Cultural anthropologists, history nuts, and comics fans alike will find common ground in Koike and Kojima’s epic samurai manga about a ronin on the path through revenge.
Story: Kazuo Koike
Art: Goseki Kojima
Translation/Adaptation: Dana Lewis
What They Say:
Ronin samurai Ōgami Ittō and his young son Daigoro travel a dark road, beset by enemies sworn to destroy the Lone Wolf and his Cub. But how did Ōgami, once the shogun’s loyal retainer and trusted executioner, become a dishonored fugitive marked for death by the shogun himself? What hidden forces moved to destroy Ōgami’s family and fuel his relentless quest for retribution?
Content (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
It is perhaps most pertinent to first introduce Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s epic manga, as the Fandom Post hasn’t yet reviewed any volume of Koike’s manga. I’ll be brief, but Lone Wolf and Cub was first released in 1970 in Japan, and was first brought over to the US by First Comics in 1987. At the time, the covers were drawn by several famous comics artists, including one Frank Miller (whose cover graces Dark Horse’s first omnibus). First Comics went under in 1991 without completing the series and it wasn’t until 2000 that Dark Horse license rescued it and rereleased it in 28 smaller trade paperbacks.
Set in the Tokugawa Era (which was 1603–1868) in Japan, Lone Wolf and Cub follows Ogami Itto and his son Daigoro on their path for revenge. The reason, however, isn’t until chapter nine in the first omnibus (Dark Horse restarts the chapter count in each omnibus, which is unlike, say, Naruto) that we learn anything about why Itto and Daigoro call themselves Lone Wolf and Cub. Throughout Koike’s comic, we get hints in some chapters as to who these characters are and what their motivations are, and it is in these flashbacks that we learn the circumstances surrounding them. This omnibus starts with one of those flashbacks, telling us how Itto’s wife was killed and what led him down this path of revenge. It is in these chapters that I gain the greatest appreciation for Koike’s manga because it is in these chapters that we learn about Itto and Daigoro the most and how we sympathize with the rest of the (thus far) largely stand-alone chapters.
However, it is in the stand-alone chapters that we learn the most about Itto and Daigoro. In “The Virgin and the Whore,” the second chapter of the omnibus, much about Itto is strengthened about his character. In the chapter, he kills no one, man or woman. But he is still a samurai with honor, even if he has lost his lord. He kills for pay, but he is willing to protect the chastity of a whore by endangering his own life, going through a gamut of torture “befitting” to misbehaving brothel girls at the time. It says a lot about Itto that he is willing to do this for a stranger, for a whore who was the lowest of class at the time. And he, a samurai—now a ronin—formerly of a high class. It’s the kind of honor you see in these Japanese fictions a lot, and I’m not sure were as common as we’re lead to believe they were.
The honor theme is further exemplified in “Black Wind,” chapter 10 of the omnibus. In it, we find Itto and Daigoro living a normal life as farmers. For the first time in his life, Daigoro can look up to Itto and wish to become his father the man, not his father the assassin—something Daigoro doesn’t want as of yet. It’s considered dishonorable for a samurai, even a ronin, to stoop so low as to plant seed, but Itto is doing it regardless. And Itto has his reasons. It seems he’s lost all semblance of honor, but in truth he is paying respect to those who he felled. An innocent young woman was killed while he was in a fight and the woman, sold to servitude because the family couldn’t afford to feed her. He planted one strand of her hair with each shoot of rice, so to give the young woman’s soul rest at her home, finally.
The excitement of each volume lies in its action and its nigh on unparalleled artwork by Kojima. “Close Quarters,” the third chapter, presents the volume with its first action-packed story and it delivers on all levels that previous action chapters has. It’s likely been a while since the first omnibus was read, and the first two chapters are a nice diversion from Koike’s usual formula, but the third chapter is why I’m edge of my seat reading this manga. The story itself is filled with the usual political intrigue (I pay you to kill someone for this series of complex reasons), in this case one faction wants to save the forest to protect the town from flooding and other natural disasters while the other wants to destroy it for a quick buck. These stories have thus far been simply a cool story, but they’re what make the manga. Without them, it wouldn’t be considered an epic. It’s these stories that push Itto and Daigoro forward on their path toward revenge.
