The Tale of The 47 Ronin is a (somewhat) true story of revenge and loyalty. The actual facts are much disputed, and large sections of the traditional narrative have been shown to be pure invention, but the story as generally told goes like this:
On April 21, 1701, Daimyo Asano Naganori and Daimyo Kamei no Tsuwano received an envoy from the Shogun in Edo. Having no experience in courtly etiquette, they hired Kira Kodzukenosuke Yoshinaka to teach them. Unfortunately, Kira was quite a jerk, and Asano, a devout Confucian, could barely tolerate him. Eventually, Asano had enough and attacked Kira. He managed to scar him, but he had committed a capital crime by drawing a weapon in Edo Castle.
Asano committed seppuku, and his holdings were taken from him. His now Ronin retainers were ordered to abandon the idea of revenge. Forty-seven of them secretly refused, and they hatched a plan, a cunning plan, a plan bordering on ridiculous in the amount of time it would take.
The ringleader, Oishi Kuranosuke Yoshio, told the others to hide amongst the populace as tradesmen and merchants, while Yoshio moved to Kyoto and decided to act like a broken man, getting drunk and hanging out with prostitutes, specially in the surroundings of the famous tea house Ichiriki chaya. A Satsuma man (described as a samurai himself and attributed in popular culture the name "Murakami Kiken") upon seeing Yoshio drunk in a gutter, insulted his honour for not avenging his master like a true samurai, spat on him and kicked him in the face. note
After a year in hiding, during which time Kira has stopped fearing assassination and dismissed most of his bodyguards, Yoshio secretly gathered his men and infiltrated Kira's home on December 14th, 1702. They attacked from front and back, sparing the noncombatants, and captured Kira. Yoshio offered him the chance to die by his own hand, with the knife that Asano had wounded him with, but he clammed up, so they held him down and used the knife to decapitate him. They took Kira's head to Sengaku-ji and laid it and the knife on their master's grave, saying prayers at the temple and giving all their money to the abbot. They then proceeded to Edo and turned themselves in.
The Shogunate had a quandary: the ronin had violated a direct order from the Shogun by avenging their master, yet some said they had acted according to Bushido by avenging their master. This has, inevitably, been debated: others believe the truly honorable thing would have been to just charge Kira's home ASAP, deciding to get gallantly cut to pieces through honest action rather than attain vengeance through trickery, especially given the major flaw in their plan — the potential for Kira to die of natural causes at some point before their attack — which would have left them unable to avenge their master. On the other hand, in a society where honour is most definitely more important than life itself, it could be argued that their actions were the ultimate demonstration of loyalty to their lord. By publicly dishonouring themselves to ensure their plan's success, they could be seen to be making the supreme sacrifice for Asano's sake. Therefore, the whole situation was a massive Logic Bomb for Japanese society of those days.
After receiving numerous petitions from the public, the Shogun decided to sentence them to death by seppuku instead of execution as criminals. Forty-six ronin died by their own hands on February 4, 1703; Yoshio had sent the last one, Terasaka Kichiemon, back to Ako to inform Asano's former retainers that their revenge had been completed. The Shogun pardoned him and Terasaka died at the age of 78, buried next to his comrades and his lord. Their weapons, armor, and clothing are still kept at Senkagu-ji. The Satsuma man who had insulted Yoshio came to Sengaku-ji to pray for forgiveness and then took his own life; he is also buried next to the ronin.
The Shogunate allowed Asano Nagahiro to reestablish the Asano clan, but only gave him a tenth of his family's former land.
It is probably appropriate to point out that despite the long-pedigreed valorization of the actions of the 47, there are still actually people who take a very dim view of them — among them obviously the surviving descendants of Kira Yoshinaka, who pointed out that he was merely a dutiful courtier whose life and legacy was stained by this controversy. Japan-based British historian Stephen Turnbull takes this view (even suggesting that, at best, their fight was more like a gang war-style execution) in a military history report published by Osprey in 2011.
Countless books, plays, TV shows, and movies have been made about the 47 Ronin.
- Kanadehon Chūshingura, a bunraku puppet show first played in 1748, is the most noted among the earliest fictional portrayals of the 47 ronin. To avoid the Shogunate's censorship laws, the authors of the play changed the names and moved the dates back to the Muromachi period.
- Kanadehon Chūshingura has also been made into a kabuki play.
- It was so popular as a play that many theaters got out of debt by staging it again.
- The History Bites episode "Samurai Goodfellas" recreates these events, playing them out in a manner reminiscent of The Godfather. The episode's Running Gag is that the 47 ronin can't all fit into the room, so only four principal actors appear at any one time; when they refer to themselves as a group, Yoshio (Ron Pardo) mentions "The other forty-three ronin in the hall."
