Reel Life: 47 Ronin and a Question of Honor

47 Ronin

Release Date: 2013

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ko Shibasaki.

IMDB Synopsis: While hunting in the forest, Lord Asano of Ako and his samurai find a young half-breed and take him with them to live in the castle. Several years later, Lord Asano holds a tournament to welcome the Shogun to Ako. The night after the tournament, Lord Asano is bewitched into hurting Lord Kira of Nagato, and is punished into committing seppuku by the Shogun. Realizing that it was a Lord Kira’s evil plot, the samurais and the half-breed sets out for revenge against the Shogun’s order.

47 Ronin 2

I must admit, I do not watch a lot of movies or read a lot of books set in Japan. I am generally unfamiliar with their social customs and traditions. Apparently, the legend of the 47 ronin, or the 47 samurai of Lord Asano of Ako is renown all over Japan. It is one of their major mythology stories, and people visit the graves of the Ronin each and every year. A mix of Japanese history and fantastical elements, this movie captured the “larger than life” aspect of legends. Heroes are not simply heroic; they are supernaturally gifted. Villains are not simply bad; they plot with witches.

The most interesting part of this movie to me, however, was the question it raised about honor. The entire plot is built upon this amorphous, indefinable word. 47 men risk their lives to regain their honor…only to have to prove their honor by being willing to commit ritual suicide.

After the movie, I began to think about the different cultural definitions of honor. There are honor killings in some Middle Eastern countries, where women, who have been raped, are murdered by their brothers or fathers because their family’s honor has been stolen. There is an ancient tradition in India called Suttee where widows throw themselves onto their husband’s funeral pyres and consider it an honor(so do those in attendance). In Viking culture, a young servant girl would sacrifice herself at the funeral of her master, all the while believing that it was the honorable thing to do. Everyone else also believed that she would be rewarded for her action.

Our modern, Western minds cannot seem to wrap themselves around this idea of honor, and I must say, I can’t really blame us. I mean, who gets to define honor? How do you determine when your honor has been taken from you? How do you know when you have gotten your honor back? Can there be universal rules which define honor—a standard that crosses cultures, language barriers, and religions?

Just for fun, I looked up the definition of the word honor. Merriam-Webster had several definitions: “Respect that is given to someone who is admired,” “High moral standards of behavior,” “One whose worth brings respect or fame,” and “A good name or public esteem.” However, the definition that stuck with me was the following: “Good quality or character as judged by other people.” As judged by other people…hmmm…

That is the major theme of the ideas of honor I discussed above. In all of these scenarios, the opinions or traditions of other people determined what honored or dishonored an individual. This is especially true in 47 Ronin, where the Shogun is brought in to provide all the answers regarding everyone else’s honor.

In all of my ponderings, I decided that this is what I believe about honor: No one can take my honor from me. I can give it away. I can choose to water down my sense of self in a quest for acceptance. I can sell out my conscience in an attempt not to rock the boat. I can keep silent when the truth would put me in the line of fire. I can act in opposition to my beliefs and avoid what I know to be right.

Basically, I can dishonor myself. No one else has that power. I make that choice every single day.

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