Lone Wolf and Cub 5

November 3, 2012

Kazuo Koike / Goseki Kojima – Dark Horse – 2001 – 28 volumes

I put off reading this a little bit because it seems, after 12 years, this series is going out of print. I’ve been waiting for copies to come in at work, as they used to appear with amazing frequency. Predictably, when I started looking, no copies of volume 6 have arrived in the last year. Some day, though.

In the meantime, I’ve got volume 5 to keep me company. It’s still as good as I remember. One of the more epic moments in the volume comes in a story about a band of rough bandits that looks to get revenge and a bounty on Ogami. They manage to kidnap Daigoro, and threaten to kill him unless Ogami Itto reveals where the money from his commissioned kills is kept. Ogami Itto refuses, and explains that while he’s sure they will kill Daigoro, he refuses to reveal the location, so all that will be left are corpses in the sand after their confrontation. When the bandits express shock over the fact he wouldn’t protect his son, he comments that Daigoro understands that father and son are on the path of Meifumado together, and that the result is incidents like this.

It’s a powerful moment. Of course, it ends with Ogami Itto killing all the bandits single-handedly, which is also awesome. Always a pleasure to see it illustrated in this series, too.

My favorite story overall, however, was one called Black Wind, about Ogami Itto joining some rice planters in season. He does not explain his presence, only offers to help with the planting. The farmers, all women, are delighted but mystified by his presence. They are also charmed by Daigoro. It’s an unusually placid story, but has its moment of action when bandits come to recruit Ogami for whatever cause they need men for (which explains where all the men went). He refuses, and slaying happens, as is the pattern in this series. The confrontation wasn’t the point of the rice planting, however, and it ends as calmly as it started. It’s an unusual story, and a nice change of pace for the series.

One of the stories is about Asaemon, the Shogun’s headsman, last seen in Blade of the Immortal, at least for me. The Yagyu, wanting revenge against Ogami, sends Asaemon against him, thinking that it will be a fair match between superior swordsmen. It’s an interesting duel, particularly since Asaemon has no particular vendetta against Ogami and respects him as a swordsman.

I don’t read volumes of this very often, and I always forget how good they are until I pick up the next one. I really should dip into it more often, especially since they’re vanishing into the secondhand market. Here’s hoping I run across a set before too long.

Lone Wolf and Cub 4

December 7, 2011

Kazuo Koike / Goseki Kojima – Dark Horse – 2000 – 28 volumes

I’ve got several volumes of Wounded Man, Lone Wolf and Cub, and Crying Freeman in my to read pile at the moment. I’m pretty sure the depravity is starting to spread to my unread shoujo series, so I thought I should get some read. Lone Wolf and Cub is the best one, so let’s try that first.

I had forgotten how good this series was. Or this volume was really great. There are four stories in here, and only the second, Unfaithful Retainers, was something I couldn’t get into. Unfaithful Retainers had a lot more to do with the social system in place at the time, specifically hired retainers for samurai families and how corruption devolved the positions into a kind of collective gang. Ogami was hired to help take out several of the retainers, while two children took revenge for their father. It just wasn’t very exciting stuff compared to what the rest of the volume had to offer.

The first story, the Bell Warden, was about the bell warden, a time-keeper, hiring Ogami to battle the men in position to take his place. If Ogami could kill them, then the men were never meant to hold the position of Bell Warden since you have to be able to fight your way through even a siege on the city in order to keep the time. Not only was this story’s premise ridiculous, each of the three men Ogami fought was a master of some sort of bizarre weapon. The battles themselves were pretty fantastic, and all of them were mostly just both sides resigning themselves to the fight, then doing it. The ending made the premise even more hilariously overwrought. Still, it was pretty great stuff, and watching the men battle it out in an unusually picturesque countryside setting was wonderful.

The second half of the volume contained the two best stories, though. The first, Parting Frost, was about Daigoro and what would happen should Ogami ever not return from one of his missions. The story follows Daigoro around as he searches for his father, then slowly resigns himself to living, as he must. He gets caught in a flash fire, then challenged by an adult samurai in another fairly humorous confrontation. While it did strike me as ridiculous that the man would bother to raise his sword against a five-year-old naked boy, his reasoning was that Daigoro possessed the eyes of a man who had resigned himself to the cycle of life and was not afraid. Apparently only the most seasoned swordsman possess such eyes. The reunion with Ogami at the end of the story was also wonderful.

