Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

15 July 2011

(Graphic Novel Series) Lone Wolf and Cub by: Koike Kazuo and Kojima Goseki

(Reaction) The Road Less Travelled is the Bloody One by: Jose Angelo Singson

Lone Wolf and Cub is one of most revered works of manga known and I do not use this description lightly. Its epic scope, highly-researched, historically accurate details, original artwork, pious recollection of bushido ethos and even the mindset of the people of that era all make for a truly one of a kind body of work. The mere length of the story spans 28 volumes of manga, with over 300 pages each, totaling over 8,700 pages in all, enough to rival the Bible at least in terms of girth and heft. Many of the scenes within the series are mesmerizingly beautiful depictions of nature, historical locations in Japan and daily activities of the Japanese people of that era done in the classical ukiyo-e style. These details however are but embellishments to a truly engaging storyline filled with characters of such amazing depth. Truly the word epic is an appropriate description for the Lone Wolf and Cub series, and as such, I think that a single reaction might not be sufficient to do the entire series justice. I've read many a graphic novel in my day but the Lone Wolf and Cub series really and truly stands out because of all these factors.

There are 3 major recurring themes that stand out most throughout the series:

The theme of class struggles was a natural outgrowth of the time period of the story's setting. The story is set in the Tokugawa era, a time marked by heavy social stratification and as an almost unsurprising result, terrible struggles that this system wreaked upon their society.

The dichotomy of social classes is made painfully clear throughout the series via different means. A good example is the speech of the commoners and the nobility. The dialogues of the ruling class of nobles and samurai are written using complex, rigidly structured speech peppered with archaic honorifics and self-depreciating statements that was so highly regarded in Japanese society of their day. To a reader unaccustomed to Asiatic cultures, one might see these dialogues as sycophantic or tiresomely indirect. Fortunately, the translators have also provided the readers with a fairly extensive glossary as well as cultural side notes that explain these behaviors and speech patterns.

Commoners are written to emulate hillbilly or deep southern accents in order to connect with Western readers and to highlight how dull or crude they were. Their speech is rough and liberally strewn with all sorts of expletives again, to emphasize how different the haves were from the have not's. Even the art was keen to point these differences out. Nobles were drawn as standing upright all the time whereas commoners were drawn stooped and often with bad teeth or facial deformities. More than just to point out differences between the classes, the artist did have good reason for drawing commoners, well, ugly. Understandably facial deformities and bad teeth were often the result of a poor diet and lack of access to proper medical care or knowledge of hygienic practices.

Throughout the series the writer uses several plots revolving around the friction of the castes such as tragic stories of women that have been sold into slavery or prostitution, unable to avenge themselves because of their station in life or of nobles so trapped by their system that they have to seek vengeance through Itto's who had all but abandoned the common norms of Ancient Edo culture .The resultant poverty from these class struggles were also exploited quite often in the series, using the immense bounty placed on Ogami Itto's head as a plot device.

Another common plot device used throughout the series was the kiri sute gomen, the samurai right to slay the peasant, without fear of punishment, even if only to test the cutting edge or the quality of his sword. Although this cruel act was hardly ever graphically depicted in the series many plots revolved around peasants, merchants, basically all number of members of the lower classes who were victims of this cruel practice.

The caste system of Ancient Edo era Japan was given a life of its own through the clever writing of Koike-sensei. It became a pervasive, cruel but faceless enemy that many characters were completely powerless to fight against. The peasants who were victimized by the nobles could only bear their indignity in silence, and even the nobles themselves were preyed upon by the more powerful feudal lords. No one was spared, not even the Shogun himself who was constantly concerned about the other feudal lords would think about the decisions he made.

The caste system also spawned another constant theme in the series: the inner struggle of to fulfill one's duty or to follow one's desires. Nearly all the characters in the series were subject to these struggles. Ogami Itto himself is a prime example of this inner conflict.

