Quite by coincidence I celebrated Father’s Day by reading the new Dark Horse Lone Wolf and Cub Omnibus. This concerns the adventures of a man even less likely to win the Father of the Year Award than Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones. Ogami Itto travels Tokugawa Shogunate Japan pursuing his career as an unstoppable assassin. A man capable of slaughtering squads of highly trained ninja, scores of bandits and small armies of Ronin with his trusty dotanuki battle-blade, what makes his feats of butchery even more impressive is that he often performs them while pushing the pram containing his infant son, Daigoro. Ogami is the Lone Wolf of the title, Daigoro is the cub.
If the basic premise of a pram-pushing, sword-wielding super-assassin sounds ludicrous, I can assure you the manga takes it completely seriously. And by the time you’ve finished reading it, you probably will too.
First let’s get the negatives out of the way. This is a disturbing read in the way that manga can often be. Particularly in the early episodes the author, Kazuo Koike, seems devoted to shocking you with just how brutal and ruthless our hero can be, as he performs ever more reckless feats of child endangerment in his quest to get his quota of killings done. Itto is a man perfectly willing to toss his own toddler into the river as part of a trap for his intended victim. The passing ronin strips himself of his weapons and dives in to save the drowning child. Ogami Itto stabs him as he swims. It’s not exactly the stuff of heroic fantasy.
I confess I found some of the schemes the Lone Wolf uses, the ones that supposedly demonstrate what a brilliant and ruthless tactician he is, just a bit silly when I paused to think about them. Invariably I found myself wondering what this wandering ronin did with all the piles of money he collected from the people who used their life savings to hire his services as an infallible killer. And I was often puzzled as to what all this endless wandering around slaughtering people in a mercenary fashion had to do with our hero’s supposed quest for vengeance on the people who dishonoured him and killed his family. The series storyline is not without its flaws.
In the end though none of this mattered to me because, quite simply, Lone Wolf and Cub is awesome. In part, it’s the artwork, which is astonishing. It is not at all reminiscent of the pretty cartoonishness of a lot of modern manga. It has the darkness of the British comic books of my 1960’s youth, combined with an awesome dynamism in the storytelling that apparently heavily influenced a young Frank Miller. The landscapes and settings are often super-realistic and this is sometimes achieved with the simplest of techniques. In some of the stories the effects of walking through a snowstorm are achieved by the use of stippling. It seems so simple but by God, it works.
And Goseki Kojima, the artist, knows beyond any doubt how to tell a story. I forget which Hollywood director said that in a good movie you should be able to completely understand what is going on without the soundtrack. Kojima knows how to do this. Page sometimes follows page in Lone Wolf and Cub with neither sound effect nor dialogue and the story is conveyed to the reader by the art alone.
In part the strength of Lone Wolf and Cub comes from the atmosphere. Ogami Itto and his son are on meifumado, the road to hell and the reader is left in no doubt that this is the case. They wander through a film noir world of darkness and corruption where law and order is breaking down and society is crumbling. The book transported me back to a different time, not just Shogunate Japan (of which it is a realistic depiction according to people better qualified than me to say), but the 1970’s when it was written. It has all the bleak nihilism of the movies and books of that period, of spaghetti Westerns, clockwork oranges and men with no names.
At first reading I thought I detected spaghetti western influence in the storytelling style, then I remembered that Leone lifted scenes from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo movies shot for shot. In any case, it does not matter, we’re moving through a dark world where an honest man can be forced to become an assassin and reap a red harvest.
The small touches impress, and the quiet moments. Despite his willingness to sacrifice his son’s life along with his own, you are left in no doubt that there is a bond between Itto and Daigoru. And there are times when the child’s innocent view of the world he is being carried through is transmitted with a full-on sense of wonder. And even in this venal world there is moral complexity— men hire Itto to kill their friends out of political necessity and regret it all the while. Living Buddhas understand how their example is used to keep the peasantry docile. And Itto himself lives by his own code even as he abuses the honour of the people around him and the mores of his society to achieve his lethal ends.
I first read Lone Wolf and Cub many years ago in one of the small compilations of the stories. It was The Flute of the Fallen Tiger I think. I always wanted to read more. I am grateful to Dark Horse for giving me a chance to read the stories from beginning to end and in a format more suited to my ageing eyes.