Posted - December 26, 2011 | Updated : April 28, 2012 | August 27, 2015
What is 5 Ronin?
5 Ronin is done in the spirit of Marvel's famous What If line of comics. It's the answer to the question "What if Marvel's most popular heroes were part of ancient Japanese culture?". So what we have here is Wolverine, the Hulk, Psylocke, the Punisher and Deadpool running around in feudal Japan. It's an intriguing concept.
The historical setting of 5 Ronin is during the period after the Battle of Sekigahara which happened in the year 1600. So it's a wild time because the Battle of Sekigahara was part of a series of battles, skirmishes and sieges that marked the transition of Japanese power from the then-reigning Hideyoshi clan to the new clan of the Tokugawa's. Sekigahara pretty much decided the fate of Japan as being in Tokugawa control, but this control could not be in place immediately, so for years after Sekigahara it was a transition period and this is where writer Peter Milligan places the stories of 5 Ronin.
One advantage of this is that the different artists involved gets to give us glimpses of traditional Japanese culture like:
Castles, Shrines and Temples
Wood was the primary building material for Japan during this period. At this time the most recent structures were the result of a period of peace under Tokugawa precursor Hideyoshi. Castle building was the primary focus. Japan was divided into domains and each domain was allowed one castle. Around the castle would be stone walls and moats, a clear indication of their defensive purpose. Inside where further fortified structures and lush gardens as can be seen in the panel.
This panel is from the Wolverine issue. The coloring of the armor certainly makes it blend better with the art of the issue - and I, for one, wouldn't mind a bit of artistic license to make the issue more beautiful - but samurai armor would, in fact, most likely be colored, just as it is in this panel. The color is a lacquer applied to the metal in order to protect it from the elements. Protection was the primary purpose of the armor but the armor should also be light to allow the samurai to ride horses and move around - same considerations as European medieval plate armor.
See the little notes hanging from the lamp pole? That's how the Japanese Logan gets his messages. Those are actually wooden blocks known as emas. They're not really a messaging system, well not an earthly one, prayers are written on these blocks and left in Shinto shrines.
These bells are called bonshou and they are Japanese Buddhist Temple bells. The panel shown here is from the Hulk issue of 5 Ronin. Because they are so big, creating such multi-ton monsters was a great achievement in the day - and one fraught with failure. As you can see, they are rung from the outside using tree trunks.
The furo or japanese private bath is the focus of this panel. Note the raised platform underneath? Most likely there's a heating element under the tub to keep the water warm. Another thing about the use of the furo is that it was meant to relax NOT to clean. Typically one must already have showered or rinsed to ensure cleanliness before going into the hot water tub. This is from the Psylocke issue were Wolverine is also a prominent character.
Traditional Japanese Garden Lamps
This looks to be like a type of andon, essentially an oiled wick or candle protected from the wind by paper. Sounds dangerous doesn it? But it works and creates just the right mood for this 5 Ronin Punisher story.
Imagine my displeasure when the Japanese version of the Punisher walks in with a gun in a story supposedly set in Tokugawa Japan. Well, it turns out I'm wrong. This isn't really a gun, its an arquebus, a muzzle loaded rifle, and quite a lot of them were employed during the Battle of Sekigahara. Leave it to the Punisher to make a beeline for the firearms.
Deadpool's Japanese Hat
Throughout the series, Deadpool wears a kasa or traditional japanese hat. There are several kinds of kasa but Deadpool wears the one for Buddhist monks, designed both to hide their identity and prevent them from being distracted.
Beautiful panel of a Japanese garden. I lifted this from the bloody and brutal Deadpool issue. But none of that violence in this panel - just ignore the sword in the corner. Anyway, this looks like a stroll garden designed for taking a short walk while admiring the carefully arranged landscape. Other types are the famous rock garden used for Zen meditations and the gardens used for tea ceremonies.
Japanese culture can remain amazingly fascinating and a lot of it can be seen in the pages of 5 Ronin.
5 Ronin : Looking at All 5 Issues
I expected a lot of traditional Japanese details from 5 Ronin - and the work delivers. The clothes, houses - wonderful details all over. It's a good read, but my attention would sometimes get derailed because of some plot point or other. For example, Wolverine's story somehow requires an entire group of samurais to look the same. Or take the Hulk story, which, is a bit too much ado about a guy with a bad temper. Story elements like these are a bit jarring, preventing 5 Ronin from really coming together.
Here's a closer look on my take on each issue :
Issue # 1, Wolverine : After the battle of Sekigahara a daimyo or lord is killed. As a result, all the samurai who once served him become Ronin or masterless samurai. All these samurai look alike, and they all look like Logan. One of them turns traitor and kills all the others except one whom he cannot defeat - this is the Wolverine that finds his way to the Psylocke issue. The final confrontation between the Ronin is instigated by the Japanese Deadpool.
Issue # 2, Hulk : A powerful warrior grows sick of the brutality of war, becomes a monk and a recluse. In a plot that reminds me of the movie "A Bug's Life", a village is in need of defending against a group of bandits. Hearing of the monk's former prowess, they send representatives to ask for his help only to be rebuffed. It is Deadpool, once again who convinces the monk to help. In the midst of this new battle, the monk is given over to an uncontrollable rage that is supposed to be reminiscent of the Hulk.
Issue #3, Punisher : Before the Battle of Segikahara, Japan was involved in a failed invasion of Korea. The Japanese Punisher is a veteran of this war and, much like Maximus in the movie Gladiator, comes home to see his home invaded and his family dead. True to the modern day Punisher, he goes on a mission of vengeance, strangely never targetting the daimyo who has command responsibility for the death of his family, only focusing on the henchmen. In the end he comes to the conclusion that he really doesn't want to die, thus, avoiding the ultimate confrontation with the daimyo - something that is left for the last issue and Deadpool. The issue also presents a brutal dichotomy : It shows the Punisher visit the same kind of violence done to his family on the family of another samurai - this is a very subtle and powerful sequence of panels from the issue.
Issue #4, Psylocke : Psylocke is half Japanese, half British. When the daimyo confiscated her British father's lands, the father commits suicide, leaving her to make her way in the world as a courtesan. She is strong-willed and tough and one day she encounters the Japanese Wolverine from issue 1. Psylocke is seething with anger against the daimyo who confiscated her father's property but Wolverine convinces her that it is her father who is more deserving of her anger - her Father who thoughtlessly abandoned his daughter to such a harsh life.
Issue #5, Deadpool : The underwhelming conclusion reveals the identity of Deadpool at last. Deadpool has made cameos in all previous issues and is revealed to be a former samurai in the service of the daimyo. He was betrayed by his lord during battle and has his revenge at last.
My Favorite 5 Ronin Issue : Psylocke
My favorite of the bunch is issue 4 : Psylocke. This issue doesn't have the plot flaws of the others. It is extremely well executed, presenting Psylocke's complex character, which is seductive, strong and adaptive all at the same time. After I put down the issue, I would think about the read and recall how gorgeous Psylocke was. So I came back with the intent of lifting a panel to show you - but that one panel I wanted wasnt' there. It must have been the whole issue that conveyed how fetching Psylocke is in 5 Ronin. In any case, here are some sample panels that reflect a bit of what I mean: