Comics, Manga

An Extended Look at Lone Wolf and Cub: Volume 1: The Assassin’s Road

Because this is the first volume, and we have time on our hands, let’s do this very simply. Grab a chair and some popcorn, and let’s go through the stories one by one. It’s going to be tough for me, but I guess we can do it for one volume, right?

We begin the first arc with a cover by Frank Miller, an image of a blood-smeared samurai who’s obviously been in a fight, as the pile of bodies behind him demonstrates. He is hauling a cart in front of him, a cart with a cute baby in it. Remember this image, burn it in your mind, because it’s one of the most recurring themes in the series –the innocent child bearing mute witness to his father’s bloodshed. Nine stories, and the opening stubs of a series of articles at the back – one called The Ronin Report and the other Culture and Pop Culture. The articles are nothing an average Wikipedia-user wouldn’t know about, so we shall ignore them completely.

The First : Son for Hire, Sword For Hire

It starts in the night, with a shadowy figure accepting a payment for an assassination of a clan elder – be warned, there is an overload of cultural information from page 1. “I shall enter the shima”, is what we see the figure say. The scene cuts to a sunny day where a cart bearing a flag with the words ‘Son For Hire, Sword For Hire’ is grinding down a road. We see the cart’s occupant, a blissfully sleeping baby. A series of commentators along the roadside gives us more information – the words ‘Ogami Itto, Suio school’ on the flag evokes confusion about whether it refers to the name of a samurai or a wolf ( Okami being the Japanese word for the animal ) . There are discussions made about whether the cart-driver is a cuckold who’s left to fend for his child by himself. An extremely cinematic entrance of the protagonist, who we have seen nothing of save his sandals.

At the same time, a band of mysterious people receives news of an assassin headed their way. Having deduced that the assassin is none other than the man with the cart, they accost him, demanding to know his identity.

And that’s the first time we see Ogami Itto’s face.

A quick action sequence follows, the first time we see Kojima letting loose with his art, making the skirmish a frenzied combination of speedlines and blurs, as if a demented camera was at work.

Because we know that the story is about this person and the baby, it’s pretty obvious that they will carry out the assassination and escape their captors. But the first inkling we get of Ogami Itto’s formidable prowess is when we realize the true import of what he meant by “entering the shima”. The money shot in this story comes when, after having slain the target, he is set upon by the clan guards. This is what Ogami Itto says to his would-be assailants.

The scenes of violence that precede this sequence pulls out all the stops. This is not a series where there are family-friendly action sequences. Death in the action sequences of Lone Wolf and Cub comes in the form of decapitations, severed limbs and arterial sprays.

The Second: A Father Knows His Child’s Heart As Only a Child Can Know His Father’s

A pistol-wielding passerby sees a child drowning in the river. As he goes to rescue the child, having kept his weapons aside, Ogami Itto, who had been waiting for him in the water, sets upon him with a knife. After the kill is complete, Itto rises from the water carrying his son who had (unknowingly?) played the role of bait for his target. This is only the beginning of the story though, the murder being part of a contract against a scheming widow, the childless inheritor of a clan’s riches after the death of the lord of the clan. The widow uses her charms to woo errant ronin to murder the other wife of the dead lord, who’s expecting a baby, and the law at the time dictated that the inheritance would pass to the newborn.

This is the first story where we find out that sex plays an important part in Lone Wolf and Cub. The Lady O-sen seduces Furizue Geki, the surviving member of her ronin gang when her favourite retainer Bazojutsu dies ( having been killed by Itto awhile ago, as we just saw ), eliciting promises of loyalty from him even as she allows him to take her.

Both the lady and her new retainer are set upon by the Lone Wolf, with Daigoro again distracting the targets with his newly acquired toy, Bajozutsu’s pistol. Geki is aghast to see the child handling the weapons, even more so when he finds out that assassin has placed his own son in danger by using him as bait.

Needless to say, Geki tries, and sees for himself what the boy’s father will do.

The Third: From North to South, From West To East

The third story is more intricate, dealing with feudal disputes with the Shogunate. The story begins with a voiceover over panels of a wolf and a cub – a real wolf and a cub, walking towards the reader, a symbolic story-so-far guide for those who came in late. The scene shifts to our protagonists who have arrived at a client’s place by boat. While Daigoro sleeps, Ogami Itto listens to his next assignment. This is where we learn his terms when he accepts a job – the client must tell him everything, no lies, no shadow-boxing, all cards on the table. And in return, he takes that information to the grave. The story here is fairly complicated, where an officer who is being transported to Edo on charges of corruption is to be silenced before he can betray a clan’s secrets.

Just then, the proceedings are interrupted by the entrance of one of the clan members responsible for following the captured officer. He is gravely wounded, and barely manages to pass on the information that he had to share before he breathes his last. Ogami Itto’s reaction is surprising.