What the next chapter, “Tsuki Genshichi, the Bell Warden,” teaches us is that, if anything, this manga is about honor and about difficult choices. Itto has chosen the life of an assassin in order to fulfill his revenge. But at what cost to his son, who can no longer grow up a normal child? The world of Lone Wolf and Cub is not black and white as many shonen manga these days may lead you to believe. In fact, the world even back in the Tokugawa Era is one of gray and that fact is not likely to change. The lessons the manga teaches are cruel (the Bell Warden has his sons killed by Itto to see if they are worthy of becoming the Bell Warden themselves), but ring true still today. We no longer dish out such harsh punishment, but the selfish acts of a child must still be disciplined in some way. While I’ll never condone outright killing them, something could be done. And it’s a testament to Koike’s writing that father maintains his tough exterior as he kills his third son, he turns away and says, “Only as a FATHER, I could not bring myself to ask you to kill them.” Itto and the reader realize that he didn’t want to do any of this. But circumstance sometimes forces us into acts otherwise unbearable.
“Parting Frost,” chapter six, shows Daigoro’s resolve and “samurai spirit” more than any previous chapter. In fact, Daigoro, being the only other recurring character aside from Itto, has barely been focused on. He’s only been used as a tool to achieve Itto’s assassinations. But here we learn that Daigoro is truly a man of resolve worth the respect of any samurai. It’s an eye-opening experience when you have the boy being more resourceful than perhaps many grown men nowadays could not be, and all this was taught to him by Itto, the ever-loving father. There was one chapter in the last omnibus, “The Coming of the Cold,” that exemplified Itto’s love for his child, despite his otherwise cold demeanor. Itto is a father among greats and his teachings are shown effervescent here.
One thing that continually strikes me is the inventive (or incorporation of existing) sword styles and philosophies that permeate each omnibus and each story. Itto’s own is unique to all others and each main opponent Itto fights seems to use some unique way of fighting, whether that be a kusarigama or a spear or simply a different stance with a katana. Chapter seven, “Performer,” adds yet another style into the great mythos of Lone Wolf and Cub with the mysterious tattooed woman. She uses tattoos that cover her back and her breast to shock her opponents and strike while their guard is down. Another I the volume, the one who she seeks revenge upon, uses a sword on fire and hypnotism. And this is where the philosophy comes in, because that kind of cowardly trick is not the warrior’s way. No man should be cut from behind because that means that you ran from your opponent, and these tricks are just as dishonorable. It’s something that’s throughout most depictions of the Japanese that I know (it was even in that new X-Men flick, The Wolverine). The series, and this chapter, challenges you to think of what the right way is. In the end, we all find out that there is no one right way. Just ones that are less wrong.
This volume finally dabbles in continuity, and I can only assume that the subsequent volumes will deal more and more with the Yagyu Clan who betrayed Itto and his family. My biggest complaint with the series as a whole is something I also consider one of its strengths: The stand alone stories. They’re very, very cool to look at, but they don’t provide any insight into Itto or Daigoro, especially in the first omnibus.
I hadn’t pre-ordered the physical copy for myself before reading this review copy, but I got about three pages in before I ordered it. I am now insatiably curious about what will happen to Itto and Daigoro as well as what the Yagyu have up their heinous sleeves for the Lone Wolf and Cub. Koike and Kojima have woven perhaps the most epic samurai manga—if not the most epic manga—ever to be made, and it’s a shame that I don’t hear more about it outside of professional manga critics. Lone Wolf and Cub will always be worth the read and it has a permanent place on my bookshelf.
Content Grade: A+
Art Grade: A+
Packaging Grade: A
Text/Translation Grade: A
Released By: Dark Horse
Release Date: 8/20/2013