When one reflects on the epic genre of literature they might think of Homer’s wine-dark sea, the ferocity of Grendel, or maybe Dante’s vision of Heaven and Hell. Epics are large works that force their way into their restricted genre, not just by their size and scope, but on the impact and influence they have on the society in which they are created. For something to be called an epic, it must be replete with cultural significance and deal with important themes on a grand scale. Moreover, it must be accepted as having this significance by the culture that spawned it.
Consequently, comic books do not often come to mind when one discusses the various great epics of literature. In America for instance, the medium has often been plagued with a biased dismissal by the academic world that has only in recent decades begun to change. Yet when one examines the criteria established by scholars of the subject, they see that the comic book medium is more closely related to the ancient genre then might at first be realized. Lone Wolf and Cub, the critically acclaimed and widely influential Manga by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, is a clear example of a comic book that follows all the requirements to be considered a member of the epic genre of literature.
In order to properly examine Lone Wolf and Cub for consideration as an epic, a clear definition of the parameters of the genre must be defined. Scholar and award-winning professor Timothy B. Shutt offers a clear set of characteristics in his Modern Scholar Lecture Series Monsters, Gods, and Heroes: Approaching the Epic in Literature. The “Modern Scholar Lecture Series” achieves a critical balance between the Academy and popular culture. These lectures can easily be found on the internet or in the audio book section of most libraries. They offer courses on a multitude of topics by a wide range of highly distinguished professors and scholars including Michael Drout and Harold Bloom. These collections emulate the actual lectures one would hear if they were taking an actual class, and the website even offers a final exam for the more studious of participants. Shutt, a professor at Kenyon College, is one Modern Scholars most popular professors.
In this series, comprised of 12 lectures on the subject of the epic, Shutt discusses the important works in the genre, such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Beowulf, The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost and several other notable contributions to literature. In the introductory lecture and throughout the rest of the course, he establishes some clear characteristics that establish the boundaries of this unique genre. While some may quibble over the details, Shutt nonetheless offers a practical and working definition that can generally be accepted. He outlines the characteristics as follows: an epic must be large in scale, deal with important thematic issues, must consider the socio-political reality of the culture and the individual’s place in it, and the story must be popular and accepted by the intended audience. It can be argued that Lone Wolf and Cub fulfills all these criteria.
When examining the first aspect of the genre, it is clear that Lone Wolf and Cub meets the minimum length requirements for consideration. As Shutt himself notes, “You can’t have an epic haiku”. Like Spencer’s The Faerie Queene, epic poems seeking admittance into the genre should number tens of thousands of lines. The work in question must be large, unquestionably so. As far as scale, Lone Wolf and Cub runs 141 issues, collected into 28 volumes each having approximately 300 pages. Averaging 8,400 pages the series runs longer than the Bible. Moreover, it is large in scope as well. It examines in great detail the political, social, and literal geography of Tokugawa Japan; exploring not just the world, but the worldview of the people at that time.
While length is crucial for epics, it is the subsequent criteria for the genre where the lines that divide tend to blur and the potential for disagreement and debate are opened up. Looking to the second characteristic it is clear that Koike and Kojima’s story deals broadly with a multitude of thematic issues; revenge, honor, loyalty, family, justice, etc. Some of these issues are threaded throughout the entire story - woven so surreptitiously that you don’t even realize it. Others are the primary focus of singular stories.
While all these themes are important Shutt identifies the three biggest and most significant as love, death, and God - contextualized as the presence or absence of the divine in the lives of humans. All three are represented in Lone Wolf and Cub. Love is most easily seen in the relationship between Itto and his son Daigoro. The bond shared by father and son is powerful and fully realized by the story’s creators. Multiple issues rely heavily on the familial connection that helps propel both characters inexorably toward their final goal.
Death is a recurring and crucial theme in the series as well. It is not only because of the sheer masses of warriors who die as Itto follows his path, but also in the way the story forces the reader to confront their own lives in view of the inevitability of death. Similar to the Iliad, an epic nearly obsessed with death, Lone Wolf and Cub offers a painful look into the dark unknown of the human condition. The samurai ethos, which Koike and Kojima meticulously researched and recreate, is built on the foundation of accepting death as essential to the warrior’s life. A true bushi (or warrior) must be prepared to lay down his life at a moments notice. As a result, as Itto explains several times throughout the series, a warrior must “live with death in his heart”. This trait is exemplified in the countless examples of warriors that willingly give their lives for honor and duty, and in Itto and Daigoro’s tireless quest for revenge without fear of the risks or consequences.
