An Expanded Look at Lone Wolf and Cub: The First arc – Meifumado

I refer to the first four volumes of LW&C as the Meifumado arc, which consists of a series of adventures that do not follow a timeline per se, jumping about the place in terms of timeline and after-effects of one episode following the other. There is an internal continuity to some of the stories, in particular those that deal with the beginning of Ogami Itto and Daigoro’s journey. The origin story, so to speak.

Meifumado is the Buddhist term for hell, a place inhabited by demons of Japanese myth. (This is the definition given by Koike in the book, and I am not sufficiently well-versed in Buddhist Theology to determine the deeper meaning of the term.) It is the path chosen by Ogami Itto following a tragic event in his life. Once a man with twenty-seven years of dedicated service to the Shogun behind him, it was a culmination of circumstances – part of which was instigated by political rivals, that forced Itto to abandon the way of Bushido and travel the path of hell, the life of an assassin. At first glance, there isn’t much difference between Itto’s previous incarnation and this – both involved bloodshed, corpses and a hardened heart. But while the post of the shogun’s executioner required a blind allegiance to duty, the road to Meifumado was akin to that of an outlaw, free of society’s rules and moires, with the lives taken paid for with the sum of five hundred ryos.

How do Koike and Kojima inject life into a series that, at surface value, is the life of an assassin? It’s surprising to see the storytelling techniques at display here. The assumption the reader needs to make, while beginning a story in the early Lone Wolf and Cub stories is the invulnerability of the duo. There are more than 7000 pages to go before the journey concludes, and its fairly obvious that no major harm would come to the eponymous protagonists in the initial stories.

It would also be right to emphasise that these stories are not necessarily about Lone Wolf and Cub, they sometimes involve these characters as a plot resolution of some form. Some of them are a study in the twisted nature of vengeance – like the fourteenth story – Winter Flower ( volume 2). The story begins as a police procedural in an unnamed town, where the inspector of the province investigates the double-murder of a couple and a prostitute’s suicide, both seemingly unrelated, but as the story goes by, we see the connections unfold through the eyes of the investigating officer. How the presence of a mysterious ronin accompanied by a baby in the vicinity tie in to the deaths are explained at the very end, when the officer looks at a winter flower given to him by the ronin – the same flower that was found at the murder-site, and understands for himself as the strands of the story come together. Some stories involve the accidental involvement of Ogami Itto and his son, the story The Virgin and the Whore being a particular example. A young girl, sold into prostitution, tries to escape her fate by killing the man about to escort her to the brothel. While running away from the yakuza gang which has bought her, she takes shelter in an inn, incidentally inside the same room that was occupied by Ogami Itto and his son. When the gang-leader, a shrewd lady, humbly requests the ronin for the girl he is sheltering, an interesting chain of events occur. Was it just coincidence that the assassin was at the inn or was all of it an elaborate ruse to carry through a hit? Don’t worry, the ending comes as a surprise, regardless of what you might assume at this point.

Political intrigues of the period take precedence in most of the assassination plots that involve Ogami Itto. In the story Close Quarters ( Volume 3) a clan requires him to dispose of dissidents who oppose the cutting down of a forest – the clan leaders want to reduce their trade debt to merchants by supplying Edo with wood at lower rates, while the rebels claim that destroying the forest would cause their towns to be flooded during rainfall. Itto is contracted to kill the dissedents without the forest being destroyed, because the dissidents have lodged themselves at strategic points, threatening to burn the trees before letting their leaders chop them down in the name of commerce. There is the peculiar request of the father in The Bell Warden, an official entrusted with the task of maintaining the official Town Bells in Edo, who wants his three sons to duel with the Lone Wolf in a bid to select the worthiest of them to carry on the family occupation. The Coming of the Cold makes Ogami Itto impersonate a law official to infiltrate a clan castle and assassinate the clan elder – the catch being that the contract is placed by the faithful retainers of the clan who feel the leader’s actions would cause them to lose face.

“To Lose Face” – something that is one of the most important aspects of feudal Japanese society, where honour and personal loyalty were considered greater than one’s life, if one were a samurai. Lone Wolf and Cub plays on this theme a lot, revelling in this singular Japanese trait and at the same time showing it for the vainglorious relic it was. In all the examples mentioned above, “face” plays a major role in determining the course of action of the people concerned, even among those not from samurai society. One of the principles we twenty-first century beings might find outdated ( not to mention bizarre) is the concept of regaining one’s honour through killing oneself, but it was a way of life then, and Lone Wolf and Cub also becomes an examination of bushido, from that standpoint. It’s interesting to see how the themes of honour and vengeance are interlocked in most of the stories, with most of the contract killings being related to a clan’s honour or an individual’s loss of face.

