Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Lone Wolf and Cub

by Jason Thompson, Jul 14th 2011

Episode LIX: Lone Wolf and Cub

A three-year-old boy with eyes that have seen a thousand slaughters. A middle-aged ronin, as tough as the steel of the sword he wears by his side, pushing the rattling baby cart that carries his son. The father is an assassin, wandering up and down the length of Tokugawa-era Japan, killing people for the heavy sum of 500 ryo of gold. When people want to summon him, they leave a piece of paper by a roadside shrine with a sketch of gozu and mezu, the horse-headed and ox-headed demons who guard the underworld. With his fearsome dotanuki (torso-splitting sword), he always finishes his kill.

Rumor says that the wolf, Ogami Itto, was once the kogi kaishakunin, the personal executioner of the shogun, the military leader of all Japan. He was the shogun's right arm, until he was betrayed by the Yagyu ninja clan, who wanted one of their own men to take the coveted post of kogi kaishakunin. Dishonored and marked for death, with his wife killed by the Yagyu, Ogami leaves his post and takes his child with him on the road, abandoning his samurai honor to follow the bloody path of the assassin. His goal: to live long enough to take his revenge against the Yagyu ninjas, and specifically their leader, Yagyu Retsudo. On their long road of vengeance, the father and son will travel up and down Japan, over rivers of blood and mountains of corpses…

If I had to choose a single manga to take with me on a desert island, it might be Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima's Lone Wolf and Cub. It'd be a hassle to fit all 28 volumes in the lifeboat, but it'd be worth it. It's one of the longest manga ever completed in English, right up there with Dragon Ball, Oh My Goddess!, Ranma 1/2, Boys Over Flowers and the Eternal Shonen Jump Trinity of One Piece, Naruto and Bleach. It feels much longer, however, because almost each chapter (until the final story arc that fills the last seven or so volumes) is its own story, with its own characters, except for the ronin and his son. This is a good thing. It keeps it fresh. It's one of the few manga that's so enormous I feel like I could never get tired of it, like I could just reach for any random volume and find a story that I haven't read. It doesn't feel like a manga so much as like a microcosm of Tokugawa Japan, an entire world in manga form.

First off, this is an incredible samurai manga about one of the most amazing fighting heroes ever drawn. It's no wonder Quentin Tarantino refers to it in Kill Bill. Ogami Itto is a deadly opponent, capable of killing anyone within reach of his sword. No one can stand against him: NO ONE. Or can they? Perhaps the only truly worthy opponent for the shogun's executioner is the kiri-yaku, the shogun's sword tester. Or perhaps O-Yuki, the disgraced swordswoman who practices the fighting arts and covers her body with horrifying tattoos so she can get revenge on the man who raped her (she fights naked). Or "Headless" Sakon (Chapter 16, "Half Mat, One Mat, a Fistful of Rice"), a surprisingly powerful opponent, who makes his living as a traveling performer sitting under a table letting people take a swing at his head with a sword for a few copper pieces. (He's so fast he can dodge anything.) Or of course Yagyu Retsudo, the wizened master manipulator, who commands an army of ninja, and is still a powerful fighter despite his years. The power of Ogami is even more impressive because he doesn't do too many literally unbelievable things. He's just a man with a sword and fast reflexes and a lot of willpower. On the rare occasions when he gets injured, it's a big deal, and he sometimes spends an entire chapter lying in a fever, on the brink of death. It manages to seem somewhat realistic until maybe Chapter 103 ("Poison Currents"), in which assassins put Ogami to sleep with poison smoke, but he unconsciously defends himself by sheer instinct.

