While walking the path of slaughter and revenge on his Dante-like quest through Japan, Ogami Itto, much like the Pilgrim of the Italian epic, is confronted with several powerful personalities who tell their respective stories and offer commentary on the nature of the world. Like the Pilgrim, Itto acts as both confessor, sympathetic listener, and judge; unlike Dante’s protagonist he also holds the role of executioner, dispatching his targets without mercy for 500 gold pieces. And unlike the vision of the universe proscribed by the poet—a world view in which there is only one correct path to paradise and all other ways lead to damnation—the Japanese tend to lean towards the philosophy that, “There are many roads to the top of Mount Fuji”. In this capacity, the warriors Ogami meets offer different interpretations of the path of honor, and even challenge legitimacy of his quest for revenge.
One of these challenges comes in the form of a drunken ronin named Shino Sakon who has given up his lands and title and instead uses his sword skills to amuse traveling peasants for a small pittance. His is a path dedicated to peace and sake, which philosophically blends Buddhism, humanism, Epicureanism, with Marxist class consciousness. While performing for the travelers, Sakon sees Ogami and Daigoro and intuits that they must be the now notorious assassins Lone Wolf and Cub.
After a subtle test of Ogami’s skills which confirm his suspicions over the pair’s identity, Sakon convinces father and son to join him for a meal. Although Ogami refuses to partake, Sakon orders sake and proceeds to elucidate his philosophy and pontificate on the virtues of alcohol. He explains that sake is the great leveler, the means by which all, regardless of class or any other socially constructed distinctions, are able to come together as equals. He then counsels that despite the innate humanity in all things, samurai are given the power of life and death over the over the other castes of society. Seisatsu yodatsu, established by the Tokugawa Shogunate, gave the samurai the right to kill any member of a lower segment of the population. Disgusted by a system that would allow such inhumanity Sakon explains that he has forsaken the path of the warrior and instead chosen the path of the human beggar, only using his martial training in ways that will not cause harm.
By this point in the discussion Sakon reveals the he intentionally lured Ogami and his son to meet with him so that he might plead with them to forsake their demon road. He argues, “We only get fifty years on this earth. Compared to the cycle of reincarnation, it is but a flickering shadow of a dream…Why spend that fleeting life on the assassin’s road, killing again and again for money?! Abandon the assassin’s way!” Naturally, Ogami refuses. He explains that their quest for revenge is one that they have chosen and he declares that, “The blood that splatters my body can be cleansed, but the blood that stains my being can never be washed away!” Explaining that, “Killing for money is evil in the eyes of the world! No matter what your quest,” Sakon challenges Ogami to a duel.
As the two prepare to battle both attempt to judge the other’s skill and likely plan of attack. This is the first time that the creators utilize this visual narrative device that will recur during some of Ogami’s most dangerous fights. As both warriors hold still, they imagine how the battle might take place. Using darkened panels to give the battle a sense of dreamlike unreality, artist Goseki Kojima creates possible sequences in which in all but both characters die. In one notable exception however, it is Sakon and not Ogami who is the victor. As Daigoro watches with trepidation, his father charges. Sakon draws as Ogami leaps high and throws his sword catching his opponent directly in the chest.
The ronin stands bleeding, and Ogami immediately states that victory should have been Sakon’s. The dying man admits that he never expected a samurai to throw his sword to which Ogami replies, “...to me a sword is a tool for killing, no more sacred than a club or a shard of rock.” Sakon reflects on this and wonders if he never really was able to give up the trappings of a samurai.
With his dying breath he repeats his admonition to Ogami about the evil nature of his quest and begs him to think of his son. As Ogami stands over the body of his opponent he reflects, “It is said a path cannot be taught, only lived. But there are some lessons that sear the heart…the way of the human beggar! Thus six paths are made seven! I’ll never forget your words…” As Ogami walks away with Daigoro in his arms his wonders aloud with tears in his eyes when will their journey be over.
This issue of Lone Wolf and Cub, ‘The Sixteenth’ appearing in the Volume Three, is particularly significant for a multitude of reasons. The first and most striking is its commentary on the nature of honor and duty, a theme which the creators refer to a length throughout the series. For Sakon, his sense of honor, honed by years of training as a samurai practitioner of the code of bushido, ultimately became irreconcilable with the violence and death inherent in his station. Consequently (and seemingly paradoxically), his path of honor lead him to forsake his place in society in a way that is similar to other important figures in the series, including Ogami himself. This serves the story by offering a contrast to Ogami’s own decision to follow the path of slaughter and forces the reader to reflect on the theme of honor in a more nuanced and substantive way then if we were only shown Ogami’s world view.
Another revealing part of the story is Sakon’s comment, made while dying, that he never truly gave up all aspects of the samurai way. This random comment, while small, prefaces and reflects an important part of Ogami’s character and one the overarching points of the series. Ogami himself, even though his entire path is a repudiation of bushido and anathema in all ways to the true bushi, is still unable to completely shed the samurai inside him. As the story progresses towards its apocalyptic finale it becomes crucial to realize that even though Ogami has forsaken the way of the warrior and become a demon of slaughter, he is on some level still a samurai. This point is made with greater thematic impact later in the series but his battle with Sakon is one of the first moments in the series that really addresses it.
A final issue of note from a narrative perspective is the lamentation over when their journey will end that Ogami makes with tears in his eyes in the final panel. This can also be seen as a preface of larger things to come. Although Ogami moves towards his goal of revenge without retreating or pause, even as a demon he recognizes the destruction he is bringing, not just to the enemies, but to many innocent lives along the way. In a later issue he states that he advanced his plans to openly challenge the Yagyu because he was tired of the pain and death that he was causing. This decision underscores an underlying humanity that, similar to the trappings of a samurai, Ogami is unable to purge from himself completely.
Ogami faces other warriors throughout his long quest who, like Headless Sakon, challenge his desire for revenge and offer alternatives to his self-destructive goals. Yet most, like Sakon, end up dead by Ogami’s hand as father and son continue on their destiny-inspired path, moving with irresistible force towards their final confrontation with the Yagyu. Yet while the conclusion is well worth the wait, the tragedy that surrounds the final battle is enough to give the reader a moment of pause to wonder what it would have been like if Ogami had listened to Sakon and abandoned his need for vengeance. Perhaps father and son both could have lived in peace and found some degree of happiness.