A grounded-in-history legend, epic battle scenes, and elements of fantasy are intertwined in an action-packed 3-D adventure set in early 18th-century Japan. Keanu Reeves and a star-studded Japanese cast headline in 47 Ronin (PG-13), a re-imagining of one of Japan’s most beloved tales. Directed by Carl Erik Rinsch, the film will be released by Universal Studios on Christmas Day.
When Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) is murdered by devious Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), Asano’s samurai vow to wreak vengeance on the enemy and restore their honor. Expelled from their homes and now scattered across the countryside, the 47 ronin (masterless samurai) are reunited by Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), Asano’s top-ranking military retainer. They seek the assistance of Kai (Reeves), a half-breed warrior who had been banished from the realm. In addition to human foes, this vastly outnumbered band of rebels must face formidable mythical monsters, a shape-shifting witch, and a whirlwind of other terrors.
Before opening day, teens can visit the film’s official website to preview the explosive action, stunning scenery, and power-packed special effects. Film fans who want a second look at the movie’s events will enjoy Joan D. Vinge’s novelization (Tor, 2013; Gr 8 Up). Based on the screenplay, this well-written recounting clearly conveys the complex plot, politics, and time shifts with vibrant descriptions and in-depth characterizations. Also available in digital audio format from Macmillan.
A Sampling of Samurai Tales
Bursting with flying fists and swords, well-researched details of time and setting, and themes that would make any samurai proud, these books will reel in movie viewers as well as fans of historical fiction, martial arts epics, and adventure stories.
Based on historic events, the legend of the 47 Ronin has long been a storytelling staple in Japan, often revisited and creatively interpreted in the country’s literature, theater, film, and other media. Referred to as Chūshingura, these fictional accounts exemplify essential samurai values—dedication, sacrifice, loyalty, and honor. Mike Richardson and Stan Sakai’s 47 Ronin (Dark Horse; Gr 7 Up), available now in a five-issue miniseries and set for publication in hardcover in February 2014, presents a compelling retelling that incorporates these timeless themes in a manner both intimate and epic.
Insulted repeatedly by a bribe-demanding court official, Lord Asano finally snaps and strikes out against Kira while in the Shogun’s palace. Sentenced to commit seppuku—ritual suicide, Asano dies honorably, leaving his title and lands forfeit and his retainers without a master. Led by the steadfast Oishi, the ronin vow to seek vengeance on the villainous Kira, though they know their act will be punishable by death. Fleshed out with illuminating scenes, the iconic characters are well developed and the story is dramatically paced. Sakai’s artwork, done in a palette of springtime pastels, is stunning.
Whether portraying an exquisite cherry tree in full bloom, defining the unique personalities of the large cast of players, or delineating the swift motion of a sword fall, the illustrations evoke the tale’s grandeur, action, and emotion. Readers who prefer streamlined storytelling will be drawn to Sean Michael Wilson’s The 47 Ronin (Shambhala, 2013; Gr 7 Up). Spare and understated, the script sticks close to historical events and elegantly recounts the legend’s central elements. Akiko Shimojima’s black-and-white illustrations have a manga look, and clean ink lines, cross-hatching, and shading effectively impart setting, action, and depth of feeling.
Set in late 16th-century Japan, Sakai’s superb “Usagi Yojimbo” series stars a rabbit ronin, Miyamoto Usagi, who wanders the realm on a warrior’s pilgrimage in search of harmony, but often ends up in the middle of adventures that test his samurai skills, challenge his intellect, and bring him into contact with new friends and enemies. In the latest volume, A Town Called Hell (Dark Horse, 2013; Gr 7 Up), Usagi tries to negotiate an agreement between rival gang lords to bring peace to a crime-ridden village, encounters a frightening nukekubi (a folkloric demon that seems normal by day, but sends its detachable cannibalistic head out to hunt at night), finds himself at odds with a master swordsman, and more. Details in both script and crisp pen-and-ink artwork articulate the historical setting and samurai code, create strong characterizations, and balance momentous events with touches of tongue-in-cheek humor. The anthropomorphic players are drawn with great expression and personality. Though the individual volumes can stand alone, be forewarned; once teens get a taste of Usagi’s exploits, they will want to read the entire series.
A How-to Guide
“Penned” by the fictional Lord Umawatari Bogyu in the year 1615, Samurai: The Japanese Warrior’s (Unofficial) Manual (Thames & Hudson, 2012; Gr 9 Up) covers everything a young samurai-in-training needs to know. Presented in lively and often entertainingly ornate language, this tome introduces 17th-century Japanese history (up “to the present happy time”), social hierarchy, geography, culture, religion, and more. Practical sections delve into subjects such as proper armor, weapons, fighting techniques, and military command. Also included are helpful quizzes (“Am I a Real Samurai?”), FAQs and dos and don’ts (do choose exquisite pottery for your tea ceremony but don’t exploit the ritual by committing murder—it’s messy and destroys the sense of “composure and harmony”), and expert tips (e.g., how to present severed heads). Throughout, emphasis is placed on a code of behavior guaranteed to maintain honor in the throes of glorious battle and in day-to-day life. Author and scholar Stephen Turnbull packs in the facts as well as the droll humor, and the numerous black-and-white illustrations are equally witty. Two full-color insets showcase reproductions of artworks and photos of armor and modern-day reenactments. A fun and informative look at the period.
