Stan Sakai: Breathing New Life into 47 Ronin

A comics interview article by: Zack Davisson

There's only so much we can say about Stan Sakai in such a short space. He is one of the living legends of comics, having worked on Usagi Yojimbo for nearly thirty years. He's taking a break from his own epic to tell one of the most famous stories to come out of Japan: the tale of the 47 Ronin. We love the story so much that we not only reviewed the first issue of Sakai's current series, but also the DVD of the 1994 film adaptation.

 

Zack Davisson for Comics Bulletin: 47 Ronin is a comic that Mike Richardson has been working on for a while now. How did you come on board as the artist, and how did he pitch the project to you?

Stan Sakai: Mike called me out of the blue, and told me about this project. I have to admit that I was skeptical at first. The 47 Ronin is a very special story for me, and I did not know how much research into the story that he, as a writer, actually did. After our discussion, though, I was very impressed. I had asked about the samurai from Satsuma who visited Oishi's grave, and he said, "That's who is telling the story." I thought that was a stroke of genius. No one took this approach in all the adaptations I had read or seen.

But I did not sign on immediately. I had been writing and drawing Usagi Yojimbo for 28 years, and I would have to take about a year hiatus. I had a few Usagi stories that I was itching to do. However, this was too good an opportunity to pass up, and I called him back to say, "I'm in!"

CB: That hooked me too, using the Satsuma samurai as the storyteller. And I admit I was skeptical as well. I love the story, and actually have the death poem from Okano Kinemon Kanehide tattooed on my arm.

But seeing that opening told me Mike knew what he was talking about. For a story with so many adaptations, for someone to get a fresh take on it is really impressive. Have you seen many of the 47 Ronin films or kabuki productions? Do you have a favorite?

Sakai: I told Mike when we started that I had 8 versions of the story on DVD. He told me he had a dozen. My favorites are the older ones – Dai Chushingura, and Watanabe's The Loyal 47 Ronin (this one has Shintaro Katsu of Zatoichi fame). I also have the opera on CD and a lot of books, both historical and fiction. About a year ago, I read The Ronin's Mistress by Laura Joh Rowland, the 15th book in her Inspector Sano detective series. This story takes place immediately after the vendetta, and the inspector has to investigate the causes that led to it. This is a unique look on the story, as it goes backwards, unraveling as Sano investigates deeper.

I recently finished The Revenge of the 47 Ronin by Stephen Turnbull. Dr. Turnbull is one of my favorite references, and in this book he takes a purely objective look at the incident, and suggests that Kira was not the villain he is portrayed, that Lord Asano is not so innocent, and that the ronin did not act strictly according to the bushido code.

As you said, there have been so many retellings of the story, and each has their own take on the story. Ours is just another interpretation.

 

 

CB: You guys both have me beat! I think I have about 5 versions on DVD. I do have a library of Stephen Turnbull's books though. He is incredible.

That's a good point you made about interpretations. I think of the 47 Ronin as something like Shakespeare’s Henry V – It can either be a pro-war or anti-war story depending on how it is played. And there are many who object to the 47 Ronin being seen as some example of the Bushido code. Yamamoto Tsunetomo, who wrote the Bushido bible Hagakure, had some harsh words for the ronin, saying they were the antithesis of Bushido, that they focused more on the success of their mission than honor, acting more like ninja than samurai. They delayed their seppuku hoping for a pardon...

What viewpoint are you and Mike taking? One thing I noticed in the first issue is that you are setting clear lines with Asano as the wronged hero, and Kira as the villain. Is that to make the story more easy to digest for American readers? Or is that how you see the story

Sakai: Most adaptations have Kira clearly taking the villain role, and we are going with that popular interpretation. Besides, we only have five issues, so we cannot go into the intricacies of their relationship, much of which is speculation, anyway.

There is so much that we had to leave out, such as the fact that there was a solar eclipse about a month before Lord Asano went to Edo and was forced to commit seppuku. I would have loved to have included that. It's a nice bit of foreshadowing. As it is, we've been adding story pages. They are supposed to be 22 page installments, but each issue has gone beyond that. Issue 3, which I just turned in, is 25 pages.

You are right in that the ronin have been criticized for waiting so long to get revenge. A lot could have happened in that time, such as Kira dying of natural causes or some other way. However, to have acted any sooner would have been foolhardy. They were being watched by Kira's spies as well as the shogunate. Besides, there was still a slim chance that the clan could be re-established under one of Lord Asano's close relatives.

