When one first reads the opening volumes of Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub, the series’ primary antagonists, the Yagyu, are hardly redeemable characters. In their desire for power and their use of trickery and deceit to achieve their goals they are not the type of villains that inspire much sympathy or respect from the reader. Yet by the end of the series the creators attempt to reverse our initial impressions of Ogami Itto’s enemies. This does not mean that we are compelled to root against Ogami in the final confrontation, nor do forgive the Yagyu for their insults against the main character and his son, but ultimately we come to understand them and in some way respect them. The creators achieve this inversion of belief through several methods throughout the series, but their aims are first prefaced when one examines the Yagyu’s fighting style.
It has been a recurring meme in books and movies involving samurai that understanding how a warrior fights is essential to understanding the warrior himself. If the sword is the soul of the samurai then the way that they use their weapon in battle is emblematic of the qualities and character of the wielder. This device is naturally found in Lone Wolf and Cub where the fighting styles of various warriors reveal crucial components of their personalities. At several points in the series Ogami is able to divine the nature of his opponents by the way they wield their weapons, thus giving him the knowledge needed to defeat them. For the skilled warrior fighting styles are signifiers in a complicated and unspoken language known only by the initiated.
When applying this principle to Ogami’s hated enemies, the Yagyu, a crucial truth about the complicated nature of honor is revealed. This begins the process of forcing the reader to reevaluate their initial impressions of the clan whose machinations set Ogami on his path of revenge. The Yagyu, led by cunning Retsudo, are the Shogun’s assassins. With a mandate to root out all enemies of the Tokugawa, the provincial lords live in fear of their swords and their power. Retsudo, one of the most skilled warriors in Japan, controls a vast empire of spies, and exerts influence over all levels of government with an authority that secretly rivals that of the Shogun. In his desire to place his son in the post of kogi kaishakunin (Lord Executioner) and accumulate ever more control, Retsudo has Ogami’s clan disbarred and thus begins the feud that drives the narrative of Lone Wolf and Cub
As the series progresses, and Ogami’s tenuous truce with the Yagyu breaks into open hostilities, much is made by various characters of the unbreakable Sword Wall of the Yagyu.
It is revealed that the secret of Yagyu’s technique involves multiple assassins all working towards one target. During the battle, one of the assassins will allow themselves to be stabbed and while their enemy’s sword is monetarily neutralized the others strike. Consequently, with one assassin always sacrificing themselves, even the most skilled opponent can be easily overwhelmed by the superior numbers. While Ogami is able to break the sword walls even he is forced to acknowledge its efficacy: “The Sword of the Yagyu! Embrace death, so that those who follow may complete the kill. Truly an assassin’s blade…”
While the Sword Walls are just one of the techniques used by the Yagyu to accomplish their missions, many of the others rely on some variation of one or several warriors accepting death so that their comrades may deliver the deathblow. Despite its brutal efficiency and elegant simplicity, the style is revealing of some important aspects of the Yagyu. First, their willingness to unquestionably accept death without fear is one of the principle virtues of the samurai. While the use of the technique might be considered a cynical manipulation of Bushido, the assassins in question die in faithful service to their lord—a supremely honorable act according to their warrior ethos.
The Sword Walls might be deemed cowardly and dishonorable by some—Ogami himself makes this claim, stating, “The very essence of the Sword-Wall of the Yagyu is cowardice, the many against the few”—but that is a mischaracterization. For an assassin of the Shogun, following the code of Bushido and abiding by the tenets of an honorable duel may lead to defeat and failure. Therefore by ignoring these rules and slaying their opponent in a dishonorable fashion they assure victory and in that way they serve their lord. In a very Buddhist and paradoxical fashion their dishonor is their honor. Their willingness to accept death and strike down a target using deceit for a greater goal represents the essence of the samurai notion of sacrifice. Personal honor is nothing compared to duty.
This reading, revealed by examining the Sword Wall, is one the techniques used by the creators to employ their limited redemption of the Yagyu. While on the surface, they appear to be without honor and only motivated by a blind desire to accumulate more power, their own actions belay this belief. Furthermore their willingness to accept death and to suffer dishonor to achieve their goals is emblematic of true service. In that way Ogami and his enemies become symbolically followers of the same path: both have forsaken the paths of virtue to achieve their goals, but both are paradoxically emblematic of the very ideals they seem to reject.
It is this sense of ethical paradox, the disavowal of a code of honor in order to be redeemed by it that provides for the final contestation between Ogami and Retsudo to be far more complex, and far more meaningful. Rather than a simple story of vengeance culminating in either failure or success, Ogami’s story is laced with an enduring sense of the irredeemable. In pursuing the unobtainable, Ogami becomes a different kind of person. While the reconstitution of his clan and redemption of his family honor remains beyond his grasp, Ogami achieves a unique kind of victory—a victory of the self. Retsudo himself, is no less victorious in spirit. Standing alone after the obliteration of his clan, Retsudo enters the final confrontation with a sense of warrior’s absolution. What Kazuo Koike confronts his readers with then, is a sense of existentialist crisis, rather than Freudian determinism. The first clue in this magnificent drama is the Koike’s introduction of the Sword Wall of the Yagu.
Ultimately Ogami is able to break the feared Sword Wall of the Yagyu and continue on his path of slaughter. Yet the truth revealed when analyzing this fighting style is crucial to understanding and appreciating the Shogun’s feared assassins. While their tactics may be cowardly, they are not cowards. And while they may use to deceit to achieve their goals it would be wrong to deny them there honor.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.