The 47 Ronin by A.B. Mitford
This is an abridged and dolled-up reprint of A.B. Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan with lots of color illustrations. Tales was originally published in 1871, as Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford, a member of the British legation in Tokyo, witnessed the rapid modernization of Japan. He decided to set down some traditional stories before they were completely altered by new attitudes and customs.
The centerpiece, of course, is the mostly-true story of the forty-seven ronin who avenged their lord’s death against the enemy who caused his downfall. The ronin are culture heroes of Japan, who have been imbued with the virtues of honor and self-sacrifice by the frequent retelling of their story. As such, the behavior shown in this version may seem exotic and a little puzzling to modern Western readers. They’re all so polite!
(There is an upcoming movie which casts Keanu Reeves as a forty-eighth ronin character written specifically to shoehorn a partially-white person into the story so that Americans will watch it. I recommend the Stan Sakai comic book adaptation instead. Read the review for that here. http://www.skjam.com/2013/09/30/comic-book-review-47-ronin/)
There are several other stories of revenge and bloodshed, but also some light-hearted moments, and tales of the supernatural, including both evil and good cats. In between stories, Mr. Mitford has scattered information on the samurai swords, sumo wrestling and other interesting topics. The book finishes with scholarly appendixes on ritual suicide and funerary rites as they were then practiced in Japan.
The writing style may seem overly formal to modern readers, but is free of the more purple filigree often associated with Victorian literature. I strongly recommend this book to students of Japanese culture, and to manga/anime fans interested in the roots of some stories they’ve only seen modern adaptations of. (The original text is in the public domain, so should be easy to find in less expensive formats.)