- The 47 Ronin (Genroku Chūshingura, "The Treasury of Loyal Retainers of the Genroku era") is a 1941/1942 black-and-white two-part jidaigeki Japanese film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, adapted from a play by Seika Mayama.
- Chushingura is a 1962 film version of the story, produced by Toho, with an All-Star Cast that included Toshiro Mifune and Setsuko Hara (in her last film).
- The Assassin Gambit by William R. Forstchen has the 47 Ronin transported into the far future in order to settle a bet about military tactics between powerful but decadent humans and aliens who have access to time travel and too much free time on their hands. The staged battle soon spirals out of control and triggers a galaxy-wide conflict, but some of the Ronin survive to become characters in the sequel The Napoleon Wager.
- This incident is mentioned in Ronin, a 1998 thriller about a team of ex-Cold War spies who hire themselves out as mercenaries. The French doctor they seek help from is building a diorama of the 47 Ronin, and relates the tale to the protagonist 'Sam'. Sam approves of the methods of the 47 Ronin, but not their subsequent suicide — but the scene is a clue to Sam's own nature. Just as the ronin were pretending to have forsaken their duty, so Sam is only pretending to have left the CIA.
- In Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei, when he states that the lesson of today is the importance of holding one's tongue, he seems to take Kira's side when he describes it as a noble courtier who upset some violent country bumpkins by saying the wrong thing.
- In Ooku, the Forty Seven are almost all men, a rarity in post-Gendercide Japan. This naturally makes the fallout worse for Shogun Tsunayoshi.
- The Tokaido Road took an interesting turn on the tale and followed a fictional daughter of Lord Asano through her own plot for revenge. The book climaxes with the raid by the 47 ronin.
- Juken Sentai Gekiranger had an episode where, via time travel, the Gekirangers end up enacting the legendary raid early in order to obtain the Sou Jyu Tou from a Rinrinshi possessing Kira. By the time they "exorcise" Kira and leave, the real raid begins. As a result of the Gekirangers' raid, all of Kira's bodyguards are incapacitated, fitting in with the story as it is known.
- An episode of Lupin III (Red Jacket), "The Name of the Operation is Chuushingura", is a Homage to the 47 Ronin, where the ghost of Kira asks for Lupin's help in regaining an earthly treasure.
- Argentine anime/manga magazine "Ronin" began its first number by quoting this story. The magazine is made by the staff laid off when a previous magazine decided, due to pride, to close shop and run off to another country.
- An American live action film starring Keanu Reeves as the main character hit theaters on Christmas of 2013. In-story, Reeves's character is a half-Japanese/half-English slave man named Kai who befriends the ronin and joins them in their path to revenge. He ultimately commits seppuku with them.
- The manga Assassination Classroom plays off this story, with many of the Junior High Trainee Assassins named after members of the 47 Ronin, their principal named Asano, and their target Koro-sensei inspired by Kira's name. Even the minor characters of both stories share similar names.
- All Flesh Must Be Eaten has a scenario in the book Worlds of the Dead, dubbed The 47 Gaki. In it, the forty-six ronin who committed seppuku and Lord Asano rise from the dead and seek vengence on the Shogunate. Notably, there's a lengthy sidebar attached to this Deadworld, acknowledging the importance of the 47 Ronin in Japanese culture and asking forgiveness from any readers offended at seeing them used for a zombie story.
- Sano Ichiro's timeline eventually crossed with this event, resulting in the novel The Ronin's Mistress. Part of the book centers around the court determining the final fate of the 47 Ronin, while the rest deals with Sano's investigation of Kira's death, and the claims of the ronin regarding why Asano was forced into drawing his sword in the first place.
- Dark Horse Comics released a miniseries retelling the story which was illustrated by Usagi Yojimbo creator Stan Sakai.
- Jorge Luis Borges adapted the tale to Spanish in his first short-story collection A Universal History of Infamy. (He later distanced himself from the entire book, pointing out that he had been too timid at the time to write anything original and thus had merely taken this and other stories from other sources and altered minor details.)
- One episode of the original series of Yatterman had the surprise mecha of bot sides suddenly go on a retelling of this story, including the waiting one year part. With the battle taking less than a day as usual.
- Yoshio and Kira (the latter of whom turns out to be a dragon) both appear in a Christmas play that the cast puts on in Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid. Bear in mind that the play was supposed to be a retelling of The Little Match Girl.
- In Frank Miller's Wolverine, Logan's Love Interest and her husband go to see a kabuki troupe perform Chishingura. Logan, watching from the shadows, remarks to himself that it's one of the best renditions he's ever seen. Then it turns out that the kabuki troupe are Ninja and attack the couple. This does not go well for them, due to Logan's presence.
- Last Knights is a highly stylized European adaptation of the tale (albeit one directed by a Japanese director) that takes place in a After the End feudal future setting where a group of knights plots to avenge their lord after a court intrigue gets him executed.