Thursday, May 14, 2009

The 47 Ronin: Kitty Goes Commando

SUMMER IS FINALLY HERE!! Back to Kitty cata-blogging. Actually, this post has been sitting on my desktop waiting for some formatting and linkage, but in noticed that this particular mascot had versions in two different regions so that made things both confusing and fascinating. Thanks to the internet angels. The version that I have in my collection is from the Kansai region, but there are two "seasonal" version that appear in the Kanto region. The actual story will explain the reason for the region-straddling Kitty.

Following the civil war amongst the various daimyos, Japan was moving towards reunification and the reestablishment of a centralized, imperial government. For the working warrior, that meant that politics and diplomacy were replacing the battlefield and bureaucracy was becoming the weapon of choice. Trying to fully define the meaning of being a warrior during this time was wee bit removed from the usual "good soldier" routine. The tried and true warrior was in need of a revamp or a total recall. Following story is what Kitty refers to as to total recall of bushido.

Because of the years of civil war, the ruling shogunate liked to keep a very tight leash on various daimyos by ordering them to live alternate years in their ruling domain, and in the capitol of Edo, close to the Shogun... where he could keep a wary eye on them. This was known as Sankin kotai. It was during one of these alternate living stints that the story begins.

The daimyo of Ako (Lord asano Naganori) was ordered to receive envoys from the royal court. To ensure the reception befit the stature of the shogun's envoys, a master of protocol (Kira) was assigned to instruct Asano on proper court etiquette.

The long and short of it is the two fellas did not hit it off. Kira was rude, Asano was stoic until he couldn't take it anymore. Asano took a swing at him (albeit with his sword). Needless to say this was a big no-no during a period when the changing face of government was doing its best to weaken its potential rivals. Even though Kira survived the attack, Asano was sentenced to death by the legendary seppuku or ritual suicide).

In addition to his death sentence, Asano's land would be confiscated and his samurai ordered to disperse - to become masterless samurai. This did not sit well with Asano's loyal samurai back in Ako and they vowed vengeance.


In all versions, Kitty appears as Oishi Kuranosuke, the leader and driving force behind the act of the 47 ronin. In the more dramatic retelling of the story, Oishi took on the role of a drunken womanizer as part of the plan to lull Kira into a false sense of security. I'm sure Kitty doesn't hold much with such dramatic license. She wears the the coat of the Edo fireman and bears the family crest of Lord Asano.

As the story goes, 47 of Asano's most loyal samurai set into motion a long term plan to avenge their master. They dispersed and pretended to be living as drifters, gamblers, drinkers and trouble-makers. After two years, their "activities" as ronin were convincing enough to put the ever-paranoid Kira at ease. Now it was time to set the plan in motion.

On a wintery morning, disguised as Edo firemen, the ronin marched their way to Kira's compound. They found Kira hiding in a charcoal shed and offered him the choice of dying in a manner befitting his stature (in other words, seppuku) but he would not respond. Let's just say, the ronin helped Kira meet his end and took his head back to their master's grave at the Senjaku-ji temple to let him know he had been avenged and his family's honor restored.

Kitty (as Oishi) carries the drum that will signal the attack on Kira's compound. Her fellow ronin have been instructed to split into two groups (half in the front, half in the back). Once in place, Kitty bangs the drum and the battle begins

In Hollywood, the story would end here with honor restored and the warriors riding off into the sunset. Unfortunately, this is Japanese-Warrior theatre (the stuff of Kurosawa and John Ford) and the vengeance is just act II. The climax is the ethical quandry that arises when honor conflicts with laws of order. On the side of honor, the ronin had remained faithful to their master and to the code of bushido. However, they had disobeyed the laws of the Shogunate. There was a great deal of public sympathy for the ronin so the Shogunate needed to show that their rule was still absolute, but not without respect for sentiment for their acts as warriors.

Like their master, the ronin were sentenced to death by seppuku --meaning that they would be mortally punished for their defiance of the laws, but would recognized and honored as true samurai. Their bodies were laid to rest in front of their master's tomb in Sengaku-ji.

To this day the act of these samurai are honored every year on December 14th at Senjaku Temple in Tokyo (which probably explains the two regional versions of this legendary Cat).

The story of the 47 Ronin inspired a number of classic kabuki, bunraku plays in addition to modern movie and televsion adaptions. The latest rumor? Keanu Reeves as Oishi. Oi! I prefer Kitty. She understands and demonstrates cultural context in this adapted watercolor of a ronin.