This work is actually educational and could be considered a historical commentary.
This article was originally written on 12/23/2014, but has been lightly edited. May contain conceptual/structural spoilers to the work.ChuSinGura 46+1 (CSG 46+1) is a work which balances levity with hard history. On one end, the work recounts the events of the Chūshingura as a historian would – by scouring through sources and piecing together multiple perspectives. The work faithfully replicates the norms of the period – diving deep into the societal ethos to immerse the reader into its world. On the other end, the ronin (who were historically male) are female. Some events are written to be comedic in nature, inapposite to a ‘serious’ work. Nonetheless – this amalgam of genres, while not perfect, towed the line well & ultimately made the work both intriguing, and a blast to read.
CSG 46+1 is a modern rendition of the classic Chūshingura (忠臣蔵), which is “the title given to fictionalized accounts in Japanese literature that relate the historical incident involving the Forty-seven Ronin and their mission to avenge the death of their master, Asano Naganori.” This means that the plot is for the most part, predictable – if you were to compare at a glance the incidents of a typical Chūshingura with inre’s, you’d find that most of the events parallel. Of course, there’s a twist — all of the noted ronin are female… and this is an eroge.
From the get-go, a reader might be persuaded into presuming that this game is entirely lighthearted, or at the least, tongue-in-cheek. To my surprise, this wasn’t entirely the case. Rather, inre’s ChuSinGura 46+1 is probably one of the best visual novels centered around history. It excels at not only telling history (in presenting the events in chronology, through numerous, varied perspectives), but it offers ‘commentary’ on the event as a historian would (analyzing accounts, aspiring for veracity through scrutiny, and literally avoiding teleological interpretation). Of course, it’s not to say that it’s a straight-laced, solemn adaptation. Rather, there’s a bunch of inanity and shenanigans endemic of Japanese media. Nonetheless, on the same note, this is a work with a great deal of hard history (as in this work offers a great deal of information about Edo Period and arguably, the Medieval Periods too). I’d go as far as to say that it’d be difficult to fully enjoy the work without some type of previous knowledge that a typical Japanese reader would have as a result of schooling, and of general common culture.
Indeed, while the work does an excellent job of explicating some events & concepts that the audience should be aware of, it assumes that the reader is Japanese – i.e. knows of some abstract/historical concepts specific to Japanese culture as a result of schooling. For instance, CSG 46+1 is willing to delve into the nuances of the plot/political landscape – because that’s crucial to it being a Chūshingura. But, CSG 46+1 doesn’t delve into the intricacies of what bushi (武士) is (i.e. an expansive worldview, more than just swords and honor); the work doesn’t explain the purpose of historic, political control mechanisms like the sankin-kōtai system (which it just uses) – same goes for tozama/shinpan designations & their implications – nor the cause/effect of the period’s social stratification and its relation to cleansiness/purity. Nonetheless, even if the reader isn’t familiar with the intricacies, they’ll still be able to follow the general plot well (but they’ll be missing out on one of the cooler parts of the work).
Since the work tries to be historically aligned, the work gets pretty immersive – the reader eventually gets caught up in the rhetoric, societal attitudes, and air of the time; the work wastes no time – as the work’s mood is consistently being developed alongside the plot. While the work gets wild towards the end (and less historically sound), I think it still tows the line between being informational & being a blast to read effectively. If anything, the consistency the work had shown up to that point attentuated any qualms I had with the plot – as this is ultimately a work you read for the experience (after all, if you want to know how it ends, just look up what happens in the Chūshingura).
In addition to being historically-interesting, CSG 46+1 is just a genuinely enjoyable character read. The work is linear with an enforced playing structure – each route starting and ending at about the same time. The work has five routes, each tied to a heroine that occupies a different sphere of the plot for revenge (i.e. work not repetitive). This made the work feel like the same event was being experienced by different eyewitnesses – adding a layer of historical complexity through the multifarious accounts. The protagonist in this work suffers from memory loss at the start, but retains his memories through each route – in a way, he experiences the same incident through different eyes, until gradually, he uncovers the whole truth. The protagonist is essentially a historian in this regard.