Performer, the last story, was all kinds of crazy. A woman with a grim reaper tattooed on her back and a demon breastfeeding on her front is out for revenge. Ogami is hired to kill her, and we follow him as he traces her path and reconstructs her life. Her tattoo really is visually arresting, and as part of his research, Ogami finds the artist who gave her the tattoo, who walks him through the process. The fights are a thing of beauty when the woman strips to the waist to do them, and the various people she’s run across over time feel quite passionately about her. And because you have to depict her tattoos as unusually and frighteningly as possible, the art is also a major factor in this story, and as always, it is beautiful. This is quite possibly the best Lone Wolf and Cub story I’ve read yet.

Now on to Wounded Man, because I am a masochist.

Lone Wolf and Cub 3

March 25, 2011

Kazuo Koike / Goseki Kojima – Dark Horse – 2001 – 28 volumes

After the thoroughly… sobering experience of reading Wounded Man 1, I had to remember if Lone Wolf and Cub was really as crazy as Wounded Man was making me think. It’s all kinds of hardcore, but Koike isn’t going off the deep end in this series quite like he does in Wounded Man and Offered.

I was a little disappointed when the book started with a heavily history/politics-themed story, which I don’t have much patience for. It quickly recovered, and other stories in the volume included one about a master swordsman selling his head on the streets, one where Ogami helps a woman who’s been sold into prostitution, a lengthy look at Ogami’s life as the Shogun’s Executioner, and a final story where Ogami is hired to mediate a conflict between two forces who are for and against cutting down the sacred woods in a particular han.

Surprisingly, as much as I disliked the first story (which went through a lot of trouble explaining a witness protection program, how it was tied to the shogun, and why the witnesses needed protection), I really liked learning about Ogami’s days as an executioner. The story was also a lot of politics and history, with some of the framing devices being the supposedly unjust execution of a young lord and the Yagyu clan’s power struggles. But seeing Ogami and his personal involvement with everything that was going on made it a lot more interesting.

My favorite story, by far, was the story about the ronin who was taking money from people who tried to behead him at a table, in a sort of brutal whack-a-mole game. The ronin objects to the samurai’s “right” to kill peasants, saying that his street games are the only way he feels justified in using his skills to make money. Thus, he also objects to Ogami’s assassin life, and the two of them have a duel. The duel is one of those amazing scenes that only Lone Wolf and Cub can pull off. Wordlessly, for pages at a time, Ogami and the ronin go over the battle in their heads again and again, running through scenario after scenario where Ogami dies, or both men die. The real duel is nothing compared to the mind games the two play with each other as they stare and prepare themselves. It’s really something to see.

Daigoro is still around, of course, but he doesn’t really have a prominent role in these stories, not even as a decoy. He sympathizes with the prostitute in that story, and the ronin begs Ogami to consider his son when the two of them are arguing about ways of life, but for the most part, Daigoro just watches. Even so, I like him a lot, and am looking forward to the volumes where he takes a more active role in the story.

This volume wasn’t nearly as extreme or nutty as Wounded Man, nor did it have stories that were as bizarre as some of the ones in the first two volumes. It is pretty hardcore samurai action, which is exactly what it promises, and some of the visuals it pulls off are quite stunning, especially given its age. Stoic action like this isn’t really my thing, and I don’t think I can read a lot of volumes of this together, but I do like and respect this series for what it can do. And it’s important to keep that in mind when I read other books by Koike.

Lone Wolf and Cub 2

August 13, 2010

Kazuo Koike / Goseki Kojima – Dark Horse – 2000 – 28 volumes

One of the things that strikes me about this series is that not only is it the absolute last word when it comes to samurai/ronin storylines (everything about it is absolutely, to a T, what I expect when reading this type of story)… it’s also really hard not to see Kazuo Koike in it. I mean… there’s a chapter where Daigoro, the baby, starts a knife fight. Not out of place in the context of what is likely the bible of samurai/ronin manga, but also something that only Koike could really pull off without looking ridiculous.

The story focusing on Daigoro was my favorite here. I don’t think he’s supposed to be aging, but he acts older in this chapter than I assumed he was. He pulls a sword on a group of grown men after he picks a fight with a rich boy, and stands up for a young servant girl after she’s beaten for feeding him. Ultimately, it’s Itto Ogami that defeats all the challengers. Strangely, Ogami doesn’t seem to want to turn it into a lesson for Daigoro, merely finishes the fight, lets Daigoro help the girl, and then walks away.

There’s less of the stories that use Daigoro as bait to lower the guard of the target, and more information about the targets themselves, which moves this more firmly into Golgo 13 territory. Two stories stick out, one about a woman who hires Lone Wolf and Cub to avenge the forced suicide of her father after a prison burns down and the inmates he was in charge of don’t return, and another about a woman who committed suicide and seeks revenge against the man who drove her samurai husband insane. Both stories go about the reveal of the intent of Ogami very slowly, and both also involve complex role-playing on the part of Ogami (the first as a prisoner, and the second as a dying man who shut himself up in a temple).

