Over 300 years ago, 47 ronin warriors in Japan turned a revenge plot into the most honorable story in the country's history. 25 years ago, Dark Horse Comics launched as one of the premier independent publishers in American comics. And for decades, Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson has been plotting to bring both things together in one narrative.
The wait ends next week as Richardson and "Usagi Yojimbo" artist Stan Sakai launch "47 Ronin" --Â a five-issue mini series that tells a historically accurate account of warriors who laid in wait two years to avenge the tragic death of their master only to take their own lives to be buried beside him. One of the most famous stories in Japanese history, the story of the 47 has been mythologized and retold countless times over the centuries, but with this series Richardson and Sakai hope to bring Western comics its first accurate, intensive adaptation.
CBR News spoke with Sakai ahead of the comics November 7 debut to discuss the challenges that come with setting aside his famous rabbit samurai for nearly a year to work with human characters and intensely detailed real life locations. Below, the artist talks about his own history with the legendary story, what he's trying to pull out of Richardson's scripts, the influence of consultant Kazuo Koike and the epic science fiction story he'll tell when he does return to Usagi in 2013.
CBR News: I think the first thing a lot of your readers will note about "47 Ronin" is how different the art here is from what you've done for years with "Usagi Yojimbo," but do you think of a big project like this primarily in terms of those things you have to do differently?
Stan Sakai: For this one, I took my inspirations for the character designs from the ukiyo-e print,Â the Japanese woodcut, and so it's just drawing people. Actually, [artist] Scott Shaw had commented how nice the transition was from my Usagi characters to drawing the human characters -- getting the proportions correct and that.
Mike Richardson has talked a lot about how his main goal here was to have a certain level of historical accuracy to the story since this is such a major historical event, although it has been mythologized quite a bit over the years, I'm sure.
Very much so.
So what did you identify as the truest sources to draw from? Were there accounts of this story that were contemporaneous to look at?
Actually when you talk about the research, with "Usagi" I've got a tremendous research library which includes at least half a dozen books about the 47 Ronin. So when Mike approached me, I said, "Great! I've got about eight DVD adaptations of that." And Mike said, "I've got 12." [Laughter] Somebody told me there have been more than 100 adaptations done for movies and for television. I have one adaptation that's 12 hours long!
This is the national story of Japan. It epitomizes what the samurai and his duty is. However, the more I did research into this, the more I realized that we don't know the full story. As soon as it happened, there was just one eye witness account that was written down, but a lot of the motivations and things behind it were not recorded. There is some historical documentation such as the receipt for Kira's head that was given to the Sengakuji Temple when his relatives claimed the head and things like that. But like I said, I think there's only one real eye-witness account, and the motivations behind Lord Asano's attack on Kira were not known. A lot of it is speculation.
So with so many people involved and so many different "Fact Vs. Fiction" elements to wade through, who did you and Mike chose to focus the story on? Who provides our point of view into the story?
The protagonist of this is Oishi who was the chief retainer to Lord Asano. To give a brief account of the 47 Ronin, this all started in 1701 where Asano was one of two people delegated to prepare the shogun's court for a visit from the emperor's envoy. He was to be tutored by Kira, who was like the chief of ceremonies and protocol. However, Kira was very corrupt and wanted bribes. He wasn't a Lord himself but a high-ranking samurai. So he demanded bribes from Lord Asano who refused to give it because he felt Kira was just supposed to be doing what the shogun had told him to.
So Kira was very abusive to Lord Asano, and finally as Lord Asano reached his breaking point, he drew his short sword and cut Kira's face and back, but he did not kill him. But because he drew his short sword in the shogun's palace, which was illegal, he was ordered to commit seppuku, or ritualized suicide, that very day. So all his lands were confiscated, and his retainers became ronin, or masterless samurai.
Then Kira and the shogun had set to watch for his retainers, particularly Oishi who was like the major domo or Asano's chief of staff. But Oishi looked like he was not thinking of revenge at all. He went to the bar, and he got drunk. He divorced his wife. And he just was having a great time not thinking about his lord at all. Finally, two years later in the middle of winter, he got his men organized. They donned the armor they had secretly bought and attacked Kira's mansion for revenge. They cut off Kira's head and paraded it through Edo, which is now present day Tokyo, to Sengakuji Temple. They presented the head to Lord Asano, saying, "We have earned vengeance for you." And that was pretty much it. The 47 were ordered to commit seppuku by the shogunate, and they did it at Sengakuji Temple.
And it just so happened that I was there at the temple two years before Mike asked me to draw this project, so I'd gotten all this photo reference. I had first heard this story when I was in grade school because I'm a third generation Japanese American, and like I said, it's the national story of Japan. Everyone knows it. The saying goes, "To know the 47 ronin is to know Japan" and that's true in a lot of ways.
Though in how the story is presented to young people, say, is the idea of Oishi abandoning his wife to get drunk a part of that tale, or is he built up as more of a noble figure dedicated to revenge from day one?
Well the thing is that you don't really know if he was really getting drunk or if that was just part of the conspiracy to throw off the spies who were always watching him -- either Kira's men or the shogun's men. Because he was always being watched.
