 Ronin’: Stan Sakai on feudal Japan, the power of comics to educate

July 05, 2013 | 4:30 p.m.
47 ronin cast ‘47 Ronin: Stan Sakai on feudal Japan, the power of comics to educate

The cast of the upcoming "47 Ronin": Rinko Kikuchi, left, Tadanobu Asano, Hiroyuki Sanada, Keanu Reeves, Ko Shibasaki and Carl Rinsch. (Charlie Gray/Universal)

Stan Sakai has been telling tales of Japanese culture and traditions, albeit in an anthropomorphic way, for decades through his “Usagi Yojimbo” comic series, but with “47 Ronin,” the Hawaiian-born artist was able to help bring to life (at least visually) one of Japan’s most famous and revered tales.

With Usagi, a Ronin rabbit who wanders the countryside righting wrongs, Sakai took his first step toward historical comic book storytelling; drawing the popular book for more than 28 years, Sakai was able to bring to the forefront a real historical account of true events and places that existed during 17th century Japan — many of which he’d heard about back in grade school. That is where he first remembers hearing about “47 Ronin,” a story about masterless samurai out to avenge a wronged employer, and a tale that he calls “the national story of Japan.”

It was this deep-rooted connection to “47 Ronin” and the samurai culture surrounding it that not only made him excited for this newest venture, but also fueled his almost three-decade stint on “Usagi.” With the final issue of the “47 Ronin” miniseries released Wednesday, Hero Complex caught up with Sakai, who will be appearing on the Sergio and Mark Show panel at Comic-Con International, to talk “Usagi,” “47 Ronin,” the upcoming big-budget movie adaptation of the story starring Keanu Reeves and educating the masses.

HC: “Usagi” has been your longtime project. How did it first come about?

'Usagi Yojimbo #144' (Dark Horse Comics)

“Usagi Yojimbo,” No. 144 (Dark Horse Comics)

SS: I grew up in Hawaii, and I grew up watching samurai movies — in fact, just down the street from me was the old Kapahulu Theater that showed chambara, or samurai fighting movies, every weekend — and I loved that stuff. I’m second-generation Japanese American. One of my favorite movies was the Samurai Trilogy by [Hiroshi] Inagaki, and I got fascinated with the character of Miyamoto Musashi, who was a real samurai who lived at the turn of 17th century Japan. I wanted to do a comic book series inspired by the life of Miyamoto Musashi. So one day, just sketching in my sketchbook, I drew a rabbit with his ears tied up in a chonmage, or a samurai top knot. Basically, that’s how Usagi was born. Instead of Miyamoto Musashi, my character became Miyamoto Usagi, and usagi means rabbit in Japanese. And Usagi’s been published for the past 28 years now.

HC: Who is Usagi Yojimbo?

SS: Usagi is a masterless samurai, or a ronin, and his adventures take place at the turn of the 17th century Japan. It’s an anthropomorphic world, so all of the characters are animals, but it’s based on a real time, a real place and a real culture. I take things from Japanese history and traditions. I have done stories about the political situations during that time, the cultural depth of pottery making or various festivals, even things like seaweed farming or ice running — carting ice up to 500 kilometers during the heat of the summer. I love the culture of Japan and it’s such a rich culture to make stories about — especially the folklore. They have such horrific creatures in mythology, but also goofy things like walking umbrellas.

HC: Part of that folklore is “47 Ronin.” There are so many translations and interpretations … 

SS: Basically it starts when Lord Asano, the young leader of the Ako Domain (a small fiefdom), was ordered to commit seppuku, or ritualized suicide, because he drew his sword against another person in the Shogun’s palace. His clan was abolished, his lands taken away, and his retainers — samurai warriors — were all left ronin, or masterless. They wandered the land and were kept under surveillance because it was thought that they would try to take revenge on the person they thought responsible, Lord Kira. So they were watched for about a year and a half. It was finally time, and they got together and they attacked Lord Kira’s mansion and they finally took Lord Kira’s head and presented it to their lord’s grave.

HC: The tale epitomizes Bushido, the code of the samurai, in which loyalty and honor are above all things. The 47 themselves were ordered to commit seppuku, which for them, was a very honorable death.

SS: The last time I was in Japan, I actually — and this is before I was even approached to do this adaptation — I visited the grave site of the 47.  I was surprised that it was pretty crowded there; there were a lot of people there to pay their respects and burn incense. I was quite impressed that the story still reverberates in Japan.

