I’ve tweeted a couple of times about the classic manga. comic Lone Wolf and Cub and people have asked me about it. There’s no strong manga culture in India thankfully so I thought I’d write a bit about it here just to give people an idea of why I like it so much.
Ever since my sister found a copy of the comic at a roadside bookshop in Kerala, I’ve been an admirer of the series. The story is quite epic in it’s proportions and quite accurate in it’s representation of feudal japan during the Tokugawa shogunate. The books often come with a glossary at the end which describes Japanese words and concepts quite well.
The main protagonist of the series is the Ronin (masterless Samurai) Ogami Itto. He was the Kogi Kaishakunin (fictional post in the series - the official executioner of the Shogun). Japanese Samurai were sometimes ordered to or in dishonour decide to commit seppuku. The idea is to slit open ones own stomach with a short blade in front of an audience. It’s a very painful ritual form of suicide reserved for Samurai to redeem their honour with a glorious death. A messy business at best and it would get messier if they were allowed to bleed to death. Because of this, a “second” was appointed to perform kaishaku i.e. beheading the man who was commiting seppuku to end the ritual. The Shogun would, on occasion, command samurai to perform seppuku. The person who did the kaishaku during these rituals would be the “official executioner for the Shogun” or the “Kogi Kaishakunin”. This was, needless to say, a distinguished position and Ogami Itto because of his incredible skill with the sword was granted it and this makes the Ogami clan a great and powerful one.
Enter the antagonist. Yagyu Retsudo is the head of the Yagyu clan. An old scheming samurai of incredible skill and strength. he hatches a plot to dishonour (the rather naive) Ogami. Ogamis pregnant wife and her servants are murdered and an ihai bearing the Tokugawa clans hollyhock crest was planted in the temple where Ogami prays for the souls of the people he executed signifying that he prays for the Shoguns death. This, of course, is a not a good thing to do. Ogami’s guilty secret is “discovered” and he’s ousted from Edo in shame.
Ogami’s wife however delivers before she dies and the son is healthy. The father with his son becomes an assassin - a hired killer. He leaves the path of the the Buddha and follows the path of meifumado in his quest for vengeance becoming an unholy terror. Thus, “Lone wolf and Cub”.
The bulk of the series consist of Ogamis exploits, his brushes with the Yagyu, attempts to capture or kill him and his getting closer to his goal of destroying Retsudo and the Yagyu clan. The hauntingly beautiful drawings of Japanese landscapes reminiscent of woodcut drawings, the romanticisation of the bushido (way of the warrior) - of which Ogami, his son Daigoro and Retsudo are prime examples, the incredible story arcs and intense drama in all the artwork make this one the best comics I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot of them).
Ogami’s Suio Ryu fighting style with it’s legendary Zanbato (horse slicing) stroke and wave slicing stroke puts paid to hundreds of warriors throughout Japan. Some are Samurai and some are shinobi. The series has gratuitous violent and sexual content much of which is inappropriate for modern consumption (e.g. a 3 year old Daigoro kills a woman trying to kidnap him by stabbing her in the heart with a naginata). His single minded dedication to his quest for revenge destroys the Yagyu clan completely forcing Retsudo to uproot the Kurokawa “grass” Ninjas (spies who are “planted” in fiefs and transmitted their job of reporting the secrets of the local rulers to Retsudo to their sons). I haven’t seen any depiction of a “hero” more powerful than Ogami in this series. Absolutely unstoppable and yet with enough human touches to become believable.
Samurai are often depicted as flawless individuals highly committed to honour. In reality however, they were a powerful elite in Japanese society and like most high caste people were quite corrupt. Modern representations of this class (e.g. Ken Watanbe in “The last samurai”) have been quite romantic. Lone wolf and cub however shows their dark sides. The arrogance and lust for power which these people had and their morally bankrupt lifestyles are shown quite openly and sometimes even contrasted to the honourable behaviour of the lower caste peasants. This makes it a lot more lifelike and readable. It’s on of the things about the books I like the most. Of course, not all of the Samurai are depicted this way but not all of them are depicted as being flawless either.
The artist and story writer don’t economise on length. The final fight between Retsudo and Ogami easily runs into over a hundred panels and they do an extremely effective job of conveying the equal match the Ronin and and the scheming Samurai are for each other. The drawing style and angles make the stories incredibly dramatic and can really draw the reader into the wild quest of the ronin warrior. Movies have never delivered the effect that books have but this is the first time I’ve seen a comic do it.
I won’t dump any spoilers here. The story is a bit of an epic. The drawing style and general presentation make it quite lifelike. The accuracy in historical details makes it very interesting. It’s one of my favourite comics and I’m trying to collect all of the 28 volumes. I have 21 right now hope to find the rest some time soon.