‘Father and son, me live in meifumado. Not bushi, not human…there are things more forbidden than death, for those denied the way of the samurai and the way of man…’
Albert Einstein once noted, ‘To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself’. This quotation is emblematic of an important truth that has been evident in history and the arts; the idea that whatever path you forsake or reject, you one day find yourself the master of. This is seen in the world of theory where philosophers and critics find themselves in later life the champions of the very things they were antagonistic of in their youth; or in the works of writers and musicians who forsake dogmatic conventions only to become the authors of new proscriptions; or even politics where it has long been noted that today’s liberals will be tomorrow’s conservatives. This theme of becoming the thing you repudiate is so embedded in the human condition that it has naturally manifested itself into the various mediums of artistic expression, most clearly used as a trope used in the construction of heroes.
Throughout the historical evolution of the heroic archetype there are examples of warriors and leaders becoming the ideal example of the very thing they had previously fought against or rejected; people who fought the gods only to become deities themselves, rebellious sons who become their fathers, and so on throughout time. Even Achilles, the greatest warrior of all time, began his final ascent to the pantheon of heroes by throwing down his sword and refusing to fight.
This theme is most exemplified contemporaneously in the medium of comics which stands as one of the few inheritors of both the heroic and mythological traditions. Batman, for example, is an enforcer of the very laws his vigilante lifestyle stands in opposition to. Despite discussions over the character’s covertly fascist worldview and black and white morality, the Dark Knight nonetheless does not pass sentence or mete out justice, he simply stops the crimes and leaves the perpetrator for the authorities. From that perspective he is acting as a deputized law enforcement adjunct; receiving a temporary grant on the government’s monopoly of violence, he operates with a symbolic mandate from the powers that be. So despite the fact that his war on crime is inherently illegal, he in nonetheless another pillar of the very institution his vigilantism is an indictment of.
Kazuo Koike uses this theme as one of the driving narrative forces in the series Lone Wolf and Cub. Ogami Itto, former executioner for the shogun, is disgraced by the machinations of the Yagyu Clan and ordered to commit suicide. For a samurai, seppuku is considered the ultimate absolution of dishonor. Similar to the western tradition of baptism, the highly ritualized act is seen as the a way to erase all shame. Ogami, who has participated in countless similar executions and is highly versed in the code of bushido, knows that those who order his death do so in the name of the Tokugawa Shogunate. However, instead of acquiescing to their demands and accepting death, Ogami chooses to fight back.
As kogi kaishakunin (high executioner, and one of three pillars of the legal authority of the Shogunate), Ogami acted as second for the disgraced daimyo who were ordered to kill themselves for any infraction, real or imagined, against the government. After the warrior had plunged the ritual short sword into their belly, Ogami would give the coup de grace; chopping off the head and thus ending the samurai’s agony. While acting in this function he wore white ceremonial robes adorned with the Hollyhock crest of the imperial Tokugawa clan. Thus symbolically it was the Shogun himself bringing justice to those that would defy his will. Ogami uses these robes and crest, which the Yagyu cannot raise their swords against less it be seen as them attacking the Shogun himself, to escape Edo with his son Daigoro, thus beginning his long quest for revenge.
This overt abuse of the Shogun’s crest, coupled with his refusal to accept the order to commit seppuku, represented a clear and explicit break with the code of the samurai that had governed Ogami’s life until then. Regardless of his genuine grievances and the murder of his wife and servants at the hands of the Yagyu, his duty was to die, instead he chose another path. He became an assassin for hire, choosing to live as a demon of Buddhist hell, taking lives for 500 gold pieces, and seeking revenge against the Yagyu.
His repudiation of bushido (the samurai ethos) is a crucial part of the character of Ogami and understanding it is required to access the full range of the story’s thematic power. Ogami’s very decision to become an assassin constitutes a grievous assault on the nobility of his station and birth and is tantamount to prostituting his training for money. His murder of defenseless people, his use of deception to achieve his goals, and his tendency to throw his sword in battle (a serious abuse of what is considered the soul of a samurai) all reaffirm his rejection of his former way of life.
Yet paradoxically it is this very repudiation that makes him such an impressive figure; his refusal to submit to the demands of his warrior ethos allow him to transcend them and become the ideal samurai. Throughout the series, the supporting cast constantly comment on Ogami’s noble bearing and honorable behavior. One witness notes, ‘There goes a real samurai boys! A real samurai, when there ain’t no more like that left in the whole world’. By the end of the series the warriors who watch Ogami and Retsudo in their final confrontation are moved to tears because they know that they are watching the last vestiges of a dying way of life. Consequently, Ogami’s actions become an indictment of the corruption and degradation of the samurai code and his forsaking of that path ultimately and symbolically redeems it. He is the ultimate warrior; he is willing to suffer any dishonor and commit any act to have his revenge.
This concept is not without precedent in the history of Japan. The legend of the 47 Loyal Retainers is a popular story that no doubt influenced Koike on some level. This tale (no doubt embellished), which has appeared in some form in every possible medium in Japan, is about a disgraced clan of warriors who seek to avenge the death of their lord. In order to achieve their goals they surrender to the forces of the Shogun, suffer the dishonor and shame of appearing disloyal, all while secretly plotting their revenge against the corrupt official who caused their lord’s death. These warriors succeeded in avenging their clan and were subsequently ordered to commit sepukku by the Shogun. However, in death they became symbols of loyalty and their examples ubiquitous of the virtues of bushido. In rejecting the demands of their chosen path, they subsequently became emblematic of it.
Another example of this can be seen manifested in the character Captain America, particularly during the Frank Miller run (which was influenced by Lone Wolf and Cub) and during the Civil War storyline. During these times the character, who is the iconography and ideals of America made manifest, was forced fight against the very government he had sworn to defend. Yet it was in these acts of rebellion that he simultaneously became the true incarnation of everything he stood for (which is why many found the ending of Civil War thematically inconsistent). This idea that the ultimate act of a patriot is to fight against your government, is similar to Ogami’s story where he forsakes the path of the warrior only to become its greatest example.
Albert Einstein’s quotation is representative of an important truth about the human condition. It is a truth that is embedded throughout art and history. Einstein spent his life fighting against authority and the dogma of established truths only to become their greatest champion when the quantum revolution turned science on its head. Roland Barthes spend his youth undermining and assaulting the very things he would later defend in last years. Superhero stories, particularly those that are deeply reliant on the themes of legacy and generational heritage, are rife with prodigal sons and daughters who reject the very mantles that they are destined to wear, only to become the greatest incarnation of that heroic dynasty. The fact that Ogami’s repudiation of the samurai path leads him to become its ideal, is powerful because it resonates with a recurring truth about humanity. Koike did not invent this theme, it is as old as history itself, but he effectively capitalized on it to construct the one of the most compelling characters in comic book history.