Friday, July 24, 2009

Review - Lone Wolf and Cub

Lone Wolf and Cub
Written by Kazuo Koike

Illustrated by Goseki Kojima

2001 Eisner Award Winner for Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material

I've mentioned my appreciation for this series before so the fact that I enjoyed it in general isn't going to be a surprise. I originally encountered the stories when First Comics was publishing them in the 1980's. I read a few of them, liked them, but wasn't hooked enough to follow the stories. Then in 2000 Dark Horse began reprinting the series in a tiny paperback format and again I sampled a few volumes. This time I started picking up a few books here and there as I stumbled across them at a discount but it wasn't until last year where I filled in the gaps and read the whole story.

The series clocks in at around 7000 pages so it's safe to say that I'm not reviewing the whole thing. I'd have to do a blog just on Lone Wolf and Cub to give the series it's proper due. So instead I'm focusing on what was available when the Eisner award was handed out and that's first four volumes: The Assassin's Road, The Gateless Barrier, The Flute of the Fallen Tiger, and The Bell Warden.

Lone Wolf and Cub is the story of shogun's executioner Ogami Itto and his young son Daigoro in shogunate era Japan. When accused of a crime by his political rivals Itto chose to leave the capital rather than commit suicide. To support himself and his son on the road to revenge he sells his skills as an assassin. He becomes a terror throughout the country as a samurai who is willing to use bushido as a weapon against his foes.

These early volumes usually have simple stories: someone comes to Itto with a problem and a pile of gold, Itto comes up with a morally reprehensible plan like using his son as a distraction to kill the target, and then the wander off again to the next adventure. These are pretty good stories but they do start to become repetitive. The real gems in these books are the ones that hint at the deeper storyline that runs through the series.

The first volume ends with a story about Itto asking his eighteen month old son to choose between his own death and a life of killing. Besides the disturbing concept of asking an uncomprehending child about these things it also introduces the reader to meifumado, a path of vengeance that requires those who follow it to give up all worldly concerns except their revenge. It's a hint of the Buddhist themes that really come into focus in the second volume when Itto is hired to kill a buddha on the road and does so by mastering the suppression of the self. It's a strange story that comes across as another assassination story unless the reader recognizes that it's actually about zen philosophy. Finally there are hints that despite an arrangement to not attack each other Itto's political enemy is attempting to arrange his death before Itto can complete his own scheme for revenge.

Itto is a terrific character to read about because he is one of the great anti-heroes. There's no way to describe him as anything other than monstrous both by the standards of the day and modern viewpoints. At the same time his foes are even worse; he may be a monster but he chose to become one and will be the first to acknowledge it. Balancing him with his innocent son that he pushes through Japan in a wooden baby cart filled with weapons just blurs the morality even further. How is Daigoro being shaped by this upbringing is something that will haunt readers.

While I'm not an expert on the era (I've got just enough knowledge from some books to get by) I do get the impression that Lone Wolf and Cub is meticulously researched. Koike drops a lot of detail into his setting and the stories often rely on some bit of history or culture that is explained to the reader at the beginning of the chapter. If you're a history buff then you'll find a lot to like.

Kojima's art is an interesting thing. Lone Wolf and Cub was created in 1970 before a lot of the stylistic rules of manga became set and consequently it doesn't really look like most manga. His normal work has a heavily textured style that is very distinctive but occasionally he departs into charcoal and other softer techniques. In addition he is absolutely spectacular with silent storytelling and often conveys the story just through the expressions of the characters. There are several sections where it is just his artwork that carries the narrative and they become longer and more frequent later in the series.

Something that I cannot avoid talking about with Lone Wolf and Cub is the misogyny. They might be the most misogynistic books I've ever read. It goes beyond the sexual roles that would be common in the period or even the treatment of women in Japan during the 1970's. I am not exaggerating when I say there are exactly two roles for women in the series: rape victim and manipulative killer. Occasionally they'll overlap such as the woman who ends the fourth volume; she flashes her tattooed breasts at male swordsmen to distract them while fighting as part of a revenge scheme for a rape. Rapes are typically depicted on panel as well and while they're not so common that I'd called the series "rape porn" they do show up quite a bit. If a woman has a speaking part in this series then an ugly fate will follow shortly.

These four books are a nice collection of samurai action stories that hint at a larger story to come and they are very effective. Those hints are enough that I would recommend it to anyone looking for a rich historical drama. Lone Wolf and Cub could have been just an ultraviolent adventure story but Koike and Kojima find something deeper to say with it.