Not to say that the early volumes of Lone Wolf and Cub are lacking in the ingredients that typified the genre it was published under – action and sex. One of the early adventures involves Ogami Itto on a sea voyage, boarding the same ship as three fearsome brothers – the Bentenrai, each of whom are well-versed in a weapon of choice. Which means a proliferation of scenes like these:

As it turns out, the three brothers are enroute to protect the same client as Ogami Itto has been contracted to kill, and it ends in a face-off between the ronin and the three mercenaries. The icing on the cake is the death-speech of the brother who has the ill-luck to die by a diagonal throat-cut at Itto’s hands – the resulting arterial spray causes a keening sound referred to as ‘The Flute of the Fallen Tiger’ ( the same name as the story ). A Death-speech ( my term, I forget what the precise Japanese term is ) is the practise of having an ill-fated person, slashed at the hands of his enemy muttering a near-poetic sentence just before he dies, a good example would be O-Ren Ishii’s “That really was a Hanzo sword” line at the end of Kill Bill Vol 1.

Throughout the journey, Ogami Itto and Daigoro encounter other ronin who walked the land at that time. Japanese history tells us that during the Edo period, the rigid feudal structure of society had led to a proliferance of samurai who lost their masters in court intrigues or the machinations of the centralized shogunate. Most samurai found themselves assimilated as paid retainers of their lords or forced to the streets bereft of land. “Half Mat, One Mat, A Fistful of Rice” ( Volume 2) figures one such ronin, who makes his living holding streetshows in which he dares people to hit his head, sticking up through a hole in a mat, with a weapon of their choice. If they can go ahead and hit him before he dodges, they are free to scavenge his dead body with all the money they can fight. On meeting Ogami Itto and his son, the ronin suggests that Itto take to a better life to ensure that his son has a better future, to which Itto refuses, leading to a showdown between the two. Again, what is interesting here is not the actual fight itself, but the phiosophical argument between the two samurai, one who has no faith in the current society urging the other to reform himself and become a part of the social order once again. Another story “Parting Frost” ( Volume 4) is about Daigoro, as he searches for his father through the countryside – Kojima excels in drawing the silent montage of pages where the child walks, mute and uncomplaining, through the pouring rain. When he takes shelter in a temple, a wandering ronin sees him. Intrigued by the child’s shishogan, the eyes that show no fear or emotion, perfectly balanced in life and death, the swordsman follows the child from a distance, watching him get trapped in a forest fire without trying to help him. His curiousity is rewarded – Daigoro lives through the fire by sheer force of will – but in this child, the swordsman sees someone he can never be, and he lunges to kill him. Like I said, the line of reasoning followed by most individuals in the series is at odds with what we ourselves might consider logical or fairly obvious.

As Frank Miller put it in his introduction, this is a cruel, mad world that the characters inhabit.

It is in volume 3 that the origin story, part of which is narrated in Vol 1, the ninth chapter ‘The Assassin’s Road’, is fully explained, and the reader is given more details about the insidious dealings of the Yagyu clan, which sets into motion the chain of events leading to the transformation of the shogun’s executioner into an errant assassin. Koike’s storytelling skills have never been in doubt, but it is worthy enough to mention here that he gives us the backstory to a backstory in this tale, titled “White Path Between to the Rivers”. Masterfully told, as always.

However, the best story in this arc remains ‘The Gateless Barrier’ – the last story in volume 2, which deserves a post in itself. To be continued.

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.

An Extended Look at Lone Wolf and Cub – Prologue

What is Lone Wolf and Cub all about? Simply put, it is a revenge story set in the Edo period, when the Tokugawa shogunate ruled over Japan. It’s the story of a wronged samurai named Ogami Itto and his baby son Daigoro, and how father and son seek to avenge their family honour in the face of relentless , powerful opponents. Above all, it’s a study of samurai life, Japanese society and human morals set in a time that is drastically different from our own, in an arena where the rules are substantially different. It’s historical fiction and it’s a pulp adventure and it’s a morality play. And yes, it’s one of the most influential manga series ever written, inspiring characters from different genres and cultures.