In the scene where he realizes that he had been set-up by the Yagyus he himself cooks up a scheme to escape and protect both himself and his son from an unjust and untimely death at the hands of his treacherous enemy. Knowing that he had been stripped of his title and that his record of service was ruined the traditional way of salvaging his honor would be to commit seppuku, he however chose to avenge himself, discarding everything that he had known and held dear: the samurai way of life and even the regard for personal safety for himself and his son.

Before heading out to the mockery of a trial he wears the official robes of the Kogi Kaishakunin underneath his funeral robes. When Yagyu Retsudo's men come to take Ogami Itto to the execution grounds he sheds his funeral robes revealing the Kogi Kaishakunin's uniform, adorned with the Shogun's crest. Traditionally, any object bearing the crest of the Shogun was to be revered, especially by those serving as a feudal lord or as an imperial retainer. The executioner's robe was certainly no exception to this rule because when these ceremonial robes were worn whoever was currently wearing it was treated as the Shogun himself. In effect, anyone who struck a blow against anyone wearing the robes was equal to striking a blow against the Shogun himself. In using this gambit Itto Ogami was able to escape with his son.

Of all the recurring themes in the series though, the concept of fate is the most pervasive. So much so that it could almost be treated as a character within the series. Throughout the series, intertwined destinies are featured but presented in so many varied and creative ways that it always comes off as fresh. The protagonist, Ogami Itto laments on several occasions that he and his son are nothing more than the playthings of fate. Even the antagonist, Yagyu Retsudo acknowledges the presence of a strange, invisible string of destiny that ties him and his nemesis together. It is interesting to note that when the theme of fate is featured, the main characters are used as either plot tools or as story telling elements. Ogami Itto becomes an agent of retribution for those that have hired his services. In these situations he will typically announce his role as an assassin, even going as far as to provide an elaborate explanation; complete with a flashback in some volumes, as to why he is striking his current opponent down. His enemies are often dumbstruck when they realize that he or she is being cut down by a master swordsman who was hired by a person that they had wronged so many years ago.

Another interesting cultural twist that the writer applies here is that Ogami Itto is not always hired by a feudal lord or noble. The fact that his only conditions for loaning out his services is the payment of a small fortune to have a person killed and that he be told the full background history of why he should accept the contract meant that most anyone could hire him. The Lone Wolf's list of employers thus became very long and very, very varied. Throughout the series he is hired by wealthy landowners, yakuza mobsters, rival feudal lords, monks, widows, orphan girls and even farmers; a concept nearly unheard of back in the day. This was the same groundbreaking concept that was applied in the movie The Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa. It was a complete reversal of socio-cultural norms that provided for many interesting subplots within the series, a necessary ingredient that kept the entire epic tale fresh and vibrant.

The Lone Wolf and Cub series is a powerful, riveting epic told in a masterful style and made even more engaging by gritty, raw, often gruesome depictions of violence. Although violence was a ubiquitous element in the series it never served as a distraction or a deterrent, indeed often the violence served as a powerful accent and a vital storytelling tool. Its presence was a constant reminder of just how vastly different the society of the Tokugawa era was from the audience's. The reality of how violence could explode without warning at any given moment for the slightest of reason gave the story a taut, perpetually cautious air during the entire series. Every character seemed to be alert for the slightest possibility of danger: peasants were constantly vigilant of the samurai, the samurai were constantly on their guard from rival samurai serving other feudal lords, and feudal lords were constantly on the lookout for waning loyalties within their domains and so on and so forth. Even their justice system was notably violent. Criminals were presumed guilty before being proven innocent and torture was a common fixture in their penal system.

The protagonist of this epic story is the disgraced former Kogi Kaishakunin (The Shogun's Executioner), Ogami Itto and his young son, Diagoro. The post of the Kogi Kaishakunin is a position of high power in the Tokugawa Shogunate. Along with other imperial agents, Ogami Itto is responsible for enforcing the will of the Shogun over the lesser domain lords. When a nobleman or samurai is commanded to commit ritual suicide by disembowelment the Kogi Kaishakunin assists in their deaths by beheading them, thus sparing them from an otherwise slow and painful death; in assuming this role he is entitled to wear the ceremonial robes of the executioner emblazoned with the crest of the Shogun, effectively acting in the place of the Shogun in these matters.

