Inu Chushingura, or the Tale of the 47 Loyal Dog Retainers

By OnnaMusha

WINNER - 2011 Samurai Fiction Contest

Hanzo was an unprepossessing young man, being almost perfectly round and somewhat short of mental powers. He was the only son of O-Chiyo, a woman of hectic beauty on the edge of middle age, who managed to make her living in Edo’s Shitamachi by simply being extremely agreeable to everyone who could be of material help to her family. Hanzo’s father had run off, horrified by the sight of him. Every day, O-Chiyo cursed the name of Yuichi, who she speculated now resided somewhere in Kyushu or even the Ryukyus, so eager was he to put distance between him and his idiot progeny.

O-Chiyo was a faithful mother, if not a faithful mistress. She was kept by at least three different men in widely distant areas of the city, on a rotating schedule, each believing her protestations of the need for a week’s devotionals according to the dictates of her Pure Land Buddhism faith. When her unusually large, liquid black eyes shone in a certain mischievous way against her well-preserved whitened skin, her benefactors would do anything for her.

One of her main men, a thinly-built but prosperous merchant named Benshiro, extended his kindnesses to her son Hanzo as well; as a result, he was favored of O-Chiyo. Benshiro’s dry goods shop was abutted by another nagaya, also owned by Benshiro. It had been abandoned by a group of suspected gamblers after a recent raid. In a magnanimous gesture, Benshiro allowed Hanzo to keep his 46 dogs in the nagaya. Previously, they had lined up along the street outside O-Chiyo’s tiny apartment in several ranks each night after wandering the streets of the Shitamachi by day.

Although Hanzo’s dogs were the best-behaved of all the Shitamachi canine population, they still caused unrest when particularly nervous citizens cowered at their approach. Most of the townsmen were afraid they would inadvertently cause harm to the dogs or that they would be called out for mistreating one of them, an infraction possibly punishable by the death penalty under the reign of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, the current Shogun.

Hanzo was careful to identify and keep tabs on his dogs, finger-weaving each one a special braided collar in his spare time. He knew nothing of the fear engendered by his small army of dogs. Perhaps he was too simple to realize the danger they presented should something go wrong and Tsunayoshi’s officials find out. Hanzo truly loved his dogs, and they followed him everywhere.

Hanzo delivered dry goods from Benshiro’s shop to his customers throughout the low city and sometimes in the samurai districts. His top lieutenant, a fawn-colored Shiba Inu bitch named Toyo, trotted along beside him, her twin sons Han’ya and San’ya behind. Together, they created a perimeter that ensured no one would jostle Hanzo in the performance of his duties. His strong, sumo-like frame could handle large parcels with ease, and his sure footing and record of zero losses was a perk for Benshiro’s business.

Certain samurai houses would make use of Benshiro’s brawny delivery man, and Hanzo often trudged all the way to the perimeter hatamoto homes near Chiyoda Castle, having special permission from the machi bugyo for the purpose. The orderly procession of his dogs behind him, led by Toyo, created a spectacle that brought him attention throughout the city. One or two of the samurai he made deliveries to even tossed around the idea of bringing this extraordinary man to the attention of the Shogun himself, as an exemplar of his own ideals of compassion to all animals and most especially dogs.

Hanzo was what could be called a “colorful local figure” in the Shitamachi and certain circles of the samurai districts. It is told among selected old families of Edo that Hanzo and his dogs played a significant yet now largely forgotten part in a famous incident in the city late in the year 1702, as reckoned in the old calendar.

It began one morning outside his nagaya, when Toyo presented a new dog to him. Hanzo fancied he understood dog speech, and so he could be seen oftentimes bent over, his ear close to Toyo’s sleek snout, listening hard to her words. Was this his imagination? It is hard to say in hindsight, as it all seemed so well-planned and orchestrated to have been pulled off by a half-wit and 47 dogs.

Concerning Toyo’s new dog friend, Hanzo learned his name was Zeni, his master having named him for his cost. He was a sleek gray Shikoku Inu, a one-penny dog perhaps, but he appeared well-taken care of, as was proper. Zeni’s master was Kichiemon, a low-ranking samurai (or maybe a high-ranking commoner; it was hard to tell) who caught up with him about 15 minutes after Hanzo’s introduction. Hanzo was shy with humans, and he couldn’t look directly at Kichiemon. Instead, he addressed Zeni.