You mention all that reference, and so many of these buildings still stand. How much easier has that made this project or how much harder.
Sengakuji Temple is still there, though one thing I did have a problem with was drawing the shogun's castle. In trying to do research on it, I learned that that part of the castle has burned down twice since this happened. So I used some of the existing gates, but most of it I just made up.
But I tried to be as accurate as possible, and that was part of the problem. I realized doing this how I was just getting by with "Usagi." [Laughs] Like with the clans, I can make up a lot for "Usagi," but for this because it's an actual clan crest, I had to depict the proper markings for Lord Asano's men and different things for which clans are outsiders. It did take a lot of research to do, but Mike sent me a ton of research himself. Things like the front gate of Lord Kira's mansion were insane!
This is the first time you've done a major collaboration like this, and it feels almost like a three-way collaboration because not only is Mike writing the story for you, but "Lone Wolf & Cub" writer Kazuo Koike is helping out as an editorial consultant. Has having that third voice who comes from manga impacted the style at all as you and Mike work in the Western comics tradition?
Very much so. Like you said, my style of storytelling and Mike's also are very Western. For one thing, you don't have the luxury of the slow pacing that the Japanese manga style has. One fight scene in a manga volume can last for 50 pages, but here you've got to do it quickly because you only have around 24 pages for each issue. We just don't have the luxury of that slow pacing, and because of that we do have to compress scenes and combine characters into one. That sort of thing.
I have collaborated with other people before, but this is the first time I'm doing it on such an extensive project. This has taken about a year or so to complete.
Are you coloring it and doing all the visuals yourself?
No, Lovern Kindzierski is coloring, and his work is marvelous. Again, he's taking his inspiration from the woodcut prints, and he's done a wonderful job. And even with the lettering, this is maybe the first time I'm not doing my own lettering. Tom Orzechowski is doing that, and he's fantastic. He was my letterer of choice.
I just turned in the third issue, so I'm over the hump, but I've got two more issues to finish. I don't know if I'll be finished until January because it takes about a month to do the pencils and a month to do the inking. During that time, I'm also doing the research and working on other stuff too. So it's about two months for an issue of this where as "Usagi" takes about five weeks to do everything. But Mike's scripts are easy to follow, and it's great working with a writer that knows what he's doing. [Laughs] I mean, I don't have to plan everything out in advance. I'm thumbnailing page 16 on the back of the original art for page 15, so I'm working that closely. It's great. With "Usagi," I've got to think far ahead in advance. I know what will happen on page 22 when I'm still working on page 5.
Do you script "Usagi," or do you go straight onto the boards?
I do a script, but it's not as detailed as Mike's. My scripts are my thumbnails. For me, that works. If I were to hand my thumbnails off to someone else, that wouldn't make any sense. But because I'm both the writer and artist on "Usagi," that's easiest for me. And when I have collaborated with an artist, I would do thumbnails, but they're much more detailed than my own.
How do you anticipate this project to change your work going forward, if at all? "Usagi" swings back and forth between big, epic arcs like "Grasscutter" and then smaller personal stories like one of my favorite's "The Withered Field." After working on a project with so much research and visual weight to carry, do you think you'll go back to a smaller Usagi story next?
No. I'm coming back with an Usagi mini series called "SensÅ" which means "War." It's a mixture of "Usagi" and "War of the Worlds." The idea is "What would happen if the Martians had sent a scout ship 200 years before H.G. Wells' 'War of the Worlds' and it landed in feudal Japan?" It lands in the midst of this huge battle with armor and everything, and you've got tripod monsters versus samurai. It's a very visual story. I love the visuals. It's a story I've been wanting to do for five or six years at least, and it's not historically accurate, but it'll be fun. Right after that, I'll pick up "Usagi" where I left off. I think I left off on issue #144, so the next will just be 145.
Did "47 Ronin" coming when it did spur you to work on the "War of the Worlds" mini?
It was a nice break, but I have to tell you, right after I finished the first issue of "47 Ronin," I said to myself, "Gee, I have to get back to Usagi." [Laughter] I just love working with that character, and I have all these stories I keep putting on the side. But once the "War of the Worlds" story is done, I can pick them back up again. And I'm having fun with "47 Ronin." I think I'm putting a lot more detail into the drawings than I ever have before. I'm putting a lot into the backgrounds and a lot of the culture. Like, Tsunayoshi was the Shogun at the time, and he was called the "Dog Shogun" because he'd made this edict at the time to protect all the dogs in the city. There are records of dogs being all over Edo. So I put in dogs wherever I can into the streets. It's little things like that which most people may not pick up on, but I know the history so I can layer it in --Â little Easter Eggs.
And has this given you the itch to draw more standard, five-fingered humans?
Well, I have done that before. I did a Rocketeer story last year for IDW, and each year I've done a project outside "Usagi" whether it's a "Mouse Guard" story or a "Star Wars" story. There are just a bunch of small projects that aren't "Usagi" that are just fun to do. This is one of those fun projects. It's just taken me much longer to do than usual! [Laughter]
"47 Ronin" #1 ships next week, November 7, from Dark Horse Comics. Check out a preview of the first issue below.