 

 

CB: You are right that there is a lot of story to condense down to 5 issues. You have tough challenge ahead of you. I hope you keep adding pages!

The core fundamental values of 47 Ronin – the idea of loyalty to a lord being more important than their own lives or the happiness of their families – is an idea still respected in Japan. For example, when I was living in Japan, there was a typhoon and we workers were expected to stay and protect the office at the expense of our own homes and families. How do you think this will resonate with American readers? Do you think they will see the deeper message, or just enjoy the action story?

Sakai: There is a lot of action, especially when the 47 Ronin attack Kira's home, however, I think readers will get caught up in the planning and deceptions that leads to the climax. The conspiracy was pretty intricate – one of the ronin even married the daughter of Kira's architect so they could obtain the plans of Kira's mansion.

CB: That was Okano Kinemon Kanehide, who I have the tattoo from. A cold-hearted tactic, but one that shows the dedication of the ronin to their plan, for sure.

Let's talk about the art. When I saw that opening scene at Sengaku-ji, I was blown away. I've been there and offered incense at their graves; you captured both the detail and the atmosphere perfectly. You have obviously been there yourself.

Sakai: I was there in 2009, way before Mike approached me to draw 47 Ronin. I took a lot of photos, and used them as much of my reference. I was in Japan as a traveling teacher to a group of students from the Savannah College of Art and Design, and I was able to arrange a tour of a couple of animation studios, including Studio Ghibli.

CB: Wow! Did you get to meet Miyazaki Hayou or Takahata Isao?

Sakai: Unfortunately, no. We were shown around by Watanabe-san, a line producer, and we went to two of the three buildings. I assume the third building is where Miyazaki-san has his offices. The studio is in a residential neighborhood, with a flower store next door. You would not even notice it, but for a small sign.

The funny thing is that we had visited the Ghibli Museum a couple days before. There is a recreation of the animators' room there, with paint all over the drawing tables, artwork pinned to the walls, storyboards, character designs, notes, etc – what you would imagine an artist's room would look like. The real animation room at the studio is nothing like that at all. Everyone has a tidy work station with a computer.

Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take photos, and, once the tour was over, we were told to "forget everything." We were shown production work for their new feature, The Secret World of Arrietty, and it had not yet been announced.

CB: I know just what you are talking about. I had figured that recreation of the animator's room was pretty accurate! I'm surprised to hear they are so neat and tidy.

You have obviously done a lot of research for 47 Ronin. How different – if at all – is your artistic approach for the series as opposed to Usagi Yojimbo.

Sakai: There is very little change in the way I approach the project. Of course, since Mike is giving me full scripts, much of the work is already done. Whereas I would normally thumbnail the entire issue before starting to draw pages to determine composition and pacing, I can do my 47 Ronin thumbnails on the backs of the original pages. That is, I can pretty much work one page at a time.

Mike's script is very descriptive, but gives me a lot of leeway. The big difference between 47 Ronin and my usual work is that, with Usagi, I complete an entire issue before sending it in to Dark Horse. My editor, Diana Schutz, would not see anything until she's holding the finished story in her hands. With 47 Ronin, I send in pencils for approval and final scripting before going on to the inking.

 

 

CB: There are innumerable visual depictions of the 47 Ronin over the centuries, in films, woodblock prints, comics – is there any particular artist or film that you use as inspiration for the look of the Ronin? I thought the opening scene with Asano and Kira, with the blue and red kimonos, had hints of Watanabe Kunio's 1958 Chushingura. And are we going to see the iconic black-and-white uniforms for the night-time raid?

Sakai: I'm still doing research on the night raid on Kira's mansion. The clothing seen in the movies were inspired by the kabuki play, Chushingura, which, actually, is not far from what was worn by the ronin, though a lot more flamboyant and colorful.

Some of their clothing and armor still exists, preserved at Sengaku-ji and two other places in Japan.

CB: Along with your art and Mike's writing, I was impressed by Lovern Kindzierski's coloring. It adds a nice tone and life to the series. Was he following any particular palette or suggestions from you?

Sakai: I agree. Lovern is doing a wonderful job. He got his inspiration from old Japanese woodcuts, and his palette compliments the art perfectly. I got my inspiration for character designs from the same source.

We also got Tom Orzechowski to do the lettering. We really have a great team on the series, and it shows in the final product.

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