In Genroku 14 (1701), Asano Takumi-no-kami, the lord of the domain of Akō, suddenly attacked Kira Kōzuke-no-suke with his sword in the shogun's palace in Edo castle. Asano was punished by being sentenced to commit ritual suicide the same day. The punishment also meant having his domain and all its properties confiscated and his clan disbanded. The following year, forty-seven of the former retainers of Asano's clan attacked Kira's mansion and killed him, avenging their lord's death by killing the man Asano had tried to kill. Historically, this event is known as the "Akō Vendetta," and it was a great sensation.
In old Japan, there was a custom known as "ada uchi" where the family or retainers of someone who was killed and whose killer could not be punished ordinarily had the right to avenge the death. Under certain conditions, a vendetta could be recognized legally. But even if not, in samurai society there was the justification of custom and Confucian values. It was a way of finding some kind of justice when ordinary law was not sufficient. The event was also celebrated by the common people and it immediately influenced the theater world, giving birth to many plays alluding to the "Akō Vendetta."
Finally in 1748, 47 years after the actual incident, the puppet play "Kanadehon Chūshingura" appeared at the Takemoto-za theater in Osaka. "Kanadehon" means "a model calligraphy book for kana," and refers to the forty-seven characters of the kana alphabet as corresponding to the forty-seven former retainers in the vendetta. The copybook is a model in the same way that those heroes are supposed to be moral models. "Chūshingura" means "treasury of loyal retainers." The mid-18th century was the high point of puppet theater and the dramas written for the puppets were so complex and sophisticated that they almost overshadowed the live kabuki drama of the time. "Kanadehon Chūshingura" was written by the same trio of playwrights responsible for "Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami (Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy)" and "Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees)." Together, the three plays are known as "The Three Great Classics" and continue to be performed frequently as both Bunraku and as adapted to kabuki. "Kanadehon Chūshingura" was so popular and successful that often the historical "Akō Vendetta" is described as the "Chūshingura Incident." The play became the definitive version of the story and in turn, inspired many different works in many different genres.
Many works that treat the "Akō Vendetta" make the final attack the climax of the story and make everything lead up to it. But while "Kanadehon Chūshingura" makes the original incident and the final attack the overall framework of the story, what makes it special is that the real focus is on how this event affects the people around it, their struggles, their varying personalities.
Because of a ban by the shogunate on the mention of contemporary events involving the samurai class, the historical characters are represented by historical characters from some 400 years before that. These characters are from the historical chronicle the "Taiheiki," a long epic about the creation of the Ashikaga shogunate and its early years. "Kanadehon Chūshingura" uses these historical characters and situations to dramatize the original historical incident. But it deftly interweaves these stories with all kinds of fictional characters and incidents that broaden the story. So while "Kanadehon Chūshingura" is a story of feudal virtue, it also is a story of how carrying out that vendetta came at the expense of all kinds of sacrifice. It is a story about love, ambition and greed told very immediately and that is what has made this play so loved for over two hundred and fifty years.