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.
Shogun Assassin is a comic-book lover’s gift from heaven. A movie that follows the original comic-book ( Kazuo Koike and Gosei Kajima’s Lone Wolf and Cub) manga almost panel-by-panel. Of course, it is a pastiche of two Lone Wolf movies – there being six of them made between 1971 and 1974, all but one directed by Kenji Misumi, and all starring the formidable Tomisaburo Wakayama as Ogami Itto. Itto the Lone wolf, assassin for hire – who along with his three-year old son Daigoro walks the road to perdition. Pretty straightforward story, or so it seemed when I began reading the series – the standard format of the nine chapters in the first book being X hires Ogami to kill Y, Ogami hatches plan, kills Y, kills a lot of other people in the bargain.
But the last chapter of the book signals an end to the journey that was beginning to appear a little too familiar, or one might say, this chapter actually begins it after leading you through eight episodes and settling you in, depending on how you look at it. And I thought I would share.
It starts off with the image of Ogami Itto and his son watching a couple of children playing, they are bouncing a ball, and singing a song.
As the song of the children attain a hypnotic tone – we flashcut between Ogami’s eyes, brooding, grim and alert, and Daigoro’s, innocent and yet full of loss.
The scene shifts. It is the house of Ogami Itto, and both him and his son, in noticeably better times.
“Daigoro”, the father says, “The Kenshiyaki will soon be here…but your father is resolved to defy the Shogun and escape.”
He continues – “To avenge the Ogami clan and clear the name of the Kaishikunin executioner, I abandon the way of the Samurai, and travel the path to hell, a living demon of Meifumado! Listen well, Daigoro! Your father now walks the Assassin’s Road, a path of blood and corpses, slaughter and heartless cruelty. There is no other way to avenge ourselves on the assassins of the Yagyu clan…No other way to assuage the spirits of our dead, denied Buddhahood by their unavenged murders.”
At this moment of truth, the father offers the son a choice, a way to find his own path.
“Choose the sword”, he says, “and join your father on the Assassin’s Road. Choose the ball, and I will send you to join your mother in the land of spirits.”
This is what happens next.
“You would have been happier at your dead mother’s side, child”, Ogami Itto says, as he holds his son close to him. “An assassin with child. Remember, Daigoro, this is our destiny.”
The next day, Ogami is paid a visit by the Shogun’s henchmen, his house surrounded by sword-wielding guards, and as the representative, holding the official scroll in his hand, walks into the house, he finds Ogami Itto and his baby son sitting together, both dressed in white. The formal announcement is made, “…Your innumerable insults against our Lord and Ruler leave us speechless. Know that you are stripped of your title of the Shogun’s Executioner, and your family name striken from the lists. Your sentence is death by Seppuku for you and your only child, Daigoro.” Having read the scroll, the official sniggers at the silent man arrogantly – “You greet us in the white robes of death. Your resolution is admirable. I would expect no less from Kaishakunin Ogami Itto, whose sword is known throughout the land. Magnificent determination!”
And then, let me just say that all hell breaks loose, as Ogami Itto, with his son in one hand and his sword in the other faces off against the armed guards. “Can you kill me?” He roars. “Can you kill the Shogun’s own executioner with those feeble arms?”
The answer’s obvious!
“Why rush to die?” Itto asks them, as he cuts a bloody swathe towards the door of his house, and freedom.
And suddenly, the door opens, to reveal a band of grim-looking men waiting outside the threshhold of the condemned man’s house. An old man, obviously in control of the other younger followers behind him, challenges Itto – “Cut open your sword with dignity. Refuse, and we will be your opponent. Even your Suio Ryu cannot break the sword walls of the Yagyu clan.”
So it’s them, then. The infamous clan of Ninjas who were responsible for bringing the shogun, Tokoguwa Ieyasu into power, and his personal bodyguard. Led by the old Lord Yagyu, head of his clan, the men are aghast to find that beneath his white robes, Ogami Itto was wearing his Executioner’s dress – bearing the hollyhock crest of the Shogun himself. The ninjas find themselves in a dilemma, for to strike the man wearing the Shogun’s crest would be to dishonour their master. Itto laughs in their face. “I have faithfully served the crest for twenty seven years. It’s time I got some use out of it.”
The old man then takes matters into his own hands.
Ogami Itto accepts Lord Yagyu’s offer, and as the two foes face off, there is a bit of history for us, which presents an answer of sorts to whatever is going on right now.
Two warriors, Lord Yagyu’s son Kurato, and Ogami Itto face off in the middle of a clearing. “Heh heh heh”, the crafty Yagyu leader thinks ( and yes, he does say “heh heh heh”, which shows that I am not the only guy saying that at the drop of a katana) “Kurato has the setting sun at his back….and Ogami Itto his son at his.” The Lone Wolf goes to battle with his child slung across his back.
The sky darkens. And katanas at the ready, the two duellers rush towards each other. What happens next cannot be expressed in words.
And thus it ends, the way it began.
The sequence that happens here is copied word-for-word, nearly, in Shogun Assassin. For that matter, it’s a frame-to-frame copy as well, as the duelers are transposed from Ogami’s house to the clearing where the duel occurs in, literally, a blink of an eye. Not coincidentally, Kazuo Koike was the scriptwriter on the original movie (Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance) as well. The only thing that ruins the movie, in my opinion, was the cheesy synthesizer-heavy background music, and the terrible dubbing of the villains, who sound every bit like villains sound in badly-dubbed South-East Asian movies — nasal, with clipped sentences and bad pronunciation. Ogami Itto’s dub is a magnificent baritone, with an English accent — and Daigoro’s is that of a slightly affected American child artiste, the kind of kid who knows he is dubbing for a Japanese movie.
So now you know why I am all jacked up about reading the complete series. This was a manga written sometime in the seventies, and it stands a landmark of it’s genre to this day. If you read Frank Miller’s Ronin or even Sin City, or see Road To Perdition, you will find the ghosts of Ogami Itto and Daigoro looming large behind these great works. Salut, Koike-san and Kojima-san.