By Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima, translated by Dana Lewis (Dark Horse Manga)
Best known in the West as Lone Wolf and Cub, the epic Samurai saga created by Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima is without doubt a global classic of comics literature.
An example of the popular “Chanbara” or “sword-fighting” genre of print and screen, Kozure Okami was serialised in Weekly Manga Action from September 1970 until April 1976 and was an immense hit.
Those tales soon prompted a thematic companion series, Kubikiri Asa (Samurai Executioner) which ran from 1972 to 1976, but the major draw – at home and soon, increasingly abroad – was always the nomadic wanderings of doomed noble Ōgami Ittō and his solemn child.
Revered and influential, Kozure Okami was followed after years of supplication by fans and editors by sequel Shin Lone Wolf & Cub (illustrated by Hideki Mori) and even spawned – through Koike’s indirect participation – science fiction homage Lone Wolf 2100 by Mike Kennedy & Francisco Ruiz Velasco with.
The original saga has been successfully adapted to many other media, spawning six movies, four plays, two TV series, games and merchandise. The property is notoriously still in pre-production as a big Hollywood blockbuster.
The several thousand pages of enthralling, exotic, intoxicating narrative art produced by these legendary creators eventually filled 28 collected volumes, beguiling generations of readers in Japan and, inevitably, the world. More importantly, their philosophically nihilistic odyssey with its timeless themes and iconic visuals has influenced hordes of other creators.
The many manga, comics and movies these stories have inspired are impossible to count. Frank Miller, who illustrated the cover of this edition, referenced the series in Daredevil, his dystopian opus Ronin, The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City. Max Allan Collin’s Road to Perdition is a proudly unashamed tribute to this masterpiece of vengeance-fiction. Stan Sakai has superbly spoofed, pastiched and celebrated the wanderer’s path in his own epic Usagi Yojimbo, and even children’s cartoon shows such as Samurai Jack can be seen as direct descendants of this astounding achievement of graphic narrative.
We in the West first saw the translated tales as 45 Prestige Format editions from First Comics beginning in 1987. That innovative trailblazer foundered before getting even a third of the way through the vast canon, after which Dark Horse Comics assumed the rights, systematically reprinting and translating the entire epic into 28 tankobon-style editions (petite 153 x 109 mm monochrome trade paperbacks, of about 300 pages each) between September 2000 and December 2002.
Once the entire translated epic had run its course it was all placed online through the Dark Horse Digital project.
A certain formula informs the early episodes: the acceptance of a commission to kill an impossible target, a cunning plan and inevitable success, all underscored with bleak philosophical musings alternately informed by Buddhist teachings in conjunction with or in opposition to the unflinching personal honour code of Bushido.
Protagonist Ōgami Ittō is also – probably – the most dangerous swordsman in creation…
Following a cautionary ‘Note to Readers’ on stylistic interpretation this third moodily magnificent monochrome collection truly gets underway with another grimly compelling fable as ‘The Flute of the Fallen Tiger’ finds Ōgami and Daigoro aboard a ship where they encounter three bounty hunting brothers on a mission of their own. Seemingly favoured by the gods of fortune the BenTenRai siblings are lethal, unbeatable ninja warriors who instinctively comprehend the mettle of their taciturn travelling companion. Suspecting his true identity and fearing his task is opposing their current assignment – escorting a crucial witness to the Shogun’s Court – the brothers constantly test the father and son, without ever violating the strict formality of the traveller’s codes of conduct.
They even become tenuous allies when a third faction attacks with oil and flame, setting the waters ablaze. Tragically for the brothers, their fortunate reputation is not equal to their so-accurate assessment of the Lone Wolf assassin, and when the final clash comes only Ōgami walks away…
‘Half Mat, One Mat, A Fistful of Rice’ then pits the wanderers against Headless Sakon, an aging warrior master who apparently whiles his days away testing his skills against punters all paying for a sporting chance to decapitate him. When one such joust almost injures Daigoro, the veteran tries to strike up a friendship with the boy’s father, but he has ulterior motives.
After intense philosophical debate fails to sway the assassin from his sworn course on the road to hell, the elderly Ronin is forced to resort to his martial prowess and one final performance…
‘The White Path Between the Rivers’ then delves back to the beginning and reveals the details of Ōgami Ittō’s downfall. The vengeance-driven killer-nomad was once the prestigious Kōgi Kaishakunin: the Shogun’s official executioner, capable of cleaving a man in half with one stroke.
An eminent individual of esteemed imperial standing, elevated social position and impeccable honour, Ōgami loses everything when, soon after the birth of his son, his wife is murdered and his family eternally dishonoured due to the machinations of the politically ambitious Yagyu Clan.
Framed for plotting against the Shogun, Ōgami is ordered to commit suicide. Instead he rebels, choosing to become a despicable Ronin (masterless samurai) and assassin, pledging to revenge himself on the Yagyus until they are all dead or Hell has claimed him.
Now, despite the machinations of enemies at court he roams Japan pushing his toddler son in a tricked-out weaponised pram; two doomed souls hell-bent for the dire, demon-haunted underworld of Meifumado.
Although little more than a baby, his son Daigoro also chooses the way of the sword, and together they tread the grim and evocative landscapes of feudal Japan, one step ahead of destruction with death behind and before them…
When a freshly purchased girl accidentally kills the procurer who is delivering her to a brothel, she stumbles into little Daigoro and falls under the protection of the Lone Wolf. A valuable property, the local Yakuza Madam tries every possible tactic to regain her but is unable to shift Ōgami from his sworn intent to liberate ‘The Virgin and the Whore’…
The martial arts mayhem concludes at ‘Close Quarters’ when Wolf and Cub become embroiled in a localised political war between generations.
The authorities in a rich lumber-producing region are divided between cutting down their forests for a quick sale and preserving the mountain woodlands that stave off calamitous flooding. After one faction occupies the arboreal tracts and threatens to burn them, the jōdai (Castle Warden and official in charge) hires Ōgami to kill the rebel leader and safeguard the precious trees.
A feat of monumental audacity and determination follows, but when the greedy jōdai attempts to cheat the assassin, all hell is unleashed…
These stories are deeply metaphorical and work on a number of levels most of us Westerners just can’t grasp on first reading – even with the help provided by bonus features such as the copious Glossary, providing detailed clarification and context on the terms used in the stories. That only makes them more exotic and fascinating…
Also included in this edition are profiles of author Koike Kazuo and illustrator Kojima Goseki and the next instalment of ‘The Ronin Report’ – an occasional series of articles offering potted history essays on the period of the Tokugawa Shogunate – this time discussing the decline of the Samurai and transformation of Bushido principles.
A breathtaking tour de force, these are comics classics you simply must read.
© 1995, 2000 Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima. Cover art © 2000 Frank Miller. All other material © 2000 Dark Horse Comics, Inc. All rights reserved.