The series also explores death for those who live outside the warrior ethos of Bushido of medieval Japan. While the stoicism and bravery of the samurai is impressive, the average person no doubt faces the thought of their ends with some anxiety. The series reflects on this in the deaths of several characters whose demises offer a realistic contrast to their warrior counterparts.
The final large theme that Shutt discusses is the question of the divine in relation to the lives of humans. Religion and spirituality play a crucial role in Itto’s quest for revenge and his repudiation of his previous life. As an assassin on the path of slaughter, Itto has become, in his own words, “a demon of the Buddhist hell, meifumado”. Yet, even following this path Itto has not repudiated religion, he is simply manifesting it in another way. As a servant of hell, he still follows as spiritually-inspired code of honor. His loyalty to the life of the assassin and his quest for revenge are strictly enforced by a religious zealotry. So committed is Itto, that he almost commits seppuku, after failing initially to kill a Buddhist priest. He later overcomes this defect through meditation and a mastery of his art and returns later to complete his mission.
Moreover, his entire story is transfigured as the scene of a spiritual journey—“father and son as demons walking the white way between the six paths and the four lives”. The entire story is framed in the lexicon of Buddhism. A crucial aspect of the Epic is illustrated in the individual’s place in the world, often with a religious/spiritual framework. The Iliad, The Divine Comedy and other epics provide a context for the individual to understand their place in the world in relation to the divine. The religious structure of Lone Wolf and Cub constitutes an ordering of the world and firmly establishes the individual’s place in it. Just like Dante, heaven and hell have a geography that orders the universe and whether as noble samurai, impoverished peasant, or demon of hell, there are structures and rules that govern all behavior in the world-view recreated by Koike and Kojima.
Another aspect of the epic discussed by Shutt is that the social norms and politics of the world examined must be “broadly considered”. The politics of Medieval Japan are discussed at length in the series. As former kogi Kaishakunin (or Imperial Executioner), Itto was one of the pillars which supported the the Tokugawa Shogunate. Following the Battle of Sekigahara, the Tokugawa Clan was able to establish dominance over Japan and force all the other samurai lords to submit to their will. Constantly fearing a revolt by rebellious daimyo (provincial governors) who chafed under their rule, the new government set up an elaborate system to maintain order. These new rules mandated the taking of hostages, constant inspections and oversight. Moreover these rules prescribed that the lords of all the various provinces spend a large portion of their time at the Shogun’s capital in Edo. These rules were severely enforced and any lords caught breaking them had their clans disbanded and their lands confiscated by the government. Itto’s job as kogi Kaishakunin was to act as second to these dishonored lords who were ordered to commit ritual suicide. Itto, wearing the symbol of the Shogun on his clothes as he gave the coup de grace following the lord’s self-disembowelment, symbolically represented the Shogun himself putting down all who opposed his will.
As a result of this system, there was constant tension between the Tokugawa and the various provinces. Many of the assassinations that Itto undertakes are at the behest of samurai who seek to prevent their clans from being disbanded. This conflict often leads to questions about the true nature of honor and loyalty. Ultimately, serving in the narrative tradition of the epic, the questions posed by these events force the reader to confront and reflect upon the mythos of their society - similar to the way the Iliad forces to the reader to consider the role of the average human amidst the unfathomable will of the gods and the complexities of fate. Moreover, like Homer’s epic, Lone Wolf and Cub undermines the very ethos it is simultaneously constructing.
Itto abuses the traditions of the samurai and forsakes his honor in pursuit of revenge. Yet, just like the 47 Loyal Retainers in the famous legend, his personal shame is subordinated to his larger goal of redressing the insults to him and his family. The corrupt and abused system is ultimately the same warrior ethos that Itto’s quest redeems. By breaking the laws of the samurai and repudiating the path of honor for the path of the assassin, he ultimately becomes the definitive samurai archetype.
Some might disregard these meditations on politics, good government, and the place of the individual as no longer relevant to the people of Japan. Tokugawu-era politics may not be very helpful when discussing the problems of society today. However, these questions in fact still permeate Japan in the very same way the legacies of our forebears influence and create the political culture of contemporary America.
