Lone Wolf and Cub Part 3: Artwork and Swordplay

The third installment of Shawn O'Rourke's series on Lone Wolf and Cub. This feature examines the way Goseki Kojima brilliantly uses different artistic devices to draw the reader into the story.

As Scott McCloud noted in his book Understanding Comics, the majority of any story in a comic book goes unseen. Essentially due to the nature of the medium, a comic strip cannot show every action or movement. Instead the reader must decode and interpret the events implied in the spaces between two panels. Consequently, this has forced artists into some difficult situations when they are trying to convey complex, fast-paced fight sequences. This difficulty is compounded when the fights are not between super-powered beings shooting bolts of energy from their hands and eyes, or hulking behemoths smashing each other with cars; fights involving martial arts or traditional weaponry require skill and precision. Lone Wolf and Cub is one of those comics that relies heavily on the visual sword fighting as an integral part of its narrative and structure, and its artwork is emblematic of the talent necessary to do justice to such a story.

Artist Goseki Kojima integrates three principle devices during fight sequences to create his visual masterpiece. The first of these effects are frames where Ogami is seen slashing at various foes but the nuance of the battle is not explicitly revealed. You simply see him waving his sword and people being wounded and killed all around him. The precise nature of the fight is necessarily obfuscated by demands of the story and length requirements that would be required to illustrate them in their entirety. The speed and precision are implied by the various "slashes" drawn into the single frames and the clean wounds seen in the bodies of the dead and dying. This effect is used most typically when Ogami (the eponymous 'Lone Wolf') is fighting multiple enemies at the same time.

This style of artwork is similar to the cinematography of Akira Kurosawa - who Kojima was heavily influenced by. Many of the complex sword fights seen in Kurosawa's films rely on an implied action as opposed to the audience actually seeing what is taking place. In Seven Samurai, when the ronin Kyuzo, is first introduced having a duel with bamboo sticks, the battle ends in an apparent tie, with both warriors having seemingly hit each other. When Kyuzo claims victory, his opponent is angered and then challenges him to a real duel. Again to two take their places, hold the moment, and then advance. The two pass each other and Kurosawa brilliantly draws out the tension for a few seconds before Kyuzo's adversary falls to the ground (this effect is one the Kojima uses several times in Lone Wolf). The brilliance of Kurosawa is that the audience does not quite know what happened. When the viewer sees the first fight, it is easy to believe it actually was a tie, like the doomed samurai claims. When the fight is repeated, the viewer is still not quite sure how Kyuzo won, but that only adds to the credibility of his swordsmanship.

This effect, used expertly by both Kurosawa and Kojima, creates a type of suspension of disbelief similar to that of the author function. The typical reader/viewer, who is not a master swords-person, will not know what has happened but will instead defer to the characters in question who, while fictional, are experts. The process is paradoxically subtle and obvious at the same time, but works elegantly. The reader infers the skills necessary for Ogami to successfully dispatch several foes simultaneously without knowing how. They just assume that it is their ignorance of swordplay, as opposed to the character in the story having unrealistic fighting abilities.

Lone Wolf and Cub would not be nearly as effective in its artistic goals if it only relied on this one device however. Instead the story uses a layered approach to the create a fully realized sense of combat. The next layer used by Kojima involves inviting the reader to predict what is going to occur in the fight sequence by relying on visual cues. Ogami and his enemies, the Yagyu Clan, utilize several unique moves that are specific to their respective school of sword fighting. Ogami uses the deceptive water slicing stroke of the suio-ryu school, which uses water or tall grass to obscure the exact location of the sword giving the warrior an advantage over his opponent. The Yagyu, true to their nature as assassins, utilize their feared sword walls. For this technique one warrior allows himself to be stabbed then (while their enemy's blade is trapped the other assassin) moves in for the kill. Whenever one of these techniques is about to employed, Kojima telegraphs with some sort of visual clue. When Ogami is dropping down into water or grass, the reader knows what is to come. The same is true when two Yagyu assassins stand closely together.

This use of visual cues to bring the reader into the story is very closely paralleled with the choreographed fight sequences of professional wrestling. Professional wrestlers telegraph their finishing moves with various physical gestures, slogans, and other devices, specifically designed to ensure the audience's complete engagement with the events in the ring. This not only heightens the sense of excitement and drama but it serves to bring the viewer into the world of the expert -- because the viewers have properly decoded the tropes and characteristics of the often repetitive fights, it strengthens their sense of involvement and their knowledge of techniques being employed.

This works very effectively with the first device discussed above, because Kojima has the best of both worlds. With the first device, we are left feeling ignorant of the events taking place because we are not privy to the knowledge necessary to follow battle--looking back to Seven Samurai, we are like the pupil watching the duel. Our master sees how the battle will end before it has even begun, but we are in the dark. Kojima then employs the second device and we are now in the role of the master. We properly understand the visual cues and therefore our ability to understand what happened in the fight increases our enjoyment because we now have a sense of accomplishment in knowing what is taking place.

This technique in bringing the reader from ignorance into the world of the expert, works even retroactively. Another of Ogami's recurring fight strategies is to throw his sword at his enemy. As the story explains, a true samurai would never throw his 'soul' at an opponent and therefore Ogami often triumphs in a fight simply by doing something they would never anticipate -- he jumps out of the kill zone and throws his sword. The reader, who as the story progresses, becomes fairly well versed in the samurai mythos, is again turned into an expert of samurai combat because we anticipate what Ogami's foes do not. Moreover, this also effectively reinforces our understanding of the character, because every time Ogami uses deceptive tactics like this, it reinforces his repudiation of the samurai path, which is so integral to the plot.

The final layer in Kojima's visual storytelling comes in the last books of the series. Now that the reader has been successfully brought in as both layperson and expert, pupil and master, they are ready to experience the true skill possessed by the characters in the story, and of Kojima himself as a narrative artist. In the final volumes of the series a large portion of the story is dedicated to fight sequences between Ogami and his enemy Retsudo. This battle, the culmination of the long journey that the reader has taken with father and son, is rendered in exquisite detail. The complex fights that occur are done in such a fashion that the reader can see all the events; how each warrior grips his sword, the stance they take, where they plant their feet, and the point of impact when, at last, the swords collide. In the first portion of these battles, Ogami and Retsudo even announce the name of their respective techniques before employing them.

Only by traveling through the first two layers of Kojima's artwork, are we at last equipped with the proper knowledge to appreciate the power of these two warriors. We, like the samurai who witness the final battle, are left in a state of respectful awe at the potency of the two personalities made manifest in their deadly art. The final fight is crucial to the success of the entire story and if it had failed to meet readers expectations the integrity of the entire work may have been compromised. The masterful artwork however, prevented such a fate, and instead Lone Wolf and Cub stands as classic in the medium.

Part of the power of comics is the way it works its magic surreptitiously upon the reader. Will Eisner, Scott McCloud, and countless other scholars of the medium have studied the way our minds can casually and thoughtlessly fill in the crucial spaces that exist between two panels. The art of Lone Wolf and Cub however, gains its narrative power, not by making the illustration just a secondary vehicle to the words, but instead by actively engaging the reader. Kojima's brilliant layered approach to visual storytelling makes the fight sequences crucial components to the narrative as opposed to a formulaic afterthought. While there are many comics that successfully fuse art and writing into successful triumphs of the medium, there are nonetheless arguably few that can lay claim to Lone Wolf and Cub's position as a nearly unmatched masterpiece of form and execution.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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