Books, Manga

Impulse Buy of the Day

I don’t do this often, but when a book comes highly recommended by the Sage of Northampton, bears a foreword written by him, and is signed by both the author and the Foreword Writer, I do not argue with Fate. Bought immediately, and paid for international shipping too. The reviews on Amazon are glorious, and reminds me of pre-Jonathan Strange/Mr Norrell buzz for Susanna Clarke. (And that reminds me that I should probably reread that book too).

From the foreword:

A genre that has been reduced by lazy stylisation to a narrow lexicon of signifiers … wizards, warriors, dwarves and dragons … is a genre with no room for Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, arguably the earliest picaresque questing fantasy; for David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus with its constantly morphing vistas and transmogrifying characters; for Mervyn Peake’s extraordinary Gormenghast books or for Michael Moorcock’s cut-silk Gloriana. It is certainly a genre insufficient to contain the vegetable eternities of Catling’s Vorrh.

Here’s where you can buy a signed copy. (No guarantees though, as the small print says.) Apparently all of the signed copies are sold out, and I got one. The confirmation email came in today morning.

Other than that, I have been rereading some old manga favorites. Among them is Crying Freeman. I bought the complete Dark Horse set a while ago at the low low price of $1 per volume – I have the Viz comics and you will agree that reading them pamphlets gets a little annoying, even though some of the coloring adds to the eightiesness of the series. It’s over-the-top seinen action, with lots of photo-referenced art by Ryoichi Ikegami, and it is just as I remembered it – brimming with the kind of content that sets librarians and conscientious parents aflutter, the kind of salacious visuals that attracts giggling clusters of school-kids in Landmark, where the books stay misfiled in the children’s section. Crying Freeman is the kind of thing Dr. Fredric Wertham warned the world about, people. Do not file it in the children’s section, not unless you want kids to wonder why women have white areas in their groin, whether Chinese assassins really strip to their underwear before jumping up on Russian wrestlers’ shoulders, and if it is possible for a man to cover himself in cement and not burn to a crisp when attacked by a janitor with a flame-thrower. And how a Japanese man can be a master artist, a master assassin, and the Greatest Lover Ever. This book is testament to the fact that manga writer Kazuo Koike is what Stan Lee would be without the Comics Code Authority to keep him in check. And Crying Freeman is what an Amitabh Bachchan character would really be in the 70s, without the castration anxiety of the Indian Censor Board. Mull about the ocean of possibilities for a while.

This reminds me that the high-point of Comicon this year was getting to meet Koike in the flesh. I queued to meet him three times, just because there was a 2-item cap on signatures; I probably would have gone a few more times had there not been other events to attend. Kazuo Koike, man. Never thought I would get to thank him in person. Insert a twenty-one gun salute moment for Dark Horse Comics here.

The other series I read – after a gap of nearly seven years – was Planetes by Makoto Yukimura. Long out of print, I picked up the series on a whim from a collector whose bookshelves I emptied back when I was an established Emptier of Bookshelves, a veritable patron saint of Liquidators. (Ironically, swathes of my floppy comics are now making their way to different parts of the world, as I succumb to Omnibus upgrades). Coming back to Planetes, this is the sort of manga that serves as a gateway to anyone not used to the medium. It’s a series of interconnected glimpses into the lives of a motley crew on board an orbiting garbage disposal unit, set in the year 2070 or thereabouts, when mankind has made a little more progress in space travel. Over the course of 5 volumes, we see how the passage of time affects the daily lives of the astronauts, how their lives and those of the ones they love have intertwined, and the effect that a planned Jupiter Exploration has on them. It is the kind of manga that floats around in your brain after you have finished reading it, with a bewildering attention to detail and a penchant for capturing the exact texture of a moment in time. If you have read Ba/Moon’s Daytripper or Thompson’s Blankets, you know what I mean. It’s a shame it’s not available on the market at the moment, I wish someone like Vertical would bring it back in an Omnibus (they totally can, it’s Kodansha). I would probably buy it for everyone I know.

There is an anime based on the series. I know it’s good, from all the buzz I have heard about it, but I have to finish it some time. I stopped at 2 episodes the last time I started. Or you can read the manga online, for free.

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

Long. Very long. With images.
Comics, Manga

Lone Wolf and Cub Volume 1: Chapter 9 – The Assassin’s Road

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.