The power wielded by the post of the executioner is coveted by many within the Shogun's court, but most especially by Yagyu Retsudo, head of the Yagyu clan and leader of the empire's spy network as well as the de facto head of the official assassins of the Shogun (the Kurokawa clan). Retsudo seizes the executioner's post from Itto by an elaborate plot. He commanded his men to disguise themselves as former retainers of an abolished clan (whose feudal lord was beheaded by Ogami Itto) and they then proceeded to murder his entire household while he was away on official duty, sparing only his infant son. During the murder investigation, the magistrates find an ihai, or a funeral tablet with the Shogun's crest on it signifying that Itto has a death wish for the Emperor; an act tantamount to treason. He is then stripped of his post and commanded to commit seppuku, ritual suicide by disembowelment.

In a particularly poignant scene Itto talks to a then 1-year old Daigoro asking him to choose between a ball and his father's famous battle sword the Dotanuki. If his son chose the ball, Itto would kill his son, in his words sending him to his mother's side. If his son chose the sword then both of them would start on the road to meifumado, the cursed path of the assassin; literally a road of violence, becoming swords for hire vowing to destroy the Yagyu clan to avenge the murder of their family and the dishonor they have suffered. As fate would have it, Daigoro crawls to the sword and father and son discard their lives as samurai to become ronin wanderers encountering many adventures, touching many lives and eventually slaying the entire Yagyu and Kurokawa clan, finally facing off with Yagyu Retsudo himself in an epic duel. The series eventually comes to a head when Ogami Itto finally succumbs to his numerous injuries and fatigue. In another very poignant scene, Daigoro picks up the blade-tip of the Retsudo's broken spear and charges into his and his father's most hated enemy. Retsudo realizing that this vendetta that he had been nurturing all this time has brought him nothing but the ruin of this clan and his disgrace opens his arms, disregarding all defense and lets Daigoro run him though with the spear tip. Embracing Daigoro as the boy plunges the spear tip into him he tearfully utters the words Grandson of my heart ending the chain of bitter hatred and vengeance between their clans.

Off the bat the Lone Wolf and Cub series may be dismissed as a mere comic book but to lump it together with such works as Archie or Spider-Man would be a gross miscalculation of the literary scope of this masterpiece. It is a novel, without a doubt, a novel with beautifully rendered pictures. A novel that has taken the time to research about a bygone era that has provided readers with a vivid image of a time long since past. A novel full of characters of surprising profundity developed over many chapters; romanticized many times over, surpassing many cultural boundaries. Indeed many cultures have their own Lone Wolf: The Man with No Name of the Western Movie genre, the incognito wandering Kung-fu monk, Zorro, and many more. Although the settings, the characters, and the culture may be vastly different from the reader's the series never fails to strike a deep cord within.

Review:

I chose to write a reaction on this graphic novel because I have long felt that this particular series ought to be given its due. Despite its format it is every bit a novel in the way it reads and the way the tale unfolds. To think otherwise would be to miss out on a wonderful read.

Even for people who are generally squeamish about graphic violence and sex it would be hard to dislike the series. The art is a far and refreshing cry from typical manga art (i.e. the standard anime template of big eyes, small mouth) so it feels like one is looking at a series of antique watercolor scrolls more than reading a graphic novel. The hero is also likeable in that he is, for all rights and intents, Chuck Norris-esque in his ability to stay alive and to prevail in combat and yet is capable of showing moments of very human helplessness. In fact it is difficult to dislike any of the characters because they all show moments of intense vulnerability making it very easy to identify with them.

The Lone Wolf and Cub series is the yardstick by which I measure all other samurai graphic novels against.

Share
This reaction is covered by a Creative Commons Attribution - NonCommercial - ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. All that legal mumbo jumbo just means you're free to use any part or entirety of this reaction for any non-commercial purpose as long as you cite the author. Creative Commons License