Of course it’s a ruse, and Itto means to complete the assignment. Itto and his babycart shadow the posse of Yama Metsuke, the shogunate’s mountain patrol carrying the officer to Edo, when the members of the clan attack by stampeding a herd of horses on the narrow mountain road. However, it is Itto who goes to the rescue of the posse, using his dotanuki sword to commit gruesome horse-slaughter.

At the end, the members of the clan are flummoxed, because Itto does not really kill the officer, and yet states that he has.

That’s the most bad-ass bit about Ogami Itto – he knows he has done the right thing, and the only thing he has to say about it is a quotation from Sun-Tzu’s Art of War. It takes the clan members some time to figure out what he means, by which time he’s already on his way along with his son.

But of course, it would be criminal to finish a story with a simple horse-execution, so there is a face-off between Itto and the leader of the Metsuke, Kuchiki Jonai. What transpires is a lightning swift battle of quick draws, and the result is obvious.

Observe the fact that each of the panels are different, Goseki Kojima being one of those artists who does not believe in stats (Photostatting parts of multiple panels to lessen the workload)

The Fourth: Baby Cart on the River Styx

Ogami Itto and his child tend to a strange request on the road – a lactating woman who needs a baby. The retainers of the lady respectfully alert him to a bit of information – the road ahead leads to a town where a duel between feuding yakuza gangs is about to erupt in a day, and it wouldn’t be a safe area for him and his baby. It turns out the procession is one of the gangs involved, who are recruiting men for the upcoming duel. Itto heeds their warning, but proceeds on his path anyway. Daigoro picks up a yakuza trait that he displays at the next available opportunity.

Someone else ends up hiring Itto, and he comes to know about a lot of inside dirt on who and what were the causes of the duel between the two gangs. Suffice it to say that there is government corruption involved, and Itto is supposed to kill the new daikan, the shogun’s representative, and frame the feuding yakuza gangs for the death. And obviously, when he completes the assassination, his employees attempt to eliminate him as well. Which is when we learn more about the baby-cart.

Later, as the carnage is over, the father calls to the boy and together, they row away on the river, causing one of the onlookers, the very same lady who they helped out to remark on the baby carriage on the river Sanzu, the Japanese equivalent of the Styx, a river across which the dead travel to the underworld.

The Fifth: Suio School Zanbato

If you remember, Ogami Itto’s flag on his baby carriage bears the legend “Suio School”, which refers to his style of sword fighting. What ‘Zanbato’ means is explained later in the story.

Daigoro insults a passing samurai. How, you ask? Let’s just say the lord takes a shower.

Ogami Itto refuses to apologize to the samurai and is promptly challenged to a duel. Which he promptly agrees to, and it is fairly obvious that this is not a random incident that just happened, when Itto demands a written letter from the insulted lord that they’re about to formally duel with no fear of repercussion on either side.

The duel and its aftermath deals with, you guessed it, the zanbato, which is a stroke mastered by the practitioners of the Suio school of swordsmanship. I hate to be so abrupt about this story, but it’s hard to talk about it without giving away the story itself, and I had promised there wouldn’t be any spoilers.

The Sixth: Waiting for the Rains

Koike admitted, in some interview I remember reading sometime ago, that his co-creator, the artist Goseki Kojima would occasionally ignore the main storyline for a few pages, indulging himself by focusing on Daigoro. This is the first story in which that indulgence becomes apparent, with the first couple of pages dedicated to the infant singing a song to himself in the countryside.

Daigoro and his baby cart make their way to a monastery, an old man playing the role of horse-leader for the baby along the journey. A woman lies ailing in the house of worship, waiting for someone to come back to her when the autumn rains begin. Daigoro’s appearance cheers her up, and we get, from the nun who is tending to her, a glimpse of the father and son’s past.

Ogami Itto is waiting for someone too. A cursory look at the baby-cart tells him that payment has been made in full, and it’s just a matter of time when he accepts his next assignment. His contact arrives, and makes an observation that gives the context of Daigoro’s journey through the mountains.

And then the rains begin.

Honestly, do you want me to tell you about the story? Suffice it to say that it ends in a duel in the rain, but that’s just beside the point of the tale. For one, it hints at the increasingly gray areas that Ogami Itto and his son will tread in the days to come, and erases all possible delusions you might have about this story being one of Itto rampaging his way through myriad hits. And at the same time, you will realize that this book will also force you to take deep breaths and take in the your surroundings, instead of hurrying through the action and dialogues.

The Seventh: Eight Gates of Deceit

Naked women. Lots of naked women with weapons, planning battle strategies. You don’t believe me?

Nothing like a bunch of naked women to perk up interest just when the more ADD-prone readers are yawning at all the heavy-duty baby and nature displays.

Ogami Itto and his son are their way to a mountain village, having crossed a narrow suspension bridge. When they arrive there, the area is deserted, and there are signs of a peasant revolt.

As the duo approach the castle, two women come out – apparently his services are no longer required because his target is already dead, and so they offer him half his usual fee. As Itto is about to accept, the women, as you must have figured out already, attack.