A Smattering of Series
After a British ship is attacked near the coast of Japan by a band of ninja pirates in 1611, lone-survivor Jack Fletcher, 12, is rescued by a renowned samurai. Though he is a gaijin (derogatory term for foreigner) who struggles to adjust to an unfamiliar language and culture, Jack soon proves his bravery and fortitude, and Masamoto deems him worthy of pursuing The Way of the Warrior (Hyperion, 2009; Gr 6-9). At samurai school, Jack works hard to master various fighting techniques while learning to navigate a complex code of behavior and facing prejudice and bullying from his fellow students. When, at age 15, he is called upon to uphold the school’s honor, he must prove that he has what it takes to become a samurai. Gripping action is balanced with detailed descriptions of martial arts training and combat, and the novel seamlessly incorporates themes of friendship, alienation, and self-realization. Now consisting of multiple installments, Chris Bradford’s “Young Samurai” series (Hyperion/Disney) is riveting and readable.
Though he lives in a small fishing village, Taro has long dreamed of becoming a samurai. When his father is brutally murdered by ninja and Taro is fatally wounded, the teenager is saved by good ninja who turns him into a vampire. In fact, in Nick Lake’s Blood Ninja (2009; Gr 8 Up), all of these legendary warriors are kyuuketsuki, thus explaining their amazing speed and agility, inhuman strength, and penchant for nighttime maneuvers. Taken under the wing of Shusaku, himself a former samurai, Taro undergoes ninja training, makes astounding discoveries about his true identity, and becomes embroiled in a violent conflict between two power-hungry rival lords. The book’s sword-swinging, arrow-flying, limb-slashing action is supported by solid writing, strong characterizations, and a smooth integration of 16th-century Japanese history and culture…and a hint of budding romance. Taro’s thrilling adventures continue in two more “Blood Ninja” installments (2010 and 2012, all S & S).
What does a modern-day shop-aholic skater-girl have in common with a late-15th-century Japanese female samurai? When 17-year-old Rileigh Martin is attacked by muggers in the mall parking lot, she somehow manages to defeat them, though unaware of her actions. Suddenly, she possesses expert martial arts abilities, hears a very insistent voice in her head, and is dreaming about feudal Japan. When Kim, the handsome owner of a local dojo, explains that she is sheltering the spirit of a warrior named Senshi and being pursued by similarly reincarnated villains, Rileigh is understandably skeptical. However, as events unfold and the danger ratchets up, she finally faces the truth. The only way to fuse together her past and presents lives is by “transcending,” an act initiated by touching Senshi’s Katana (Flux, 2012; Gr 8 Up), but will the long-ago warrior dominate her current-day personality? And is Kim, her past-life soul mate, really boyfriend material? Told in a delightfully chatty first-person narrative, Cole Gibsen’s fast-reading novel bustles with edge-of-your-seat action, humorous dialogue, and irresistible romance. The something old/something new supernatural approach works like a charm, and readers will be clamoring for the sequel, Senshi (2013, both Flux), along with a third installment due out in March 2014.
VINGE, Joan D. 47 Ronin. Movie tie-in ed. Tor. 2013. pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780765369642; ebook $9.99. ISBN 9781466804142; Macmillan Digital Audio. $34.99. ISBN 9781427243928.
RICHARDSON, Mike. 47 Ronin. illus. by Stan Sakai. Dark Horse. Feb. 2014. Tr $19.99. ISBN 978159582-954-2.
WILSON, Sean Michael. The 47 Ronin. illus. by Akiko Shimojima. Shambhala. 2013. pap. $14.95. ISBN 9781611801378.
SAKAI, Stan. Usagi Yojimbo Volume 27: A Town Called Hell. illus. by author. Dark Horse. 2013. pap. $16.99. ISBN 9781595829702.
TURNBULL, Stephen. Samurai: The Japanese Warrior’s (Unofficial) Manual. Thames & Hudson. 2012. Tr $19.95. ISBN 9780500251881.
BRADFORD, Chris. Young Samurai: The Way of the Warrior. Disney/Hyperion. 2009. pap. $7.99. ISBN 9781423119869; ebook $6.99. ISBN 9781423140887.
LAKE, Nick. Blood Ninja. S &S. 2009. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781416986270; pap. $9.99. ISBN 978-1-4169-8628-7; ebook $9.99. ISBN 978141699830-3.
GIBSEN, Cole. Katana. Flux. 2012. pap. $9.95. ISBN 9780738730400.
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