Some enemies use special weapons: the Bentenrai ninja brothers with their takuhatsugasa hats, their iron club, their iron claws, and their sword; the Kurokuwa ninja with their chains of death; the Genshichi bell wardens with their injiuchi tsubute (a sort of throwing stars), chains and sajinrai (blinding powder); the Hojiro Yagyu assassins with their poisoned darts and blowguns. When Ogami is hired to kill Shichirobei, a gunsmith who has invented a handheld volley gun (Chapter 28, "The Guns of Sakai"), he ends up with Shichirobei's secret plans for a machine gun which he builds and installs in the bottom of the baby cart. (This does get a little insane, which is probably why the gun sort of disappears later.) Other enemies use trickery instead of skill. Abe-no-Kaii, the loathsome, treacherous poisoner, is one of Ogami's toughest opponents, and he spends the last few volumes of the story trying to kill our hero in various ways, and also hiring prostitutes to pee in his face, in keeping with Kazuo Koike's water sports fetish (see Wounded Man and Crying Freeman). Many stories involve the Yagyu's ninja secret agents, the kusa ("grass") ninjas, who spend their whole lives living double identities as normal people, waiting for a secret command to shed their disguise and do the Yagyu's bidding. The grass ninja add an extra touch of paranoia to a story full of people doing monstrous things in the name of honor and loyalty.

Not all of Lone Wolf and Cub is about fighting. There's also plenty of human stories, stories of side characters, and stories where Ogami isn't hired at all. Among 100+ stories, these are some of my favorites:

* Ogami has to leave Daigoro by himself while he performs an assassination. A wandering samurai sees Daigoro and notices something strange about the silent, unearthly boy; he finally realizes that Daigoro has shishogan eyes, something that few humans ever attain. ("Shishogan! Eyes that only a swordsman who has cut through death itself, who has walked through the splattering blood of countless slaughters, can possess! Eyes that even I, whose sword has dealt death beyond counting, may never attain!") Realizing that this may be his only chance to ever fight a man with shishogan eyes, he decides to fight Daigoro as if he was an adult…

* While drought and famine grips the land, an arrogant feudal lord, known as the "Red Demon," hoards food and water and spends his time hunting animals from horseback for sport. Ogami practices his archery and sets events in motion for the starving peasants to take revenge…

* O-Chiyo, a humble ferrywoman, is in love with Hayase, a ronin who saved her from being executed at the hands of their cruel lord. Beaten and stripped of his title for interfering with the lord's will, the crippled Hayase now lives in a shack by the river, working on designs for a new bridge which will bring trade to their region and, he hopes, redeem him in the eyes of his lord. But O-Chiyo, who has had to resort to prostitution to make ends meet, can't bring herself to confess her love to him. Into this tragic romance steps Ogami…

* A samurai whose master was executed by Ogami still faithfully guards the spot where his master's bones were buried.

* Ogami is hired to kill the Zen priest Jikei, a man of such sublime goodness and spirituality that Ogami literally cannot lift his sword to kill him. In order to defeat him, he must meditate until he, too, reaches Buddhahood and eliminates his own bloodthirst. ("Is it possible to forget the self, until the subjective and the objective are as one? Meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha…Can I reach that place with no words, free of all emotion, free of all self?")

* In a story that seems inspired by Westerns, Ogami goes to a remote hot springs town surrounded by cliffs and held hostage by brutal bandits. "This hot water bubbles up straight from hell," the sneering bandits tell him. A small group of travelers cowers in the inn, waiting for the bandits to decide whether they should live or die. In this deadly situation, Ogami sacrifices his honor to save the life of a prostitute…

I don't know whether I'm more impressed by Koike for coming up with all these ideas or Kojima for drawing them. This being an 8400-page manga, it repeats itself a little. There are a few too many fights that involve Ogami throwing his sword, which is pretty surprising the first time, not so much the fourth or fifth time. The sheer number of people who throw themselves against the iron wall of Ogami, suicidally trying to kill the unkillable man, is also pretty unbelievable. Koike and Kojima's story is a romantically violent, tragic world, with little moments of happiness scattered throughout it. It's samurai-era Japan the way every American (and many Japanese) imagines it.

