[1 December 2009]
“Fear his wrath, the wrath of Lone Wolf and Cub, Assassin.”
—Issue 1: Son for Hire, Sword for Hire.
What makes a good story great is its ability to be examined and enjoyed on a multitude of levels. Whether The Watchmen or Dante’s Inferno, amazing pieces of literature do not stand out because of a singular theme necessarily; there are several different aspects of the stories that provide multiple dimensions of enjoyment and interest. As with any great tale, the more developed and nuanced the more it engages the reader. Consequently the more beautiful and powerful it ultimately becomes. This standard is held true when examining Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s unparalleled tale of honor and vengeance, Lone Wolf and Cub. This masterpiece of Japanese manga is a testament to the unique storytelling power of the medium and stands as an undeniable classic whose influence continues to endure.
At its most simplistic, Lone Wolf and Cub is a tale of revenge. A dishonored samurai turns himself and his son into assassins for hire in order to seek vengeance on those who have wronged them. But to leave the definition at that is to do a great disservice to this series. This is not simply a tale of vengeance, or even the ultimate tale of vengeance. It is also the tale of a father and son, alone in and at odds with a hostile world. It is also a drama of the unseen ties that unite us by blood and destiny. From another angle the entire tale can be viewed as a symbolic journey through a sect of Buddhist theology - the series is inundated with lexicon and imagery of Buddhism. The series can also be seen as history. Lone Wolf and Cub offers a fascinating examination of samurai culture in the waning days of the Tokugawa Shogunate, highlighting the constant tensions of a warrior ethos in a shame-based culture where corrupt politics and conflicting notions of honor pervade the stratified society. Through whichever lens the reader chooses to engage the story with—assuming they actually choose just one—they will find a tale of almost painful beauty with art so elegant that it can be called poetic.
The series was first published in 1970, written by Kazuo Koike with art by Goseki Kojima, and ran until 1976. The story became immensely popular in Japan and inspired several films, plays, and two television series. Lone Wolf and Cub was first released in English by the publishing company First Comics, which went bankrupt before the majority of the issues could be released. When Dark Horse began republishing the series in trade format in 2000 fans were excited and relieved that at last they would be able to find out how the story ended. Dark Horse released all the issues over a two-year period in which all 28 volumes were reprinted with cover art by artists like Frank Miller, Matt Wagner and Bill Sienkiewicz. Following the popularity of the series Dark Horse began releasing other Koike and Kojima series including Samurai Executioner and Path of the Assassin. Also available are the Koike projects Lady Snowblood, with art by Kazuo Kanimura, and Crying Freeman with art by Ryoichi Ikegami.
The story begins with Ogami Itto, or Lone Wolf, and his son, Daigoro, already assassins for hire, traveling through medieval Japan charging 500 ryo for each life taken. As the series progresses, the background of Ogami is revealed in flashbacks and the memories of others. Before taking up the assassin’s path, Ogami was a powerful samurai charged as the Shogun’s personal executioner. Whenever a samurai clan was disbanded by the Shogun and the offending lord ordered to commit seppuku (a suicide which redeems honor). Ogami, wearing the crest of the Tokugawa Clan, acted as second to that seppuku and embodied one of the key bodies of Shogunate government. In this capacity, he was seen symbolically as a manifestation of the Shogun himself punishing the disobedient. Yet his position was coveted by the Yagyu Clan, the shogun’s personal assassins, and through their machinations Ogami’s wife is murdered and his clan is disbanded as traitors. Ogami is able to escape and makes a deal with the leader of the Yagyu, Retsudo. They agree that so long as he stays out of Edo he will be allowed to live.
These events set the stage for Ogami’s repudiation of the samurai code and decision to walk the path of the assassin as a demon. As the story progresses, and speculation over Ogami’s objectives and his plans for his accumulating fortune increase, the Yagyu naturally break the truce and seek to have Ogami and Daigoro finished once and for all. As the conflict escalates, more and more elements of the Tokugawa Shogunate are pulled into the battle, and by the story’s conclusion the entire foundation of the government has been devastated; all casualties of the Yagyu’s ambitions and Ogami’s desire for revenge. The final confrontation between Ogami and Retsudo takes place in an epic battle that lasts hundreds of pages and that leaves all the samurai who witness it openly weeping.