Although the work does a good job at developing its intrigue – the culmination to the true route, the work is still strong on a route-by-route basis. The heroines are developed well, with the romances within each route feeling feasible and meaningful. Some heroines start off weak or as jokes – but by the end, through adversity – they mature, and each of them is animated by an idiosyncrasy of the bushi concept – with their individual importance highlighted by the absence of a true, central heroine. The fact that I finished the work, not really preferring one heroine over the other, is a testament to how well the work tries to balance their characterization.
The above should not be conflated with the idea that CSG 46+1 is a super serious work. Some scenes could be construed as being poor, doggedly rough humor – or, as intelligent, political commentary on an emperor’s ill-advised decision to punish a loyal clan. The fact that the main characters are female add a layer of significance to the work – in both levity & in flavor (from a typical Chūshingura). Ultimately, this superposed existence of ‘hard history’ and ‘lightheartedness’ made the work seem approachable – which in turn, provides educational value to an otherwise uninterested audience.
For the history enthusiasts, more information below (not necessary).
The Chūshingura, which depicts the incident involving the 46 Ronin, was realized only because Asano Takumi-no-kami Naganori, the daimyo of Akō, attacked Kira Kōzuke-no-suke Yoshinaka, the kōke, or protocol official (in charge of providing the bushi with the proper mannerisms in court society). Now, this event occurred during the Edo Period (1603–1868) — the period prior to this one was referred to as the Warring States Period (Sengoku Period; 1467-1603). Some additional history (which ought to be common knowledge for a Japanese audience) in regard to this, should be given for an English audience unfamiliar with Japanese history.
Japan during the Heian Period (794-1185) revolved around the Imperial Court, in that the emperor (and his family/the other nobles) possessed absolute power. They maintained their hegemony by establishing laws, and by claiming ownership of all of the lands within Japan (well, most of it at least). The Kamakura Period (1185–1333) which followed the Heian Period (794-1185) involved a shift of power, in that the bushi class arose. Now, the bushi class could more commonly be referred to as the warrior class. From the Kamakura Period (1185–1333) to arguably, the beginning of the Edo Period (1603–1868) , the Imperial Court did not have much power, and was arguably a figurehead which maintained its power greatly due to the fact that the general populace revered them (this was so egregious that many foreign leaders perceived the shōgun, or the highest-ranking bushi, as being the emperor). Needless to say, the Imperial Court didn’t really like losing their power. Between the Kamakura Period (1185–1333) and the Muromachi Period (1337 to 1573), an emperor by the name of Go-Daigo attempted to restore the power of the Imperial Court, by employing bushi to overthrow other bushi rulers (a relatively ironic predicament). Now, while Go-Daigo did succeed in overthrowing the bushi family which had ruled during the Kamakura Period, he was ultimately betrayed by the bushi that he had enlisted the aid of, and was subsequently exiled. So, we can see that the Imperial Court isn’t necessarily fond of the bushi. The bushi in protocol, deferred to the Imperial Court, but the latter didn’t quite have the power.
Now within this explanation, we’ve been using the word bushi quite centrally. It’s important to specify just what exactly a bushi is. The first word that comes into mind would be Bushidō (武士道), or the way of the warrior. But, this is more of a modern invention (as it’d be anachronistic to state that bushi in the Kamakura Period practiced bushidō). Nonetheless, a bushi is by all means, a warrior. During the Kamakura Period (1185–1333), to the end of the Sengoku Period (1467-1603), they were at the top of the totem pole of power. Now, keep in mind that the bushi came from varied backgrounds — a farmer could, in theory, rise to power. From the perspective of the court, this was very distasteful. Because the bushi were influential rulers, they had to directly interact with court nobles when it came to official tasks. The bushi had a relatively poor reputation, for being unrefined, and subsequently, unfit to properly deal with court manners. The events surrounding the Chūshingura depict this type of court elitism, by having Kira (the kōke, or protocol official in charge of providing the bushi with the proper mannerisms in court society) berating Asano, someone who he perceived to be inferior (as Asano did not defer to court etiquette by bringing gifts/bribes). So granted the perennial existence of de facto contention between the bushi class and the nobles of the Imperial Court, the bushi needed a way to really ‘justify’ or ‘legitimize’ their rule.