“Is this your master, Zeni?” Zeni seemed to nod slowly and turned to the man. “He takes good care of you; tell him we will meet him as you said. You’re a good retainer, Zeni.”

Hanzo sheepishly glanced at Kichiemon, whose head cocked sideways, almost like a dog hearing a high-pitched sound. “Thanks, mister. My dog wandered off; you’re good to help him. See you ‘round.”

Kichiemon walked off, without a proper introduction. Hanzo didn’t notice, as Zeni had been properly introduced, and that was all that mattered to him. The proud, curled-tail Shikoku Inu folded into the bustle of the close-packed merchant district, and Hanzo resumed his duties next door. Toyo stood guard, as she always did. Her sons Han’ya and San’ya stood behind her in a phalanx, creating a silent front that marked Hanzo’s nagaya as the doghouse it had become.

Hanzo had deliveries to a couple of temples in the samurai district, Daitoku-in and Eko-in. The priest at Eko-in was friendly with the simple young man and asked him if he belonged to a sumo stable. Eko-in was frequented by sumo wrestlers quite often, and Hanzo certainly looked the part. He would always answer the priest with the name of his nagaya, simply “The Dog House.” The priest laughed, thinking it a joke at first but later realizing that Hanzo lacked in the finer levels of learning and understanding. But he obviously loved his dogs, and for any priest in the city, that was a good quality to encourage if one wanted favor with the current administration.

After several regular deliveries, Hanzo and the assistant priest Ryogen became friends after a fashion. Ryogen presided over burials of important dogs at the temple, and he had just handled a delicate puppy funeral for a member of the Tsuchiya family nearby. He knew all the local dogs, and so he and Hanzo spoke of their mutual charges.

It is by this means that Hanzo learned of a rather large group of puppies in the nearby Kira mansion, attended by their mothers and a couple of sires. Most of the samurai in the area kept a couple dogs, but Kira’s wife had been “blessed” with two full litters in the last week. The Kira dogs now numbered 16.

Hanzo could not resist stopping at the mansion’s walls after his delivery, where he, Toyo and several other of his dogs pressed their ears to Kira’s forbidding courtyard walls, straining to hear the dulcet tones of high-pitched puppy yips. During the next week, Hanzo and Toyo journeyed during the evenings, just to listen at the Kira walls after the day sounds had faded.

Toyo met Zeni a couple more times, and finally Kichiemon introduced himself to Hanzo after a fashion, when he ordered a batch of dry goods to be delivered to his own master Yoshida Chuzaemon. The amiable young man appeared at Yoshida’s rooms with Toyo, Han’ya, San’ya and several shadowy black Kai dogs.

“What brings you to the Kira mansion day after day, young man?” Yoshida asked.

Hanzo looked around, confused. In audience with Yoshida, he was even more shy, feeling completely out of place in the presence of the older samurai. Kichiemon put him more at ease, asking Zeni to sit next to him. Toyo rather liked Zeni, and so they provided a quiet distraction that allowed Hanzo to overcome his fear of samurai.

“What is the Kira mansion, honorable sir?” Hanzo really didn’t have a clue.

“The compound whose walls you bend your ears and those of your dogs to in the afternoons and some evenings, young man. That is the Kira mansion.”

Hanzo lit up. “I listen to the puppies, sir. There are many puppies in that house, not very old either. Toyo is very interested in them too. I think they must be Tiger dogs like mine here.” He gestured to a group of six Kai dogs that hung back at the edge of the yard.

“How would you like to see those dogs up close?” Yoshida winked at Kichiemon, who smiled uncertainly.

“Oh, sir! I would love to see the puppies! But that’s a samurai mansion, and I am a lowly commoner. They’d never allow me in.”

“But I think they would, young man, if you were to be the caretaker of those puppies. My man Terasaka has told me how well you keep your dogs. It is only fitting these pups should belong to you. Kira is a thoughtless man, and he is not worthy to have such fine dogs.”

