With the final issue now on shelves, we sat down with the 47 Ronin creative team of Stan Sakai and Mike Richardson at SDCC '13.
Among the best-known tales in Japanese history, the legend of the 47 Ronin and their epic mission to avenge their disgraced master epitomizes the samurai code of honor. It has been said, “To know the story of the 47 Ronin is to know Japan.” Retold through the ages, the legend at last comes to comics in a meticulously researched and beautifully illustrated miniseries from Mike Richardson, Stan Sakai, and editorial consultant Kazuo Koike! Recounting this sweeping tale of honor and violence in all its grandeur, chapter one details the tragic incident that would seal the fate of Lord Asano and set forty-seven of his vassals on a years-long path of vengeance!
Reading Realms: How do you feel 47 Ronin has been received by the American comic readership?
Stan Sakai: Based on reviews, we've received an ecstatic reception. It's very different than anything else on the market and they say we've told a good story in a great way.
Mike Richardson: Yea, the reviews have been great. One reviewer said it was the only series he's given five out of five stars to. We've seen some 10/10's as well. One review I saw said it was a good thing I had Stan draw it because he made the writing so much better.
RR: What challenges have you faced adapting such a culturally classic story into a comic?
Stan: Well, I've known this story since the fifth grade, or I thought I knew it. But when doing the research, I was amazed at how much of it was fabricated and how much was speculation and what parts weren't even true. Right after the incident, there's a clap down on telling the story by the shogun and the first telling of the story was not until fifty years later by a Kabuki player. Many of the books and movies that have been out up to this point were really just based on the Kabuki play.
Mike: We knew certain things -- We knew Asano was called to service by the Shogun, we knew that something happened inside and he had to pull a sword on an official, we knew he was forced to commit Seppuku, we knew his estate was seized by the Shogun.
Stan: The whole clan was abolished.
Mike: They were disassembled and told to lay down their swords. We knew that a little over a year later, once they were forgotten about, that forty-seven of them attacked Kira and had been planning that all along. They wiped out his guard and beheaded Kira and carried his head to Asano's grave. We knew they then turned themselves in and all committed Seppuku. None of that was fabricated, it's all part of the true story.
Stan: There was only one written account of the attack by Asano on Kira, and all Asano said about the reason was "I have a grudge."
Mike: Yes, we have a letter he had written to his wife that was fairly mysterious too and only said something like, "some will wonder why I did this." That's all he wrote his wife.
Stan: It's an interesting story.
Mike: You can see the framework that built into a legend.
RR: Do you ever see any adaptations of your version of the story being created?
Mike: You never know what will happen, but, we created the series to put out a really faithful quality version of this story that we both love.
Stan: I was really amazed with Mike's research. When he was sending me reference material with the scripts, he had all these details and obscure facts that he worked into the script. One I knew of was the paying off of the Asano clan debts, I was really surprised when I got the script and saw that in there because it was a little known fact.
Mike: There were a lot of little things I tried to put into the story and when readers find them, it's really a pleasant thing from a writing standpoint. I used it with Oishi when he says goodbye to his wife, the Japanese notion of good-mother, good-wife and a critic actually picked up on that.
Mike: And there's a connection in Japanese culture between the cherry blossom and the Samurai and we start out our story with a picture of a cherry tree in full blossom. Before Asano leaves, he gives his daughter a seed to one of the trees and says they will plant it when he returns. Later, when walking to his doom, he reflects that he didn't tell his daughter that the tree often outlives the one who plants it.
These little touches were all taken out of different Japanese stories and legends.
Stan: Things in my research, like the Shogun was actually called the Dog Shogun because he had made an edict against harming dogs and there were stray dogs all around the city. So in my city scenes I made sure to have dogs in the backgrounds.
RR: Will there be any additional stories like these or bonuses in the graphic novel?
Mike: We might have some extra stuff for the book. A good deluxe version. Stan will probably do some stuff, maybe we'll put in some sections of the scripts. Mainly we wanted to get this story out in an authentic fashion.
One of the things with the story, because we live over here, obviously Stan would be more accepted than I would telling this Japanese story, Stan is third generation Japanese, but I'm just this white guy from Oregon. But I have been to Japan many, many times. I started going back in '89 and we were probably the first publisher to regularly publish Manga in the states and I had made very many friends. One of the most respected writers in Japan was Kazuo Koike, who wrote the Lone Wolf and Cub series, and he agreed to be our spiritual mentor on this story. He's a historian too and he looked over the scripts and sort of made sure I didn't go off the path.
Plus, putting his name on the book might keep me safe when I go back to Japan. (laughs)
Stan: (laughs) How dare a Gaijin tell our story!
Mike: But really, there are people over there that take this story very seriously.
Stan: Yes, there are still many people that visit the temple, the air was filled with incense when I visited from all the people paying respects at the graves.
RR: You made such a good team. Will you be working on more historical fiction stories in the future?
Mike: Maybe if I ever come up with another story like this I'll be able to pry Stan away from Usagi again.
Stan: I really enjoyed working on this. I took a year break from Usagi to do this project and I'm glad.
Mike: I noticed his new Usagi work has a lot of little touches he picked up from working on 47 Ronin.
Stan: Well, Usagi is a fantasy, based more on woodcut designs, so I wasn't as focused on historical details, but with 47 Ronin I really wanted things to be authentic down to the sandals and some of those details carried back to my current Usagi project as well.
RR: Any story elements carrying over into Usagi as well?
Stan: (laughs) Well, the current story I'm working on involved Martians, so probably not quite yet.
RR: If you could have Usagi adapted into any other type of media, what would it be?
Stan: Oh... hmm... a feature film would be nice. I'm not sure exactly how it would be done. One project I was really saddened that didn't come through was a deal with Hensen and they were going to do a movie with puppets like The Dark Crystal. Unfortunately, the company that owned them at the time had financial issues and everything fell through.