Lone Wolf and Cub was the first popular manga in America, even before it was translated. The original manga ran from 1970 to 1976. When the movie Shogun Assassin (a dubbed and heavily edited version of the Lone Wolf films renamed to take advantage of the popularity of James Clavell's novel Shogun) hit American theaters in 1980, a few hardcore fans figured out it was based on a Japanese comic. Comic artist Frank Miller, who at the time was a young artist working on Marvel's Daredevil, liked the movie so much that he bought Lone Wolf and Cub from Japanese bookstores (encouraged by Marvel editor and fellow manga fan Jo Duffy) and used it for inspiration in his work on Daredevil and especially Ronin. Rather than just ripping off Kojima's designs without credit, Miller openly admitted that he loved Lone Wolf and Cub, and his endorsement was enough to make First Comics get the rights to Lone Wolf and Cub in 1987. The first issue came out in the same month as Viz's first comics, Mai the Psychic Girl, Area 88 and The Legend of Kamui. Thanks possibly to the American edition's original covers by Frank Miller, it was a megahit; no manga sold better until Pokémon in 1999. (Another part may have been that Kojima's art looks so 'un-mangalike'; just now while I was writing this review in a café, some guy came up to me and said he hates manga but looooves superhero comics but he likes Lone Wolf and Cub's artwork so he was considering giving it a try.) Sadly, its sales still weren't enough to keep First from going out of business, but Dark Horse later picked up the series and released the entire thing in 28 300-page bunkobon editions.

Reading Lone Wolf and Cub is like losing yourself in a pile of beautifully illustrated books about Japanese history, full of artwork and information about every aspect of life in that time. Koike shows every side of culture from the richest to the poorest: Ogami goes to prison, he works in a loincloth as a lowly hadaka-mushi river porter, he lives as a rice farmer in a peasant village, humbly planting shoots of rice. He meets monks, gamblers, prostitutes, lumberjacks, thieves and mercenaries and lords; some corrupt, some honorable. He travels to the deep forests, to the sea, to the rivers, to the cities. There is much talk about meifumado and bushido, samurai philosophy and Buddhist lore. With so many stories, Kojima reuses the same character designs a lot (realistic artwork means a lack of crazy hairstyles), but who cares? Kojima puts the same care into the background that he does into the people. From an era before Google Imagesearch, it's jaw-droppingly well-researched and detailed, and with not a single traced photo. Every line of art is meaningful. As Kojima himself said in an interview in issue #52 of the old magazine Comics Interview: "You have to create a drama—even when you draw a tree or a stone."

Kojima is also good at creating drama by drawing swords slicing through people's heads and samurai dueling in fields of grass at sunset and tons of people getting mowed down in massive battles. With his great pacing, his use of speedlines and motion blurs, it feels like he's inventing new ways of drawing action as he goes along. This was some of the stuff that impressed Frank Miller, and which had impressed other Americans even earlier, such as Vernon Grant, a comic artist and American serviceman stationed in Japan, who reviewed Lone Wolf in the Mainichi Shimbun in 1972. "Japanese illustrators are the greatest action artists I've ever seen," Grant wrote. "The great space allowances have allowed the fuller development of cinematic techniques in Japanese comics… he has all but accomplished the impossible in placing motion on the printed page!" The art makes the fights in Lone Wolf and Cub intense even when there's not much doubt who will be the victor.

But Kojima's art appears in a ton of other comics (including Koike's Path of the Assassin and the Lone Wolf spinoff Samurai Executioner) and none of them are as good as Lone Wolf and Cub. What makes Lone Wolf so special is Ogami and Daigoro. "Comics are created by characters. If a character is well created, the comic becomes a hit," Kazuo Koike has said. The heroes of Lone Wolf are like two halves: Ogami is the almost emotionless, unkillable perfect samurai, and Daigoro is the human element, the vulnerable little kid, the one who brings the potty humor. Thanks to Daigoro, the story never feels merely nihilistic (i.e. "Once I get my revenge I will be free to die since my life will be meaningless"). Ogami tends to Daigoro when he has a fever, he rescues him when he's trapped under a snowdrift, he treats him with fatherly tenderness. Kojima uses Daigoro as a way to lighten the story (from the same Comics Interview issue: "I started to insert some nonsense—Daigoro's expressions—releasing the tension of the story.") Daigoro's presence makes Ogami more likeable than most of Koike's other heroes, who are just pure macho badasses without any human strings holding them back. (Nor is Ogami like those shonen manga heroes who switch back and forth between being total badasses and being incompetent dorks. He's always cool, in a tough-old-man way, even when he's helping Daigoro go to the bathroom.)