Yoshida laid it on thick, so thick in fact, that Hanzo was afraid he couldn’t bear to keep it from his mother. Certainly she would help him if he asked. But Yoshida forbade it. Hanzo must be quiet about it. If all went well, Yoshida said, Hanzo would have the dogs and Kira would be none the wiser. This was the night of December 10th.

It took all of Hanzo’s willpower to keep the secret, even for a few days. He had the promise of Zeni and Kichiemon that they would help. They would create a distraction that would allow Hanzo and his dogs to carry the pups to safety without the guards or servants in Kira’s household being aware of it.

The night of December 14 was cold and quiet, and it was long after the Hour of the Dog. Hanzo had put out the lanterns at his nagaya, their prominent ? (Inu) characters winking out, leaving 46 pairs of shining eyes peering silently out, a slightly bluish glow, the many creature-eyes so characteristic of the Genroku.

The men crept in small groups, disguised as members of the fire brigade, this ruse giving them free pass through the various gates of the city after dark. Hanzo, however, had no pass. And yet he moved as freely as any fireman, with the confidence and innocence of a fool of the gods, attended by his loyal retainers, the 46 dogs his mother had allowed him to keep over the last several years. The 47th, Zeni, the dog of Terasaka Kichiemon, marched with the ronin in disguise.

One of the city’s gatekeepers asked Hanzo his business, but he was half-joking. Hanzo, resolute and righteous, answered with all seriousness, with a deep bow, “I am on a mission to rescue some puppies. I must save all noble dogs to the best of my ability, sir.”

The gatekeeper was moved by this, passing the young man and his dog army through. Near Eko-in stood the stark, forbidding walls of Kira’s mansion; Hanzo could hear a few quiet howls in a high register, but the silence of the fallen snow hung around the scene, and the yowls sounded more like ghosts on the wind.

A motley group of badly-disguised ronin stood at the front gate, and Terasaka emerged, leading Hanzo to the back gate, where Yoshida and at least 15 other men waited. A crash, rattle of keys and a rush from far away, then a sudden swinging of the back gate opened the mansion to the men and the dogs. Hanzo stumbled behind his lieutenants, falling heavily onto one of the guards, who was instantly knocked unconscious.

Toyo rushed to the dog cages and worried at the latch, Zeni and several others helping, scratching, biting and finally moving the wooden crossbeam. The pups milled around on wobbly legs, and Zeni played mediator, cooling the tension between the pups’ mothers and the alpha bitch Toyo. The result was that every dog in the vicinity was allowed to grab a pup in his or her mouth.

Hanzo witnessed this beautiful and orderly operation and resolved to procure extra treats for his troops from Benshiro’s stores to reward them for their valor. The chaos created by the men, however, was astounding. Several times, Hanzo narrowly escaped being dismembered by Fuwa Kazuemon, an overly zealous member of Terasaka’s group. No sooner had Hanzo pushed himself upright than the hapless gate guard he had relieved of his enormous weight suffered a vicious slash across the back from Fuwa’s blade.

Hanzo then tripped and rolled into Horibe Yasubei, who cursed loudly but flowed from full fall into a powerful mid-air swipe at a fleeing serving woman, who lost her long hair and part of her obi in one stroke but otherwise escaped. Horibe rolled out of sight and away from Hanzo, regaining his feet as he lurched toward the storerooms, screaming obscenities Hanzo tried hard not to hear. Horibe crashed into Onodera Junai and Oishi Chikara, the latter of whom cursed in a cracking adolescent voice, causing Horibe and Onodera to chuckle. The tension was slightly diffused, and the three men gathered themselves and took off into the far corridor.

Slowly Hanzo waited for the chaos to move away from him. Terasaka and Zeni crouched behind him, both panting from exertion. A man with too-bright eyes and a wobbly step leaned in a far doorway, holding a tokkuri flask in one hand and his sword in the other.

Terasaka whispered to Hanzo. “That’s our leader, Oishi Kuranosuke. Can you guess why people back in Ako called him ‘Hiru-Andon?’”

Hanzo looked puzzled. “But why would anyone need a lantern in daylight?”