Then follows gore-soaked scenes of carnage that seek to answer the question – what happens when alpha-male testosterone goes up against multiple levels of estrogen-fuelled homicidal impulses. Admit it, there are not too many comics you are going to read where the protagonist chops through waves of attacking women. And remember, this was 1970 – and call it coincidence or whatever, the first Women’s Lib meeting in Japan, organised by the Guruppu Tatakau Onna happened on October 21st, 1970.

Typical Itto – not only does is the man a master of swordplay, his academic knowledge comes to the fore even in moments of stress.

This story feels pretty throw-away, with the reason behind why the Eight Gates of Deceit are after the Lone wolf coming across as pretty hollow. But then, this is just the first volume, and Koike was probably still unsure of which way this story would go, so we can forgive him such slight storytelling. This was being published as an adult comic, and I am guessing he needed the naked women to boost sales a bit.

The Eighth: Wings to the Bird, Fangs to the Beast

This story forms a major part of the second Baby cart movie – there were six movies made in all, with Koike writing the scripts by taking parts of his early stories and weaving them together. This particular tale works splendidly in giving a feel of everything that Lone Wolf and Cub was meant to be, bad guys, sex, and the sheer force of nature that is the Lone Wolf slicing his way through a large number of contemptible criminals.

Father and son are on their way to a hot spring spa, which again lies beyond a suspension bridge. At first sight, it appears almost as if Koike realized that a narrow suspension bridge can provide for a ton of situations that he hadn’t thought of when he wrote the previous story. But as it turns out, there’s another reason behind this altogether. The scenario is set in a village that has been beset by looters – criminals who have taken over the place and are preventing the settlers from escaping through the only escape route that leads outside the village – the narrow bridge.

That the people taking over the village are despicable is never in question, as the Lone Wolf and his cub are led towards the spa, they see a young woman being raped. Her old father, who rushes to save her, is choked to death in front of her.

Yes, in case you haven’t realized already, Lone Wolf and Cub is meant for adults. Which means the next time you see any kids flipping through volumes of LW&C that the friendly Landmark salesman has filed in the children’s section, make sure you go and give a piece of your mind to the manager.

One of the telling segments in the story comes midway, when Ogami Itto, imprisoned in a bath-house along with the other survivors of the brigands’ rampage, refuses to rise to the taunts of his captors, one of whom is bent on trying to prove that he’s a coward. One of the women in the bath-house, a prostitute tries to dissuade the tormentors – who turn on her instead. “Sleep with him right here,” the leader says, “and we will be your appreciative audience.” “I would rather die.” – the woman replies. Just when they are about to slit her throat, Itto stands up. He takes off his robe, and in full view of the lot of them, he makes love to her.

Night falls, and the villagers murmur among themselves. They will all die tomorrow, and that night, they curse their fate, and themselves, and one of them start to curse the spineless ronin who let himself be humiliated before everyone.

PWNAGE!

Much death and destruction follow, if you haven’t realized already. It gets more interesting when one of the band recognizes who Ogami Itto is, and mentions it aloud.

What the word Kaishakunin means is something that will be explained in the ninth chapter.

The Ninth: The Assassin’s Road

A couple of years ago, I talked about this story in loving detail, after having watched the movie Shogun Assassin, which is in itself a cut-and-paste, Americanized version of the first two Baby Cart movies. You can read what I wrote then here.

Annnnnnnnnnnd, that’s it for the first volume.

In conclusion, these early stories are fairly unconnected, easy enough for a new reader of the magazine to hop on to the series and get a decent idea of what’s going on. There’s also a sense of mystery to the proceedings. In the first eight stories, we do not know about the mysterious assassin’s motivations and his past except that his wife has been dead three years. It is not explained why his son accompanies him on his assignments and why he is callous enough to expose the baby to such dangerous scenarios. There are hints laid out – one of the men he kills recognizes him for who he was in his past life. It’s in the ninth episode that there is mention of the Meifumado, the demon’s path – a word Itto associates with his journey. We get the knowledge of how a baby came to accompany his father in his perilous lifestyle. Enter the Yagyu clan, the first of the recurring antagonists of the series. We also see Lord Retsudo, head of the Yagyu for the first time. Mark my words – we will see him again.

At the same time, the relationship between father and son is touchingly laid out in Koike’s storytelling. Goseki Kojima revels in playing around with the limited page-space available to him, squeezing out moments of placid beauty amidst the scenes of violence that litter the series. Itto’s character is demonstrated to be something more than a one-dimensional force of nature, glimpses of which we see in chapters six and eight. And at the same time, the black-and-white colours of the manga itself belie the gray tone of the stories.

So, if you were given the first volume of LW&C, would you stick around for more? I don’t care, because I will talk about the next volumes anyway.

Standard

2 thoughts on “An Extended Look at Lone Wolf and Cub: Volume 1: The Assassin’s Road

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.