The power of Lone Wolf and Cub can be felt in the way it has influenced other genres and manifests itself in various mediums. In the 1970’s the Toho Company, home of many Kurosawa and Godzilla movies, began releasing a series of features inspired by the Koike and Kojima story. In total they produced six films starring Tomisaburo Wakayama as Ogami Itto. The first two of these films were later edited together and released in the United States as Shogun Assassin. Wakayama, the older brother of Zatoichi star Shintaro Katsu, was able to capture the raw intensity and power of Lone Wolf, and while some may argue that the character’s nuanced subtly was downplayed by the scowling and jowly actor, they are nonetheless impressive performances. The films are still considered classics by followers of samurai films and are noted for their extreme violence and excellent sword fights. Moreover, according to the website moviebodycount.com, the final film in the series, White Heaven in Hell, holds the record for the highest number of deaths in a film caused by a single character. By the end of the movie Ogami is responsible for 150 deaths.
The further influence of the series can be seen in the way it has inspired important creators in comics. Frank Miller is the most obvious example of how Lone Wolf and Cub has influenced comics outside of Japan. The famed author of Sin City and The Dark Knight Returns attributes Koike and Kojima’s work as important contribution to his famous story, Ronin. Miller was such a fan of Lone Wolf and Cub that he even wrote short essays about the series in the back of the first twelve issues of the First Comics run. An interview with Koike on darkhorse.com notes that shades of Ogami’s character are visible in Miller’s work on Batman and Captain America. Unlike many mainstream heroes that operate with a societal mandate on their extralegal activities, Ogami works outside the world he inhabits; his all-consuming war taking precedence over everything. That template is clearly visible in Miller’s stories, where both Batman and Captain America find themselves in opposition to traditional societal elites.
The series also influenced Max Allen Collins in his award-winning graphic novel, Road to Perdition. In that story, which was remade into a film starring Tom Hanks and Paul Newman, a hitman must take his son on a quest for revenge against the mob boss who betrayed him and murdered his family. Although their are notable differences thematically and in the plot, Collins freely admits to the influence that Koike and Kojima’s work had on the story.
Another example is in Quentin Tarintino’s Kill Bill. Tarintino, who is famous for his homages and allusions to previous films and genres, uses much of the sword work established in Lone Wolf and Cub and other famous samurai movies in the first volume of his series when Uma Thurman battles the Crazy 88’s. While some accuse the famous director and writer of being derivative and unoriginal, in this case Tarintino makes no bones about acknowledging the impact Lone Wolf and Cub had on his work. In the second of film, Thurman’s daughter is asked by David Carradine what she wants to watch before bed. She replies, “Shogun Assassin” - the film which combines the elements of the first two installments in Toho’s Lone Wolf and Cubfranchise.
The list of examples of Lone Wolf and Cub references and allusions in popular media is fairly long and can be easily found with a simple google search or a quick examination of the story’s wikipedia page. The characters appear in Samurai Jack, are alluded to in multiple video games, and have appeared in one form or another in several samurai stories. The iconic image of the father pushing his son in his cart is recalled when one sees the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as Viggo Mortenson pushes his son in an old grocery cart across a post-apocalyptic America.
All of these examples prove that Lone Wolf and Cub is a series that has influenced other creators and ensured a respected place in both its medium and its genre. Yet what cannot be adequately covered in single article is why it is such a significant work. As mentioned above there are a multitude of themes and innovations that make the story so beautifully complex and deeply rewarding to the reader. As a result, I’ll be examining various aspects of the series in several forthcoming essays that seek to highlight and explore why it has become so influential. These articles will examine the significance of key characters, the use of art to convey complex sword fights, the importance of Buddhist philosophy, integral single issues, and various other themes that all come together to make the work what it is.
Like all great literary accomplishments Lone Wolf and Cub stands out as a important icon. In samurai stories, tales of revenge, and the comic book medium itself, its influence is pervasive and the imagery it has evoked transcends Koike and Kojima’s subtle black and white pages and has left its imprint on the works many other creators. Put simply, it is a tale of vengeance, but underneath the blood and the death there lies a rich and powerful story whose imense beauty is equal to its extreme brutality.