Daigoro's not just a weakling, though, as many would-be assassins sadly discover. Although he occasionally laughs, poops and sings silly songs, he's just as tough as his dad and he's not afraid to die. One of the greatest moments in the series is chapter 9, "The Assassin's Road," a flashback to the moment when Ogami embarks on his path of revenge. In front of little baby Daigoro, he places a dotanuki sword and a temari ball. "Listen well, Daigoro! Your father now walks the assassin's road, a path of blood and corpses, slaughter and monstrous cruelty! You must find your own path! Choose the dotanuki, and join your father on the assassin's road. Choose the child's temari, and I will send you to join your mother in yomi, the land of spirits." Daigoro chooses the sword. "My poor child…you would have been happier at your dead mother's side," Ogami says. And so their partnership begins.

The two-character dynamic, the simplicity of the revenge plotline, is so iconic you can easily adapt it into different settings. Max Allan Collins turned Ogami into an honorable, machine-gun-toting gangster and set the story in Depression-era America in his graphic novel and film The Road to Perdition, which I haven't seen. Mike Kennedy and Francisco Ruiz Velasco reset the story in the future in Dark Horse's Lone Wolf and Cub 2100 (I haven't read it, but didn't Frank Miller already do that in Ronin?). It's easy to imagine even more Lone Wolf and Cub spinoffs, like a moe one:

* Lone Wolf&! Cub—A deadly assassin travels the land with a baby cart, carrying his cheerful, green-haired, five-year-old daughter, whose ability to see the joy in life brings a smile to everyone's face between killings.

Or a four-panel manga version:

* Azumanga Wolf and Cub—Four young girls travel the land with a baby cart, working as deadly assassins. They are occasionally accompanied by Miss Retsudo, their irresponsible twentysomething swordfighting teacher. Wackiness ensues!

Or if you want to keep the male-centered dynamic:

* Lonely Wolf and Cub—A handsome yet deadly assassin travels the land with a baby cart, carrying his sensitive, delicate-featured fourteen-year-old son. Along the way, they gradually realize that the son was adopted. (This is just the first chapter.)

Okay, okay. My point is: like all the most popular stories, Lone Wolf is a success because the characters are so good. Like the other immortals such as Batman, Superman, Spiderman, James Bond, Golgo 13 and Doctor Who, you can explain in a sentence or two what it's about. And like those series, it could have gone on forever, with Ogami doing job after job, killing opponent after opponent.

Which makes it all the more impressive that Lone Wolf and Cub actually DOES have an ending. After 28 300-page volumes, Ogami finally gets to the end of his quest for revenge, and the manga reaches a fitting conclusion. Sure, it drags for the last few thousand pages, but it ENDS. The satisfaction of finishing Lone Wolf and Cub is a feeling that fans of most superhero comics will never know. It must have taken courage for Koike and Kojima to end their famous, successful manga and move onto something new. Well, sort of. Kojima died in 2000, but Koike has returned to Lone Wolf and Cub, with a new series telling the adventures of Daigoro, drawn by Hideki Mori in an exact imitation of Koijima's style. But whatever happens in the spinoffs and sequels, the original Lone Wolf is still Lone Wolf. It's a great mixture of Japanese history, Bushido philosophy, sword-slashing violence and epic revenge. People were reading it and loving it 40 years ago, and I think they'll still be reading it in another 40.


Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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