Lone Wolf and Cub, like most good things we know and love, was a product of the seventies. It was written by Kazuo Koike, a man much influenced by the gekiga movement in manga espoused by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, a move to more realism and experimentation in storytelling style. Koike opted for historical fiction served with liberal doses of sex and violence- much like Sanpei Shirato’s Kamui (1965-67). He began Lone Wolf and Cub in 1970 with a series of short stories illustrated by Goseki Kojima, then an up-and-coming manga-artist, serialized in Manga Action magazine. As the series progressed, the storyline became more complex, with Koike incorporating Zen philosophical observations in his stories, introducing little-known aspects of Japanese society, and brought twisted moral motivations to his characters. Kojima’s exquisite black-and-white brushwork held it all together, featuring detailed images of the Japanese countryside and settlements, brutal renditions of fight scenes, and quiet, multiple-page-spanning moments of the baby Daigoro and his father. The final product was 28 volumes in all, culminating in an ending which can be called- using the greatest of all understatements I can use – epic.

It was not until 1988 that the first English translations of Lone Wolf were published, bringing the series into mass consciousness of the Occidental world. Even before that, the ( untranslated ) series gained a lot of prominence among comicbook artists and the Japan aficionados, one of them being Frank Miller –  who claimed, in the introduction to the first issue of the translated version of how 250 pages of back-to-back reading left him “babbling like an idiot”. It was First Comics that brought this series to America in the 1980s, just when manga and anime was seeping into the counter-culture consciousness. These 48-page comics were printed on high-quality paper, each of the issues bearing covers by noted artists like Frank Miller, Bill Sienkiewicz and Matt Wagner. Early issues also had introductions by Miller, who revelled in his fan-boy love of the series by writing extremely florid descriptions of the series.

There were problems, though. The principal being that First Comics chose not to print the stories in their published order. Because of the assumption that the US market needed their stories more accessible (read: dumbed down), they chose to publish stories in chronological order. Which meant that the early First issues had the origin of Ogami Itto’s vendetta, instead of the actual storylines. Not a bad thing, but you know the problem about reading order – it’s like forcing someone to read The Magician’s Nephew before The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe just because events in Magician’s happen before the latter. Later issues had random storylines clubbed together from early Lone Wolf and Cub tales. All this is not necessarily bad, sometime or the other, First Comics would have been able to cover all the LW&C stories. That point was rendered moot by the fact that after publishing 45 issues of Lone Wolf and Cub, the company went bankrupt in the late 80s. As a result, only about 2000 pages of this epic tale were published in English, roughly a fourth of the complete story. And it has to be said – the story hadn’t even got to the good parts.

Enter Dark Horse comics, twelve years later. The manga boom had arrived in the USA by then, with companies like Viz and Tokyopop already bringing out popular titles that had found extended reader-bases, and Dark Horse following suit by reprinting some of the classic series – Masumone Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Domu and Akira. Based on a deal with Koike Shoin publishing, Japan, ( incidentally, owned by Kazuo Koike himself, in sharp contrast to publisher-owned manga properties, the writer had obtained the rights to all his series from the original publisher Fuso-sha) Dark Horse acquired the rights to bringing back into print Lone Wolf and Cub. Instead of choosing to go the normal 32-page or 48-page pamphlet form, the company opted to print the series the way it was originally collected in Japan, 28 4-inch by 6-inch volumes of 250-300 pages each. Not only was this format in sync with the new publishing model followed by manga companies, it also served to keep costs down, so that the volumes cost 9.95$ each when they came out, a perfectly fair price to bring in a healthy reader-base for this long series. Dana Lewis along with Studio Proteus, one of the pioneers in manga translations, undertook new translations for the series. The other concession made for the American market was that the manga was flipped – which means, the reading order of the original artwork, back-to-front, right-to-left was changed to the western left-to-right format. This was done by reversing the artwork, resulting in incongruities like almost characters in the series becoming left-handed. Covers were by American artists, with all of Miller’s covers for the First comics being reused initially and newer covers designed by Mike Ploog, Matt Wagner, Vince Locke and Guy Davis.

The twenty-eighth volume of the Dark Horse reprint came out in December 2002. Dark Horse stuck to a release schedule of a volume per month, quite a foolhardy venture, considering that the editorial process had to be put into place for 300 or more pages per month!

