Thursday, April 2, 2009

Review: Chushingura

by Donald Kenne

Chushingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers), also known as the story of the Forty-Six (or Forty-Seven) Ronin, is the most famous and perennially popular of all Japanese dramas. Written around 1748 as a puppet play, it is now better known through Kabuki theater performances.
Donald Keene's translation of the original text is presented here with a new preface, and an introduction and notes to aid readers in their comprehension and enjoyment of the play.
First Sentence:
Narrator: "The sweetest food, if left untasted,
Remains unknown, it's savior wasted."

I do not want to give too much of the plot away, since the play is very short and proves to be a very quick read. Chushingura is about samurai whose master is forced to commit seppuku (ritual suicide), making them ronin (master less samurai). They pledge to avenge the death of their late master and plan to attack the man who provoked their master to disgrace his honor. The play was written by three different playwrights, which is why some of the characters personalities change drastically throughout the play.

The play does an amazing job showing the devotion of samurai to their code of ethics and to their masters. The samurai believed in their duty to their master to the point that they would commit seppuku if they felt that they had disgraced their master in any way. It also shows how much the family of a samurai has to devote to the master, like the wives being sold as prostitutes to help fund the plan to avenge their late master.

The play was originally written for the puppet theater, bunraku, but was originally adapted into a play for the kabuki theater. Since the original play was written there have been numerous adaptations in film, novels, and television productions. The Sprouse twins (The Suite Life of Zack & Cody) have even made a graphic novel series called the 47 R.O.N.I.N., which has nothing to do with samurai's but involves ninjas and underground societies....
I would definitely recommend Chushingura to anyone who has a love of Japan or who find samurai interesting. I do not read many plays, but I was able to be enveloped in the story and was so compelled by it that I finished it the day that I started it. However if you have not seen any of the adaptations of the book, I would recommend saving the intro for last because it does give away many of the important twists and turns of the storyline which kind of ruined the shock factor of some of the famous parts of the play.

Historical Note:
Seppuku was commonly used by samurai for a variety of reasons including: to avoid falling into enemy hands, to avoid having to live with any disgrace upon their honor, if they were ordered to by their master, or instead of an execution. Since seppuku was considered a way of restoring ones honor only samurai were allowed to perform it and they almost always had to have permission from their master. The art of seppuku involves the samurai thrusting a sword into the stomach and moving it from left to right, sometimes the samurai would stretch out their neck for someone to cut off their head. The samurai were not allowed to utter a sound during the process due to their warrior nature. On one account a samurai has been known to have pulled out his own intestines while committing seppuku.

Title: Chushingura
Author: Donald Kenne
Paperback: 183 pages
ISBN 10: 0231035314
ISBN 13: 978-0231035314
Buy It: Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble
Review Number: 4

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