|I absolutely love this poster for 47 Ronin.|
So what is a chūshingura exactly? Well, they are fictionalized accounts in Japanese literature, theatre, and film that relate the historical incident involving the 47 Ronin and their mission to avenge the death of their master, Asano Naganori. Including the early Kanadehon Chūshingura (仮名手本忠臣蔵?), the story has been told in kabuki, bunraku, stage plays, films, novels, television shows and other media. With ten different television productions in the years 1997–2007 alone, the chūshingura ranks among the most familiar of all historical stories in Japan.
So this new telling of 47 Ronin is nothing different. In fact, it is a tradition in Japan, and you should embrace it wholeheartedly. Also, "I hate Keanu Reeves" is not a valid excuse to avoid this film. Keanu is a pretty decent actor and he's poured his heart into this role, even going so far as to become fluent in the Japanese language (he's also half-Japanese so he has more cred to be in a Japanese film than Tom Cruise).
However, despite 47 Ronin being so well-known across the Pacific, audiences here risk confusion as to what this particular chūshingura is about. Have we ever seen one replete with dragons, ki-rin, tengu, and other such monsters? To prepare those of you who've been bitten by the curiosity bug, there's an animated prequel to the movie done in comic book style and I've embedded it below. It's so wonderful, I wish book trailers had this kind of quality. Heck, I'll take one please! All kidding aside, you should watch it and marvel at the really cool art panels and how the whole thing is reminiscent of those beautiful silk screens for which Japanese art is famous.
Bushido: This word means "the way of the warrior" and it is a code that defines a samurai's life. The western comparison might be chivalry, although this is a "loose" comparison as chivalry mostly developed out of medieval misogyny (the fear of women). And if you're surprised to know this then I'm sorry to burst your little bubble. Yes, chivalry was developed because men feared the power and association women had with Satan (and it all goes back to Genesis when Eve got Adam kicked out of the Garden of Eden and we've paid for it ever since).
Bushido originates from the samurai moral code and it stresses frugality, loyalty, martial arts mastery, and honor unto death. Born from neo-Confucianism during times of peace in Tokugawa Japan and following Confucian texts, Bushido was also influenced by Shinto and Zen Buddhism, allowing the violent existence of the samurai to be tempered by wisdom and serenity.
Under the Tokugawa Shogunate, aspects of bushidō became formalized into Japanese feudal law.
Samurai: the military nobility of medieval and early-modern Japan. According to translator William Scott Wilson: "In Chinese, the character 侍 was originally a verb meaning to wait upon or accompany persons in the upper ranks of society, and this is also true of the original term in Japanese, saburau. In both countries the terms were nominalized to mean "those who serve in close attendance to the nobility," the pronunciation in Japanese changing to saburai. According to Wilson, an early reference to the word "samurai" appears in the Kokin Wakashū (905–914), the first imperial anthology of poems, completed in the first part of the 10th century.
By the end of the 12th century, samurai became almost entirely synonymous with bushi, and the word was closely associated with the middle and upper echelons of the warrior class. The samurai followed a set of rules that came to be known as bushidō. While the samurai numbered less than 10% of Japan's population, their teachings can still be found today in both everyday life and in modern Japanese martial arts.
Ronin: A rōnin (浪人) was a samurai with no lord or master during the feudal period (1185–1868) of Japan. A samurai became masterless from the death or fall of his master, or after the loss of his master's favor or privilege, and it usually meant losing all your land. Imagine how devastating it would be to have your house and job taken away from you. To add insult to injury, poor Ronin were oftentimes the butt of jokes and faced ridicule when the government should have set up a social safety net. But then we wouldn't have great stories like 47 Ronin now would we? It just doesn't have the same ring to it if the story is 47 Ronin who got approved for Social Security.