Tuesday, July 29, 2008

More a Recommendation
Than a Real Review

Lone Wolf and Cub, Written by Kazuo Koike & Drawn by Goseki Kojima, Dark Horse Comics, 2001-2003

I'm not really a big martial arts fan. I liked Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon quite a bit, but have never gone in for Bruce Lee films or any big fight-scene based films. While it's easy to recognize balletic skills in many of these choreographed dust-ups, beyond that visual admiration there's very little to hold my attention.

So even though I'd been aware of the samurai series of manga comics Lone Wolf and Cub since I first got seriously into comics in the mid 80s, it was never something that pressed itself upon me to read. A few entertaining and touching manga (the former, Ranma 1/2, the latter, Barefoot Gen) turned me on to the reading value of Japan comics, as well as the collected Akira saga which simply everyone read back in the day, and thus when I passed a full shelf of the 3000+ pages of Koike's 28 volume epic I decided to take the plunge.

The biggest complaint I had in the beginning was that there didn't seem to be much character development. That still stands having finished all 28. The main character of Ogami Ittō, the ex-executioner for the shogun, is presented as the perfect Samurai both in his skill and in his conduct. He never makes a mistake, he never loses a battle. The perfect killing machine, he embarks upon his assassin's path after his wife is killed and he is framed by the head of the Yagyū clan. The only survivor of the assassination attempt, Ittō's one year old son Daigoro is taken along with him, thus providing the series title.

The first few volumes don't really develop much of the longer story that is at the heart of the series, instead opting to show Ittō in action as he slices his way through dozens of attackers, bodyguards, targets, etc. This episodic approach almost put me off the series, as simply reading accounts of an invincible assassin who rolls his cart into town and kills everyone who opposes him grows quickly tiresome. The fight scenes themselves tend to be three or four blurry panels with the edge of a sword recognizable in a flash of motion, then a body on the ground. I'm not sure if more detailed scenes of fighting would have improved this or worsened it, but by volume three's end I was more or less deciding to give it up.

With twenty five volumes to go, things had to get better. A few teasers about the past started to creep in, as well as longer scenes (eventually in later volumes full stories) featuring Daigoro, three at the time of the book's first story, made me continue on. Plus, I hate leaving anything unfinished. The real heart of the story is Daigoro. A very cutely drawn child, he is quite monstrously unfazed by the blood and death surrounding his father's current occupation. Often held by Ittō, Daigoro on occasion even acts as accomplice in the assassination's. Sometimes used as a distraction, sometimes as his bait, Daigoro is completely adorable, a weird feeling to have about a child who kills his first man at the age of three. Granted, the person he kills was coming to kill him, but still.

Koike eventually starts to focus more on the epic struggle between Ittō and the Yagyū, showing how the scheming of the latter family has secured their status as the right hand of the Shogun. We learn of the various subterfuges employed by the Yagyū for consolidating and maintaining their power. At times it feels like Koike's story is less about Ittō and the Yagyū than it is about feudal era Japan, when the capital was named Edo. We learn of the various trades of the peasants, the structure of civil society, governmental posts, the difficulties in transporting mail from one end of the country to the other, monasteries of the era, and a host of other things. One of the aspects of Lone Wolf and Cub which is regularly praised is the fidelity of Koike's historical accuracy. In this, I must defer to the experts, though at times I found myself confused by a welter of unfamiliar terms and arrangements.

None of this historical business is significant enough to detract from comprehending the story which is at its heart about revenge and purity of misison, but it adds a nice layer of authenticity. With this attention to detail, believing in a man so single-minded of purpose, so driven by his sense of honor, duty, and vengeance, Koike builds the kind of fictional world in which Ittō feels less fantastic and more like an ideal.

I was surprised at how caught up in the storyline I became by the time I'd made it to volume ten. Originally, I checked three books out of the library and read them over the course of a little less than a week. By the time I'd made it to the halfway point, I was chewing through one a day. By volume twenty, I'd moved on to sitting down and reading several in one go. I'd come to need to see how this would end. Ittō had lived through every challenge, suffered every indignity, uncovered every secret of the Yagyū clan. It all came down to a battle between Retsudo Yagyū and Ittō himself, both masters of their respective schools of swordsmanship.

The ending shocked me immensely and managed to jerk a sob out of me. Of all the characters left standing at the last page, not one had a dry eye. I myself choked back tears, sitting out in public reading near people, surprised at how much feeling I'd come to have for these characters. I could understand how this series had been such a hit in Japan at the time of publication. The last words of the series, the last four or five panels, are an amazing culmination, perfectly natural and falling neatly into place with consummate art.

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