The legacies of the past are just as relevant to the Japanese as questions of loyalty to the state, family, and proscribed codes of behaviour are just as relevant as to any other nation. Moreover, much in the same way that icon of the cowboy is still a relevant manifestation of the American cultural milieu, so too, the samurai in Japan is still a significant cultural image that offers insight into modern behavior. While Japan’s culture is fascinating blend of myriad foreign influences, in part do to the forced Westernization following the Meiji Restoration and the political reconstruction imposed by the United States at the conclusion of World War II, the samurai ethos is still very much alive today. The values of loyalty, duty, self-sacrifice - while sometimes overstated in the West according to some scholars - are still very much alive in Japan. Therefore, the themes discussed in Koike and Kojima’s story still have cultural significance.
The final component of Shutt’s criteria on what constitutes an epic is the reaction to the society in which it is created. Ultimately, as Shutt points, when it comes to the epic, “many are called but few are chosen”. The epic genre is unique to other genres in that it requires the intended audience to accept it before it can be considered a part of the corpus of epic literature. The influence of Lone Wolf and Cub is clearly indicative of its immense popularity. Like The Tale of Heike, another Japanese epic, the story manifested itself in various popular media such as film, television, and theater. The series of films, starring Tomisaburo Wakayama, are considered essentials for samurai film buffs and Lone Wolf and Cub references and homages are visible all across the spectrum of popular culture, including Samurai Jack, Kill Bill, and Road to Perdition to name just a few.
Yet the parallels between the series and the epic continue past the points outlined by Shutt. The entire story, for example, is based on a epic narrative structure. Raymond Queneau once wrote, “Every great work of literature is either the Iliad or the Odyssey”. Essentially all great stories are either about conflicts or journeys. Lone Wolf and Cub, like Virgil’s Aeneid, is both, except that in this case it inverts the order of Homer’s epic cycle and begins with a journey and ends with a battle. Itto and Daigoro’s long journey as a demons of medifumada walking the assassin’s road all culminates with one epic final battle with the Yagyu Clan in the final volume. While on his long journey Itto, like Odysseus, encounters various trials and obstacles. Upon the journey’s conclusion he is forced into a battle, which like Achilles, can only end in his own destruction. Furthermore, like Achilles does following the murder of Patroclus, Itto must forsake his own humanity and instead becomes a self-described demon whom others refer in several times in the series, as the “God of Death”.
The epic narrative parallels continue when one looks to the villainous Retsudo. Milton critics and readers have often noted the figure of Lucifer is so fully realized in Paradise Lost that one cannot help but empathize with his point of view. Although nominally written to illustrate the beauty of the Christian vision, Milton’s devil is a very sympathetic character that readers have found compelling. This archetype is used in Lone Wolf and Cub as well. Although Retusudo’s manipulations are anathema to the code of Bushido, he like Itto, is somehow still a true samurai, and despite his villainy he becomes a figure that readers can respect and in some cases, even root for (I will examine this aspect at length in a forthcoming essay focusing on Retsudo and the Yagyu).
Japan itself seems uniquely qualified to produce such an epic. The United States had to deal with social crusaders like Friedrich Wertham, who were instrumental in pushing comics to the margins of youth culture where crucial acceptance was lacking. Consequently, the academic and literary world long ignored comics as being a place for legitimate scholarship and as a result, the potential for an American Epic comicbook was reduced. Even though comicbook characters and iconography have become an integral part of American cultural milieu, the singular works that spawned these symbols were never embraced to the degree necessary for epic status. But in Japan these same cultural prejudices were absent. As a result comic books, like countless other media, flourished in the post-war world without the resulting biases or prejudices that crippled American comics. When Lone Wolf and Cub was released its sales soared. As mentioned above, the story cycle was transplanted in several different mediums.
The epic has been a powerful force in the history of both literature and the world. Yet, some have argued that there have been very little that can lay claim to the genre’s coveted crown in recent centuries. Shutt himself examines works like Moby Dick, Huck Finn, and The Lord of the Rings as possible contenders but yields when declaring a final verdict on their candidacy. Yet when one looks to comic books they find that many of defining characteristics of the epic have actually been nurtured in the often overlooked medium. Some may argue that the two styles are too disparate for synthesis, while others may see this as simply an attempt to add legitimacy to the medium by trying to attach it to a preexisting scion of literary culture. When one does offer a clear, hard look at the establishing criteria however the former argument becomes hard to dispute. To describe Lone Wolf and Cub as being a possible contender for epic status is not a hyperbolic commentary on its size and scope or an elaborate exaggeration of its significance, but is an unjaded acknowledgement of a literary reality.