“Exactly,” Terasaka smiled wryly. He saw Hanzo wasn’t getting the joke. “Zeni will find your Toyo and you will escape with them. Understand?”

Hanzo nodded and rose heavily, passing out of sight towards the front of the building. Terasaka was greeting his superior, when a bamboo whistle sounded in one of the far rooms.

Oishi dropped the tokkuri, staggering quickly in the direction of the sound, helped by Terasaka. Hanzo rushed to his task; he and Zeni sought Toyo, who had led her charges quietly through a sleeping area and along to the front courtyard. Hanzo’s dogs stood patiently in orderly ranks, some licking the weeks-old pups to calm them. Soft whimpers underlay the rising sound of clashing swords from inside the mansion.

Hanzo’s group had paid little real attention to the bloody attack going on around them, being more interested in the Kira dogs. Thus, they had mostly managed to avoid the worst of the violence. Hanzo rushed to his charges, dodging the occasional thrusting spears of the ronin and tripping over a discarded otsuchi hammer.

Hanzo watched as Fuwa Kazuemon, that most violent member of Terasaka’s group, executed a neat one-stroke decapitation of a dazed servant. The simple young man, having no notion of the moral ambiguity represented by this act, was untroubled by the higher questions, although the sight was unpleasant. Fuwa’s stroke was so powerful, however, that it swung wide and clipped the ear of San’ya, one of Toyo’s young Shiba sons.

This made Hanzo mad. It also galvanized him to get his dogs out of there quick. Hanzo aimed a powerful kick at Fuwa’s stomach, heedless of the deadly blood-drenched sword the skilled ronin held ready. Hanzo’s sumo build ensured a hard fall and bouncing head knock for the overzealous ronin.

Gently lifting the stricken San’ya, Hanzo received a few terror-inspired bites, but he didn’t feel them. He whistled for Toyo to lead the retreat. A stampede of dogs tripped another two Kira servants, and Hanzo did not look back to see if Fuwa was chasing him or chopping off the heads of the unfortunate menials. He didn’t care at this point. He sensed in his animal brain that this was a scene to escape.

He appeared, bedraggled and bloodied by San’ya’s agonies, at his friend Ryogen’s gate. The dogs filed in behind Hanzo, some with pups in mouth. Their great virtue, respectful silence, meant that they were easily hidden inside Eko-in’s walls, even while Ryogen denied entrance to the fleeing ronin shortly thereafter.

In the weeks that followed, the rumors blew up, the inevitable speculation about the ronin attack and admiration for a revenge well-executed. Among the common Edokko, however, local legends rose that circulated only through highly perishable one-sheets and word-of-mouth. The tale was told to patrons in the shops of merchants and shared between the parishioners of local temples: the heroic story of the great sumo leader and his 47 dog ronin, each complementing one of the human avengers, bent upon their own mission, the rescue of distressed puppies being held by the dastardly Kira household.

Local temple parishioners now fancied they recalled the sounds of the pups in the mansion as they yipped and yelped, and the townspeople were certain, in retrospect, it had meant the pups were in danger. Hanzo and his dogs had saved them; it was good publicity to have in the reign of Tsunayoshi.

Curiosity seekers sometimes visited Benshiro’s shop and saw the hulking but amiable young man sitting on the front steps of the nagaya, hand-braiding new collars for his swelling ranks. He inevitably gave the bulk of the credit to his 47 loyal dog retainers, as he called them. Somehow the news reached the castle, because a special messenger presented himself to Benshiro and O-Chiyo, who dressed in their finest for the occasion. O-Chiyo even embroidered a special dog emblem on Hanzo’s best kimono, just for the occasion.

It was said that Hanzo was appointed as a hatamoto, with a stipend adequate to provide for his dogs and a new kennel near the outskirts of the city. Zeni also came along to the kennel, as his master Kichiemon had disappeared after the incident at the Kira mansion. The dogs flourished in Hanzo’s kennel for generations. When Hanzo reached old age, it is said he was visited once again by Kichiemon, who provided one of his heirs to take over Hanzo’s kennel. Thus, the dogs retained their ties to the Ako ronin, or so the story is told in the Shitamachi.