'47 Ronin #5' (Dark Horse Comics)

“47 Ronin,” No. 5 (Dark Horse Comics)

HC: With so much personal knowledge and history invested in this story, what was your reaction when you got the call to do the adaptation?

SS: First of all, Mike Richardson, the publisher of Dark Horse, is also the writer. This is a story that he has been wanting to do for the past 20 years. When he created Dark Horse, he wanted to do the story, but he never got around to it. It’s something that he had floating around for quite a while, and he was looking for the perfect person to do the artwork. Also, a big feather in our cap, [Kazuo] Koike, the creator of the series “Lone Wolf and Cub,” is the technical advisor to this — so it’s a feather in my cap too. So when I was approached for this, it was a no-brainer. I enjoyed doing the series, and it’s something that I grew up knowing.  It also helped me stretch my wings a bit. I’m now drawing characters with five fingers.

HC: How many different versions have you seen of the tale?

SS: When Mike asked me to do the series I said, “Oh yes, I know the story. In fact, I have eight adaptations of it on DVD.” Then Mike said, “Oh. I’ve got 13.” So it has been done a number of times. However, one bit of curiosity is that right after the incident, the shogun and the government had put a clamp on all information about the vendetta. It was not until 50 years later that stories started being written about this.  So it is a historical incident, but it’s not well documented. Like, the cause of why Lord Asano drew his sword is still conjecture. Much of the story is based upon the kabuki plays. We try to go back and do as much research as we can, but a lot of the records were lost or never made in the first place.

HC: Have you heard much about Universal’s long-delayed film adaptation of “47 Ronin”?

SS: I’ve just heard rumors about it, such as Keanu Reeves plays an American who leads the 47 Ronin in their vendetta. And someone told me there’s a dragon in it — so I don’t think they’re going too much based in history.

HC: A dragon, huh?

The 1941 version of "47 Ronin." (Los Angeles Times)

The 1941 version of “47 Ronin.” (Los Angeles Times)

SS: Yes. Well, that’s all I know. We are trying to be as historically accurate as possible. The actual places need to be researched, and even things like the family crests that appear on their clothing has to be correct. That all takes research.  I tried to visit Edo’s castle, and I once took pictures there, but it’s been burned down a couple of times, so how it looked back then is still conjecture. This was 300 years ago, so we have to make allowances for it.

HC: Back in 1990 you won a parent’s choice award for “Usagi.”  Is it your goal to not only tell stories, but also to educate through the stories that you’re telling?

SS: Exactly. Comics not only entertain, they can also educate. Besides the parent’s choice award, I’ve received a number of library awards, such as the American Library Award.  One of my books has even been used as a textbook in Japanese history classes at a university level. There have been theses written about “Usagi,” last count was about three or four. “Usagi” takes place in a definite culture, so I try to do stories about that culture. I mention festivals, kite making, sword making, various aspects of things. The buildings in “Usagi” are as accurate as possible.

HC: How much did “Usagi” help you in terms of writing “47 Ronin?”

SS: “47 Ronin” takes place about 100 years after Usagi’s time, and Usagi’s time is a time of social change. The shogun had just been established and there’s peace in the land; there’s a lot more unemployed samurai and the merchant class is rising. During the time of “47 Ronin,” the social structure had already changed. I should also mention that in many of the “Usagi” stories, we put in story notes and additional information is touched on. When I did a story about Taiko drums, I also wrote a history of Taiko and why it was created. Hopefully we can do the same types of things for “47 Ronin” in the trade paperback.

HC: How long can “Usagi” continue?

SS: Well, it’s an ongoing series. It seems like for every story that I write, it springboards into two more stories. So I’ve got a bunch of stories that I haven’t told yet. I’m on hiatus from “Usagi,” but I have enough comic books already published for another two or three trades. So while the comic is on hiatus, the trades are still coming out.

HC: Through all of the research and the years of developing “Usagi,” what’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned?

SS: A lot about the culture, but also just my development as a cartoonist and as an artist. Once in a while you go back and read some of the older Usagi stories and go “Oh, this is pretty good!” Not to sound immodest, but yeah, it holds together pretty good.

— Jevon Phillips

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One Response to ‘47 Ronin’: Stan Sakai on feudal Japan, the power of comics to educate

  1. Oliver says:

    The antagonist in the famous '47 Ronin' affair was Lord *Kira*, not Kita.

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