Lone Wolf and Cub Part 5: Half Mat, One Mat, A Fistful of Rice

The warriors Ogami meets on his quest for revenge offer different interpretations of the path of honor, and even challenge legitimacy of his quest for revenge.

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, " 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.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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