Lone Wolf and Cub, Vol. 1: The Assassins Road by Kazuo Koike
Seminal is not a word to throw around lightly, but there seems to be a consensus surrounding the influence of this manga series both at home in Japan and across the Pacific, where the likes of Frank Miller and Max Allan Collins cite it as a major influence on their artistic development. Having read the first album from Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, I can atest now to the merit of their glowing praises. The story surpassed my expectations both in the epic scale of the narrative, in the gritty realism (also known as extremely violent and explicit adult material) of the battle scenes, in the wealth of historical detail about the Edo period Japan (the same covered by James Clavell in Shogun and in the majority of samurai movies), and in the spectacular artwork inspired by classical woodwork prints in the ukiyo-e style made famous by the likes of Hokusai. I am not surprised to learn that the adventures of ronin assassin Ogami Itto and of his son Daigoro have translated well to film, since the black and white panels drawn by Goseki Kojima excell in dynamism and unusual angles of view.
The Assassins Road is the opening gambit in a game of go that seems to cover Japan from coast to coast, witnessing the travels of Ogami Itto, pushing the wooden cart carrying his three-year-old son Daigoro on the Tokaido road and beyond, advertising on a vertical flag Sword for Hire, Son for Hire . The two are available for assassination contracts and they are so succesful that they become known on the road as Lone Wolf and Cub . The 300 hundred pages of the first album include several episodes highlighting the unmatched skill of Ogami Itto with his heavy dotanuki war-sword and various other killing implements. The usual outcome is a pile of corpses left behind, as the duo walks off into the sunset. Daigoro is often playing an active part in the various ploys to get his father in the right position for a strike at his enemies or designated targets.
Its hard to pick a favorite among the episodes included here. They might look similar to each other at first glance : Lone Wolf goes somewhere and kills some guys!, but each of them adds a little more detail to the code of honour that underlines every action taken by Ogami Itto, about his careful interrogation about the reasons he is asked to perform murder and, slowly, about the background story that have driven the former personal assassin of the shogun on the road to hell (view spoiler)[ he has been framed and betrayed by a rival clan and is now on a personal quest of revenge against the Yagyu (hide spoiler)] . I believe my favorite for now is called Wings to the Bird, Fangs to the Beast, about how the Lone Wolf comes to rescue some poor villagers in a hot springs resort from a wild bunch of masterless samurai turned bandits. It is the longest story-arc in the first volume and has a larger cast than usual. I could easily see it turned into a movie of the sort that made Kurosawa famous.
One more thing that I found remarkable in this first album is the way the writer captures the social structure and the power plays in medieval Japan: at the top of the pyramid is the Shogun with his close allies and advisers, the place Ogami Itto belonged to before his fall from grace. Next are the local landlords known as daimyo, who enforce the law in their lands with the help of their faithful acolytes from the warrior class - the samurai. Warriors without allegiance are known as ronin and are either looking for employment or turn to banditry. Operating in the shadows are ninjas - the spy class and assassins currently controlled by the enemies of Ogami Itto, the Yagyu clan. Half legal, half secret are the Yakuza clans, controlling gambling, protection taxes and geisha houses. The short end of the stick goes to the peasants, who are mostly victims of corrupt officials and greedy lords. Itto and his son Daigoro are outsiders, following their own path, but mostly they act in defense of the underdog, making the usual plot of the series a sort of medieval Japanese version of a typical western story.
**** stars for now, since I loved the story and the artwork, but I believe there is still some room for improvement and I am still uncomfortable giving the highest marks to a story that glorifies killing in such gory details. I might revise higher once I go through the following albums, with number 2 coming hopefully later this week.[br]>[br]>[br]>[br]>[br]>[br]>[br]>[br]>[br]>[br]>[br]>[br]>[br]>[br]>[br]>[br]>
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