The most prominent aspect of the bushi concerns their deference to their lords, and their show of honor. This is due in part to their need for legitimizing their rule. Japan through the greater parts of their history, was a Buddhist country. In Buddhism, the most basic tenet forbids the taking of life. It’s for this reason that Japan through history, has shunned killing of any sort. Individuals which killed, or handled the dead, were dubbed to be inhumans, and outcasts of society. Japan has a long history with impurity; generally, they believe that impurity surrounds death. I won’t go much into much detail on this within this post, but for further reading, I’d refer to Marra’s The Aesthetics of Impurity. For further reading into the nonhuman denomination (which deals greatly with impurity), I’d refer to Amino’s Rethinking History: Fear and Loathing.
Furthermore, it should be understood that Japan in the past was so wary of impurity, that they associated any profession which involved contact with the dead (whether it’d be a butcher, or even a leather worker) with negative feedback. The bushi basically had to use their ‘honor’ (among other factors) to justify their existence (as it’d be odd to be ruled by those that killed, or violated the greatest tenet). So, a bushi, when they sought to maintain their loyalty towards their lords, did so in part because if they were not to, their authority would be falsified (A particular line within this novel goes something along the lines of “there would be no bushi without lords” — this is a rather profound statement). Since I’m a bit lazy, I’ll have those interested refer to these sources once more. Ikegami’s The Rite of Honorable Death is probably the best succinct source to refer to.
In any case, the Edo Period (1603–1868) which followed the Sengoku Period, or Warring States Period (1467-1603), involved the ‘restoration’ of court power. As we saw within the work, the daimyo, best referred to as territorial governors, reported to the court, and they ruled over the bushi class in maintaining order. The Warring States Period which preceded the Sengoku Period involved a great deal of chaos and conflict — one of the largest phenomena was called gekokujō, which basically involved violent disobedience from the lower classes to the higher classes. The Tokugawa family of the Edo Period, established numerous devices in securing their rule safely. The one device that we saw within the work itself was the sankin-kōtai system (which made Asano initially travel to the capital). This system was established in part by the court to control the daimyo.
Wikipedia succinctly summarizes this system as involving this:
“The details changed throughout the 26 decades of Tokugawa rule, but generally, the requirement was that the daimyo of every han move periodically between Edo and his han, typically spending alternate years in each place. His wife and heir were required to remain in Edo as hostages. The expenditures necessary to maintain lavish residences in both places, and for the procession to and from Edo, placed financial strains on the daimyo, making them unable to wage war. The frequent travel of the daimyos encouraged road building and the construction of inns and facilities along the routes, generating economic activity.”
Thus, the emperor would have an iron grip on the daimyo (by having them enact their rulings), and through the daimyo, the emperor would then control the militant forces (the bushi). Now, I had pointed out earlier the the Ako position of being tozama (outsider) designation rather than the more coveted shinpan (friends/relatives) designation. Tokugawa basically split up the territories (or han) so that those he perceived as ‘friends’ (those that aided his ascent for power) possessed territories surrounding the capital (providing him with great defense), whereas those less trustworthy were designated as outsiders (and given subsequently more distant, historically more unruly territories). He did this to basically preoccupy the tozama (outsider) daimyo with so much to consider, that rebellion would be the last thing on their minds (keep in mind, the Tokugawa family was very paranoid of the previous period of mayhem, of gekokujō). Within the work, we saw just how long it took for the protagonist to transverse to and fro the capital. A daimyo moving would’ve been even more difficult, as they’d have to go with a great amount of their followers.