Lecture: Chushingura
The 47 ronin from puppet play to Hollywood, and all the way to AKB48 (or not quite?)


Luk Van Haute

Ever since ‘the true story’ of the 47 ronin was first fictionalized as a puppet play, only a few years after the actual events, it has enjoyed greater popularity than any other samurai tale. Up until today new adaptations of Chushingura keep appearing in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of media. Through the centuries the story has also sparked political, ideological and other controversy, for at the core lies the quintessential dilemma caused by giri and ninjo, in English often explained as ‘social obligation’ versus ‘personal feelings’, but in fact much more complex than that.

What was/is more important: obeying the law or loyalty to one’s lord? And which lessons did the acts of 47 masterless samurai in the early 18th century have to offer the Japanese soldiers in the modern wars of the 19th and 20th century? Were they criminals or prime examples of virtue? Opinions remain divided, as we will notice in various examples from the numerous film versions.

In 2013 even Hollywood adapted the story, with Keanu Reeves in the lead. But can we also see a connection with the contemporary idols of AKB48?