The historical event, known as the Ako incident, took place in the early years of the 18th century but quickly became the stuff of legend. The story goes that Asano Naganori, lord of Ako, was requested to help carry out certain duties at the shogun’s court.
Kira, a court official, was assigned to instruct Asano in court etiquette, but treated him with such open contempt that the country lord drew his sword in anger and attacked.
This breach of palace protocol was so grave that it mandated ritual suicide, leaving Asano’s 47 samurai as ronin: warriors without a master. The ronin pledged revenge and after two years of planning staged a night-time attack, beheading Kira. They then turned themselves in, submitting to their own ritual suicides.
The story was passed on in many media, entering popular Edo culture through the literary rendition Kanadehon Chushingura (1748). The woodcuts are from the iconic retelling Biographies of the Loyal Retainers (1847-48) by Kuniyoshi, one of the late masters of Ukiyo-e art.
The series is currently showcased in New York’s family-owned (and appropriately named) Ronin Gallery, specialising in Japanese and East Asian art. The show runs until October 20 with prices ranging from $500-2000.
Each hero is shown posed on the brink of action in single portraits, carrying the ronin into the popular musha-e or ‘warrior picture’ genre. One of the divisions of Ukiyo-e art, these images are marked by fluidity between fact and fiction, allowing artists to conflate history, legend, literature and theatre.