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Monday, December 16, 2013

47 RONIN (audiobook) by John Allyn




Originally published in 1970.
Audiobook version published in 2013 by HighBridge Audio.
Read by David Shih
Duration: 7 hours, 34 minutes.

Based on historical facts, the story of the 47 Ronin is a very popular one in Japan that has been told and re-told hundreds of times in books, plays, films, manga and more. A friend of mine that teaches Japanese compared it to the tale of King Arthur in England in that some versions feature magic, some extra characters, some are longer and some are shorter but there are some things that are consistent in every version.

Of course, not being Japanese, Westerners often miss some of the power of the story. John Allyn's knowledge of the language, his time in Japan during the Post-World War II occupation and his extensive experience with theater made him a fairly unique talent to present this story to Westerners. Allyn explains quite a bit as he tells the story , including items that would not have to be explained to native Japanese.

It is 1701 and Lord Asano, one of the many feudal lords of Shogunate Japan is making his yearly trip to meet with the Shogun and pledge his loyalty. Asano's lands are a fair distance away from the Shogun's capital city and the glitz and glamour that comes with it. Asano is considered to be a bit of a country bumpkin by some because he does not wear the latest fashions and he does not desire to be involved in the intrigues of the Shogun's court. He also has little interest in learning how to do all of the pomp and procedure a visit to the court requires and this is where the problems start. Asano is old-school in a new world where knowing a ceremony seems to be a lot more important than being a loyal soldier of unquestioned talent and loyalty.

The court's Master of Ceremonies, Kira, is supposed to teach men like Lord Asano where to stand and how to bow so that they ceremonies move smoothly. Kira is good at his job but he has been demanding a fee for these services even though they used to be provided by the Court for free. Lord Asano is sure that Kira is corrupt and he refuses to pay. Kira tries to provoke him to pay by whispering in Asano's ear that he will take his fee in trade by sleeping with Asano's wife is Asano is too poor or too cheap to pay in cash.

With this insult to his honor and pride Asano draws his sword and strikes down Kira even though fighting in the Shogun's castle is forbidden. Kira's injuries are severe and everyone says that he will die soon. For this Asano is ordered to commit seppuku, ritual suicide by his own sword and his family's lands are turned over to the Shogun. Asano's samurai are now ronin - lordless samurai. Their master has been dishonored, his family scattered and their lives overturned by the greed of Kira.

19th century woodblock print of the 47 Ronin gathering to attack Kira.
But, Kira survives his wounds and the ronin feel the need to finish the work that their Lord Asano had started. If Kira had been killed by Asano then they would just have to accept their fate. But, since Kira lives a group of these Ronin, led by Asano head samurai, Oishi, plan to kill Kira, no matter if it costs them their own lives...

The foreward by Stephen Turnbull explains the historical significance of the story of the 47 Ronin and what makes John Allyn's version fairly unique. David Shih's narration is excellent, especially with the pronunciation of some of the people and places.

But, I rate this story only 3 out of 5 stars because it just drags in the middle while Oishi is letting his long-term plan develop. Not that his plan was a poor one (really it was quite clever) or that it did not need to be explained (it did) but it just took too long to explain what was essentially a waiting game of deception to make sure Kira let his guard down. On top of that, the fight scene at the end was a bit anti-climactic.

Note: I was sent a copy of this audiobook by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Note: This edition of the book claims to be a tie-in to the Keanu Reeves movie version also called 47 Ronin due to be released in December of 2013. From what I can tell by the commercials there are significant differences.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on December 16, 2013.

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