I have read and reread the volumes a number of times since I got them, both in digital and actual formats. There have been more works by Koike/Kojima published by Dark Horse after that, the ten-volume Samurai Executioner and the currently ongoing Path of the Assassin. But it’s Lone Wolf and Cub that keeps calling me back every now and then. And the more I look around, it looks as if there isn’t anyone comprehensively writing about how good this series gets as it progresses. I know a lot of folks who start reading it, and lose interest by the 10th volume, just because the story gets a little repetitive. Trust me, Koike and Kojima have crafted a story that demands your attention. It requires the reader to focus on a journey without worrying about how long it will take or where it will go. Because unlike stories about super-humans or larger-than-life franchises which have to go on, so that the creators and the publishers can milk all possible storytelling avenues dry, Lone Wolf and Cub has an ending. It becomes all too apparent to the reader by the time the storyline enters its second arc (I have mentally divided the series into a number of arcs, each arc representing a logical progression of Ogami Itto and Daigoro’s journey ) that the Koike and Kojima have no intention of running in circles.

So this is what I am about to do. Over the period of the next couple of days ( or weeks. You know my writing habits) I am going to write about each volume of Lone Wolf and Cub. There will not be spoilers, for the some of you who have not read the series yet and want to read it someday. Some will have read the series already. Most, I gather, don’t give a flying fart about what I write or am going to write, so this is your chance – give this idea-space a miss unless you want to know more about this amazing series.  Right now would be…uh…a good time to really figure out if you really need me on your f-lists.

Onward, then.


A Father Knows His Child’s Heart, as Only a Child Can Know His Father’s

I just finished reading 28 volumes of Lone Wolf and Cub. Rereading, rather – I had completed reading the scanned versions sometime last year (well, alright, also the 45 issues that First Comics had reprinted in the eighties, and which I had bought earlier. ). But that was not sustained reading, I was reading the early volumes at the rate at which the kind brainz was downloading them off Emule ( One volume every four days, downloaded to his server, from where I would have to download it to my computer at home, on a painfully erratic 64 kbps connection) And then I discovered bit-torrent, and found the first 23 volumes in a single gigatorrent. Got them, read them all, and stalked zcultfm patiently until volumes 24-28 were uploaded by some samaritan.

I bought the complete lot off eBay last December, from a guy in London at a ridiculously low buy-it-now price, and he waived shipping charges for the lot if I could arrange a personal pickup. My sister came to the rescue, but the books were stuck with her until last week. Oh, the agony. The irony being that bookstores in India began stocking Lone Wolf and Cub volumes since February. Yes, I could have bought them all here, but they would have cost me a lot more, and not all of them were…ahem….first prints.

I finished the first 13 volumes in a single sitting at Delhi airport, taking occasional tomato soup-and-coffee breaks to soothe the hyper-charged mind. Could not really continue with the rest when I got back to Hyderabad, but managed to get to volume 20 by yesterday. Could not control myself any longer, and finished the last 8 volumes today. And now there is this melancholy feeling that refuses to go away – you understand the feeling, right, the thought of “darn, why did it have to end?” and “What do I do next?” and the general hangover of the journey itself, nearly 9000 pages with Ogami Itto and Daigoro on the road to Meifumado.

I could rave about the series and Koike and Kojima’s storytelling prowess, but I am just. Too. Blown. Away right now.

Which reminds me, I also finished eight out of ten volumes of Samurai Executioner, also by the same creators – ironically, the fate of Yamada Asaemon, the titular character of Samurai Executioner is revealed in one of the early volumes of Lone Wolf and Cub. If you find volumes eight and nine of the series, do let me know. Those are the ones I do not have right now – Blossom bookstore in Bangalore stocks Samurai Executioner only until volume 7, while the shop I went to in Delhi had volume 10, but no volume 8 and 9. Darn.

What am I going to read next? Easy. Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha, four volumes of which I bought in Delhi, and which I have been dying to read ever since Andrew Arnold raved about them on Time.com. This will be my first Tezuka, and from what I have seen so far, is going to be quite a different read from both Lone Wolf and Samurai Executioner. Now if only I find the next four volumes without much of a fuss….

Quick trivia: Goseki Kojima and Osamu Tezuka were born on the same day – November 3, 1928. What Enishi!

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.