47 Ronin and Appropriation

I was at the movies last night, and in the trailers I was subjected to a preview of “47 Ronin”. It seems like a pretty amazing movie, right? I mean minus that we have a white guy ‘saving’ a bunch of Japanese people (yes, yes, the character is “half-Japanese”. Which is simply an expression of ‘yellow face‘). Keanu Reeves with a katana, how awesome is that, amiright?

Actually, there’s a LOT wrong with it.

Here’s the trailer:

We have demons, witches, dragons, lots of dudes with swords, giant mutants. Oh, what a story is this 47 Ronin. Anyone who criticises it must surely be a curmudgeon with no sense of art or fun.

Cultural erasure occurs when the traditions and practices of a culture are neglected by a people and replaced by the traditions and practices of another culture. While this isn’t necessarily negative, it’s certainly not a positive thing when these changes are coerced or imposed by a different cultural group.

An effective way to erase the culture of a people is to replace their history with an alternative narrative. One could simply refrain from discussing the historical event (such as the head tax that was placed upon the Chinese people in Canada, or the kidnapping of Japanese and Korean women by the Japanese government during World War II (euphemistically called “comfort women“)). A more effective way is to replace the event with another narrative, but given the same name. This has the dual benefit of giving people a false narrative to refer to whenever they hear the name of the event (so they think of the recent pop culture phenomenon, rather than the historical event that they had never heard of), and also makes it more difficult to research the actual event by, essentially, polluting the databases of the world with false positives.

Such is the case with 47 Ronin.

There is an historic event already known as 47 Ronin. There is already a wealth of literature, stories, plays, and movies about this event, dating back to the 17th century. The Chūshingura have been performed for hundreds of years. Demons are not involved. Witches are not involved. There certainly isn’t a white person leading the charge in any of these stories.

The original story (I’m focusing on the Kabuki) is one that focuses on the (alleged*) cultural norms of Bushido, and the revenge of the clan against those who killed their lord. While there was certainly a leader of the band, the story doesn’t particularly glorify their role. Moreover, the plan is not to ‘die in the act’, but to subsequently commit ritual suicide (seppuku).

Whether this is an entirely true account is irrelevant: how much of the popular story of Robin Hood is true? What is relevant is that this is a Japanese story, to which America is now laying a claim. This kind of cultural appropriation and erasure is simply not cool.


Follow-up: a solution (to my specific criticism) would be to simply not name the movie after an historic event. Call it 53 Ronin, or something else. This doesn’t resolve any of the other issues, however. And yes, I know that this movie is based on a comic, my criticisms also apply to the comic (insofar as the movie follows the comic).

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