Like the Daigoro story, there’s also one that attempts to develop the character of Itto Ogami. He has to kill a “living Buddha,” but can only do so by achieving mu. This chapter would have made a lot more sense to me if I knew more about Buddhism, I think, but basically, he shuts himself into a temple and follows the advice of the very man he is attempting to kill. Lots of things play out in this time, and we are shown a flashback before Ogami boldly announces himself and kills the much-loved man.

Another story (probably the only other one in the volume) is a very Koike-like plot where Ogami has to penetrate a castle housing a tyrant that is dragging his entire domain down with his excesses. At the beginning, Daigoro is buried in a cave by an avalanche, and is saved at the end only because it has snowed so much in the meantime that Ogami can blast another, bigger avalanche to knock away the first. At the beginning of the story, Ogami gives a lecture to Daigoro on dying well should Ogami himself not return.

I liked this volume much better than the first, though it’s still a little slow and leans too heavily on Japanese history for my tastes. It’s a little less of both than the first volume, though, and I like the variety and direction of the stories. The slowness comes as a result of the chapters sitting on something for an extended period, be it a battle or a reaction to something, which is wonderful art-wise and pacing-wise, since it gives the reader time to ponder whatever it is. There’s a little too much sitting right now, but I can see it being a very good quality later on, especially since the artwork here is so unique.

Lone Wolf and Cub 1

July 16, 2010

Kazuo Koike / Goseki Kojima – Dark Horse – 2000 – 28 volumes

I wish someone had told me this was like Golgo 13, except he baits his targets with a baby. I would have read it years ago.

Without knowing that, I nearly gave up on the first page. “Sugito Kenmotsu, the Kuni-Karo elder of our Mibu Han, is guarded by eight masters of the Nen-Ryu Sword School, the Guardian Eight of Mibu.” I am reminded of an article I read today, Words of Truth and Wisdom, except this sentence isn’t a joke, and unfortunately almost all of those are proper nouns so there’s nothing to do adaptation-wise to fix it. Flipping through the first chapter wasn’t very encouraging either, since it was originally in color and had that 90s translated manga look where there’s too much ink on the page and it makes reading the illustrations really difficult.

There is a glossary of terms in the back, but I was familiar with a lot of the terms back there already, it was the proper nouns that gave me problems. I had to screen them out to enjoy the story.

Itto Ogami, the main character, is a dead ringer for a feudal Duke Togo. He is a man of few words, absurd action, and always accomplishes his hits in ridiculous and over-the-top methods. The problem is that, in Golgo 13, the stories focused on those around the assassin, developing the story before Golgo 13 swept in for the kill. A story from Golgo 13’s perspective would be incredibly boring. Primarily because Golgo 13 shows no emotion, but also because the plot relies on other characters to build suspense and develop the story. Stories told from Golgo 13’s point of view would be a lot like this. Except Itto Ogami is at the distinct disadvantage of living during the Tokugawa Shogunate in the land of Confusing Proper Nouns, things which immediately turn me off.

But the short stories that form the chapters aren’t the point here. It’s all about the visuals, which are very dynamic and incredibly cinematic. Plenty of the chapters end with a one-on-one between Ogami and his target, or a secondary victim, or with a fight in a big group of guys. The art is unlike almost any other manga I’ve seen, very inky with heavy outlines and a lot of detail. The figures and facial expressions are stiff, but the flow comes from the linework, similar to traditional ukiyo-e or sumi-e. The age helps set it apart (I’ve seen very few manga series from the 60s and early 70s, which makes this look very distinct to my eye), but I wonder if this was how samurai comics were drawn back then, too. Of course, it could be entirely distinct to this series, too, which would help explain its lasting popularity.

I can’t find it in my heart to condemn a series with an assassin as clever as Ogami. He frequently uses his son and other confusing tactics (like giving himself away) to set his opponent off guard, making it possible to gain the upper hand and take the lives of a large group of men. As of this volume, he has yet to fail any assassin mission he’s hired out to do, and no opponent has harmed or even touched him.

The baby is an interesting character. Far from being a handicap, he is a useful tool in battle, precisely because others assume he is a handicap. He is three, and is variously pushed in a cart, carried on Ogami’s back, sleeping, or toddling off for cover. He also knows how to do very useful things, such as create a distraction and mislead. Interestingly, he never speaks or does much more than pantomime at this stage. He is also adorable, which is important for a girly reader like me.

I’ve got another volume of this. It’s worth reading… but it is very slow, and not really my thing. Also, still good, and for sure a classic, but the least entertaining of the three swordsman series I’ve started (the other two being Vagabond and Blade of the Immortal). I’m probably going to keep collecting it, but at 28 volumes, it’s going to be years before I finish.