[11 May 2010]
“They say that the clouds make the dragon fly, the wind makes the tiger run…there is nothing more tragic than a dragon without the cloud, a tiger without the wind.”
For the followers of bushido in the era of premodern Japan, to be a masterless samurai, a ronin, was a sign of shame. In a society that valued loyalty and subservience to the death, and where the the entrenched code of the warrior was zealously imposed on the samurai class from birth, the prospect of being denied the opportunity to serve one’s lord was a truly terrible fate. Although some chose this path when the their clan was disbanded or some ill event forced them from service, the intense social pressure and existential angst associated with the position often made many choose death as an escape from the disgrace; to do otherwise meant living with a perpetual stain in a shame based society, but even worse it was to be without purpose, a life without meaning.
Naturally the tragic nature of the ronin has made the figure a compelling narrative archetype that has appeared frequently in the mythology of the samurai and the resulting genre of popular culture. Whether held up as a the standard bearers of true loyalty and honor, such as in The Tale 47 Loyal Retainers, or seen as wandering heroes plying their skills in the service of justice, such as in the films of Akira Kurosawa, the masterless warriors are prime figures for romanticized reimagining. Yet few stories capture the true pain and unremitting torment that surrounds these rudderless souls as the story of Makabe Shogen in issue thirty-six of Lone Wolf and Cub.
Makabe was the retainer of a clan that had been disbarred for crimes against the Tokugawa and whose lord had been ordered to commit seppuku. Ogami, then still working as the kogi kaishaku for the shogun, had participated in the execution, acting as second for the disgraced lord. Prior to his death, the doomed noble requested a mock duel between Ogami and Makabe as his final request; while he insisted that it would simply be a demonstration his real goal was to have his retainer strike Ogami down as a final blow against the Shogunate. Makabe took his lord at his word, choosing to ignore his implied command, and participated in the duel without violence and the execution proceeded.
The story takes place four years later, with Makabe now a ronin eking out a meager existence fishing by the banks of the river where his lord had died. He has taken the name Hozuki, after a plant that continues to bloom even after it has been uprooted, and lives in quiet peace. He eventually comes into conflict with young samurai who find his way of life a disgrace, insisting that if he were a true bushi he would have died with his lord. After several of these warriors are killed by Makabe the local nobles decide they must hire Lone Wolf and Cub to handle the situation lest anymore die at the hands of the skilled swordsman. Ogami however refuses to take the job and instead faces Makabe as a samurai, not an assassin.
As the two prepare for battle, Makabe explains why he has stayed by the river and refused to kill himself as many believe a loyal retainer should. He states that he knew his lord secretly wished him to kill Ogami fours years before, but to have done so would have brought great dishonor to his lord and so he ignored his dying request. He states, “I didn’t want future generations to mock my lord for an unseemly death. And thus I accepted the stigma of disloyalty and a life of shame.” Ogami commends Makabe for his “perfect loyalty, beyond death.” The two then charge, and Ogami cuts the ronin down; not an act of malice but of mercy.
Cloud Dragon, Wind Tiger functions on two crucial levels when anal zing Lone Wolf and Cub. First it provides another poignant meditation on Koike and Kojima’s recurring exploration of the nature of honor. When examining the monolithic world view that samurai were required to live under, it is easy to mistakenly believe that the philosophies that governed their life left little doubt over have to behave. You lived, you served, and if you failed, you took your life in an honorable fashion. With such images of thoughtless samurai blindly following orders ubiquitous in popular culture, it is easy to neglect the reality of the situation. The way of the warrior, like any strongly held belief system, often required the follower to be placed in situations and conundrums that offered no easy answers. Looking to the minimalist interpretation of the path of bushido that dominates so much of the material out there, one would think that Hozuki’s choice was simple; obey his lord’s wishes and then if necessary, die.
Hozuki’s decision to ignore his lord’s implied command and then to live tending the site of his master’s death reveals the true complexities of the path of honor and loyalty. By choosing to ignore his lord’s wishes, as he explains, Hozuki has instead saved his lord from the even greater shame that would have come with his intended deception. Rather then blindly follow his master’s wishes, he did the duty of the true retainer and protected his lord from shame even at the cost of his own honor. His decision then to live at the banks of the river further underscores the true depth of Hozuki’s dedication; death would have been easy but instead he inverted the social order and chose to live a state of disgrace and thus symbolically offer atonement and continued service to his lord.
The theme of the transcendent nature of true dedication is the second crucial component of Lone Wolf and Cub revealed by this issue. As discussed in a previous article, Ogami himself forsakes the trappings and rules of samurai, only to paradoxically become the warrior code’s most poignantly manifested example. Even Retsudo, the villainous antagonist, stands as a transcendent figure despite his evil deeds and secret control over the government. And just as the character of Headless Asaemon stood as an important counter-point to Ogami’s chosen path of revenge, Makabe also stands as an indictment of Ogami.
Where Makabe suffered the shame of living and to resulting scorn of his former clansmen in service of his lord, Ogami is willing to bring down the entire shogunate in order to destroy his foe. Ogami’s decision to become an assassin and destroy the Yagyu, means he has forsaken his former lord the shogun. Although it is subtle and its true import is not revealed until Ogami’s plans and Retsudo’s motivations are later revealed towards the end of the series, Cloud Dragon, Wind Tiger stands as a stinging rebuke of Ogami’s quest for revenge and even presents Ogami as the stories true villain (another theme that will be discussed in a future piece). Makabe tells us that service to one’s lord is the greatest duty of the warrior regardless of personal shame; his story serves a subtle critique of Ogami’s decision to walk the path of revenge.
Cloud Dragon, Wind Tiger is one of the most poignant and tragically beautiful stories in an epic series filled with powerful moments. While history and popular culture offer plenty of examples of blood and glory associated with the samurai, there are less examples of the true sorrow the masterless warrior; the dragon without a cloud, the tiger without the wind. Koike and Kojima force the reader to confront a painful truth about the samurai ethos that resides just beneath and bloodstained surface.