Sunday, July 13, 2014

Exploring Japan Through Comics: WGTB Reviews 47 Ronin: The Tale of the Loyal Retainers & Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan

When you think of Japan, you might think of electronics, bullet trains and Mt. Fuji. Or perhaps it’s sushi and the plethora of talented baseball players we have seen in North America in recent decades. Whatever it is one thing is certain: Japan is a fascinating and complex place with remarkable people. I know this personally because in the early 2000s I was fortunate to live and work there for a year. It was truly a memorable experience and I've since always been on the lookout for material on Japan, especially when it relates to its amazing history.  

47 Ronin: The Tale of the Loyal Retainers, Mike Richardson & Stan Sakai, Dark Horse Books, 2014, pp. 152, US$19.99
Which is why when I noticed two graphic novels recently at the local bookstore, I just had to have (and review) them. They were 47 Ronin: The Tale of the Loyal Retainers by Mike Richardson and Stan Sakai and published by Dark Horse Comics and Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan by manga legend Shigeru Mizuki and published by Canadian publisher Drawn and Quarterly. Both books are enjoyable examinations of two key periods in Japanese history, the former being that of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868) and the latter of the early Showa period. "Shōwa" which translated means "enlightened peace" is the posthumous name given to the era of the reign of Emperor Hirohito which lasted from 1926 to 1989.  

Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan, Shigeru Mizuki, Drawn and Quarterly, 2013, pp. 560, C$24.95
It's a truism to say that Japan has a very long and complex history. Indeed, the Emperor (Japan remains the only state to have kept the title "Emperor" for its monarch) claims issue from a line that reaches back five thousand years. The reason for this is that unlike European monarchies which seem to attract dynastic rivalries and wars, revolutions or parliaments who simply select distant relatives over closer yet undesirable ones, (Here I speak of King George I who, upon ascending the British throne, overtook more than fifty other candidates because they were Roman Catholic), the Japanese emperor has always been sacrosanct with the actual power found in the office of "shōgun" (Japanese for "general") who even with dictatorial powers would never consider eliminating the sacred emperor.

Modern Japanese history can be said to begin in the seismic year of 1603, when the warrior Tokugawa Ieyasu was declared Shogun and started a dynasty that would rule Japan until power was taken back by the Emperor over 265 years later in the Meiji Restoration of 1868. In the two and a half centuries the Tokugawa shoguns ruled Japan the country found a measure of stability and order. The backbone of the the Tokugawa Shogunate were the samurai, a military nobility of warrior-retainers who maintained the feudal system of government and had as their ethos "Bushido", a chivalric concept that stressed loyalty, martial prowess, honour and if need be: death. Indeed, death was often occasioned by one’s own hand in a from of ritual suicide called suppuku. The Tokugawa Shogunate gradually built this system into law and along with the self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world led to a stable yet isolated society that remained largely unchanged until the US Navy arrived in Tokyo harbour in 1853, an event which spurred forth efforts that led to the Meiji Restoration and subsequent modernization.  

47 Ronin is a story that epitomises the samurai ethos of medieval Japan. It tells the story of Lord Asano, a daimyo lord who is called to Edo (Tokyo) in 1701. During this period the law required lords to attend the capital for a period so the Shogun could maintain control over them. While in Edo, Lord Asano does not play the courtier’s game and when he refuses to pay a corrupt official he subsequently becomes the target of provocation and insult until he draws his sword in the Shogun's palace, a crime that comes with the punishment of death. After Asano is forced to commit seppuku, 47 of his loyal retainers, now themselves ronin or masterless samurai plot posthumous revenge and eventually take action. 

A splash from Dark Horse's 47 Ronin

The art is great at conveying feudal Japan without...
The book is an enjoyable book and worthy investigation into Japanese history and samurai culture. Richardson's writing presents an old story in a accessible and amusing way and while I was often told in Japan that it is a country of nuance, this isn't so much the case and anyone interested in Japanese culture can pick it up and enjoy it. Much same can be said for Stan Sakai's art, which, while saying it has a juvenile quality to it would be unfair, it is never-the-less powerful and refined in a uncomplicated way. All of this brings about a collection of artwork that is not over-the-top or silly but a worthy interpretation of a great story. 4/5 STARS 

...the romanticizing that is often found in Western depictions of the samurai culture.

The 47 Ronin is a old and complex tale. "To know this story is to know Japan" reads back cover of the Dark Horse edition. I'm not sure if this is true, but it is a national legend and 47 Ronin is a worthy retelling of it.  
Our second book takes us well past the Meiji Restoration and into the early portion of the reign of Hirohito. By the end of First World War, Japan was starting to flex its geopolitical muscle. A surprise victor in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and entering on the side of the eventual winners of the First World War, Japan was spurred forth by these successes in the early 1900s and this had lasting ramifications. In Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan Shigeru Mizuki examines much of the Japanese aggression of the early 20th century through the eyes of his own childhood. Born in 1922 in a town on the southern edge of the largest island of Honshu, Mizuki's work is both a history of the early Showa era and an autobiography of his early life and the struggles he experienced in a country that was both a expanding and militarizing. It tells a story of not just family and school struggles but also the Japanese response to the Great Kanto Earthquake (1923), the Great Depression, the Washington Naval Treaty, military expansion into Korea and China and ultimately joining the Axis powers in the lead up to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The personal and historical are intertwined in Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan by manga legend Shigeru Mizuke. Here he draws his first day of school.

The historical aspects of the story are made with a non-manga clarity. Here Showa discusses the Great Depression.
I've not enjoyed comic book history like this in a long, long while. Showa is not only a great book, but also a great way to learn about Japan. In an interesting and excellently chosen feature, the funny and more personally inspired vignettes are more cartoonish, whereas more photo-realistic images are chosen for historical events. This all lends itself to textual and pictorial gravitas where it's needed and a sense of humour and valuable comedic insights when they're needed too. Living in a tumultuous and changing economic and political climate is never easy but this book makes fine work of that while at the same time not leaving the reader in a depressed state. All of this leads to a fine work of graphic storytelling that is an amazing combination of politics and personality in the early Showa era.* 4.5/5 STARS

The Washington Naval Treaty, which limited Japanese naval expansion yet was still signed by that country, was denounced and terminated by the government in 1934.  

Like the above image, Showa uses a more photo-realistic vantage to express important events. Here is a depiction of the Japanese invasion of China.
In one of my classes years ago, an especially vocal student told me that I would never be able to truly understand Japan because I was not Japanese. While I suspect this was a true statement, I have never let it stop me from learning about this country. If you're like-minded or simply enjoy good graphic storytelling, then consider picking up either 47 Ronin or Showa. Both are excellent introductions into their respective periods of history for either the casual and serious student of Japan and well worth the read. Thanks again for stopping by WGTB and I hope you're having a great summer.

*In May 2014 a sequel to Showa 1926-1939 called Showa 1939-1944: A History of Japan was released by Drawn and Quarterly. It has not yet been read by the reviewer.   

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