In the first year of The Iconographies, we took an in-depth critical tour of the wonder that is Lone Wolf and Cub. Now, as creator Kazuo Koike returns to his magnum opus, so do we…
“But what if you had more story to tell?,” asked a post on Dark Horse’s blog by Senior Editor, Chris Warner, in preparation for the release of New Lone Wolf and Cub, Volume 1. The post, one of the first bits of promotional material I had encountered discussing the new series—work, kids, and life having caused a rather massive blind spot in my knowledge of new titles—correctly anticipated that some would be skeptical to say the least about a sequel to the massive epic, Kozure Ōkami, over 30 years after its completion by writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima, and over 10 since Dark Horse had released the final volume, the twenty-eighth, into English. Warning of ambushers hiding in the “tall grass” and saying, “You can’t win,” Warner’s post goes on to repeat two more times, “But what if you had more story to tell?”
It’s a cleaver piece of prolepsis that frames that new series as an almost necessary one that at last answers lingering questions, as opposed to, as some more cynical readers may charge, an unnecessary addition that not only fails to live up to the original but also, in some way, cheapens it. Warner’s concern is a legitimate one; comicbook fans can be fickle sometimes and works as ambitious as this undertaking will no doubt inspire powerful emotions from fans who feel intimately connected to the original. And while it would be easy to dismiss concerns about this series as the prejudgment of the impossible-to-please demographic of our community, that would be disingenuous. While there may be readers who have already determined that any form of sequel to Lone Wolf and Cub is destined to fail, there are others who are no doubt hoping it succeeds, but dubious that the end will be worth reopening those doors. “We have had our hearts broken before,” these fans say.
I must confess I felt a degree of this anxious ambivalence as well. Having written many times about Lone Wolf and Cub, and absorbed the books with a passion multiple times in my life, I was worried. This epic series comes as close to complete perfection as any story I have ever read and while part of me was anxious, even desperate, to enter that world again, another part of wondered doubtfully, “Maybe we shouldn’t go back?” And for the third time, Warner answered: “But what if you had more story to tell?”
As the co-creator—the artist Goseki Kojima having passed in 2000—it is absolutely Kojima’s right to say that there is more story left to tell, but the doubtful part of me wondered if that was ultimately true in the narrative sense. The story of Lone Wolf and Cub is the story of a father, Ogami Itto, and his son, Daigoro, and their quest for vengeance (and of course, so much more). With the father dead and their enemies at last defeated, was there actually any more story left? What else was left that demanded reopening this saga? The answer to that, for readers, rests on one simple question, the one in which Koike says he has been asked ever since the series concluded: What happened to Daigoro? What happened to the wolf cub, the boy with eyes that have seen life and death, and who, after his father’s demise, delivered the final blow to the hated Yagyu Clan? If that question is one that has plagued you over the years, then this is definitely a story worth reading. If that question never demanded an answer, then there is still much here worth exploring, but it may not bring the same sense of urgency or completion.
The story begins on the beach outside of Edo where the final battle between Itto and Retsudo took place. The first thing a reader will experience – especially those who in preparation for the new book reacquainted themselves will the final volume of the original series – is how immediately you are taken back into that moment. While some creators might have jumped ahead in time to create a sense of newness to the narrative, perhaps using flashbacks to fill in the gaps between the old story and the new, Kojima instead returns us to the last moment and thereby creates a bold connection to the original series. There lie both warriors at the feet of Daigoro who has been left by the samurai who had watched the final duel, surrounded by the body of his father and the last warriors of the once mighty Yagyu Clan. For the reader it feels as if the small boy had been waiting for them all these years to return so that the rest of the story could proceed.
One of the ways in which the book achieves this painful but necessary continuity with the past is through the incredible artwork of Hideki Mori. Koike explains in the book’s epilogue that after receiving the blessing from the wife of his friend and partner, Kojima, to continue the series, he began looking for someone who “…would have to be an artist at least the equal, if not the better, of Goseki-san himself.” That search led him to Mori, an award-winning artist whose work, it is immediately clear, was heavily influenced by Kojima’s. The original series, one of those truly great collaborations between a talented writer and an equally gifted artist, was perfectly captured by the Kojima’s elegant style. Comicbook artist, Patrick Block, writes that Kojima’s art:
“…show's remarkable, fluid, speedy strength. He works a lot with a brush, like me, but he has a supremely effortless line. It appears he is drawing at a very fast speed, yet, his figures have perfect weight and a sense of realness and solid anatomy under their flowing robes. He has amazing consistency with his characters...they seem very realistic, and have the most subtle facial features I've seen from any illustrator…The line is the thing, in Goseki's work. He was a master at drawing people in action with a brush.”
Mori does an incredible job emulating that style in a way that feels more appreciative and respectful, than just imitative. Moreover, it perfectly captures the incredible pain that Daigoro feels at the loss of his father and is truly heartbreaking at times in its execution. Furthermore, it properly orients the reader to bring them back to the final pages of the one hundred and forty-second issue of the previous epic.
With the art properly capturing the necessary tone and atmosphere of the original, Koike then handles the narrative challenges to continuing the story in two interesting ways. First, a new father figure is immediately introduced thus completing the necessary structural demands that the cub must have a wolf. In this case the new wolf is Togo Shigekata, a samurai who comes upon the battlefield and the exhausted form of Daigoro standing vigil over his father’s body. The necessary connection of Togo as the worthy successor to Itto is symbolically established when the samurai demonstrates that his sword fits perfectly in the scabbard of Itto’s own blade. According to custom, the sword being the soul of a warrior, the matching blades demonstrate to Daigoro that he can trust the stranger and in the moment, Togo assumes the roll of the father. (It may even be argued, especially given Koike’s repetition of Itto’s last words to his son, “In that world, and all worlds, you are my son” that perhaps Togo, despite the obvious time issues, might even literally be the reincarnation of Itto.) Thus the two embark together on their journey, going even so far as to find Daigoro’s old baby cart, with all its hidden weapons.
The next plot device that Koike uses to thematically connect this story and the original is to place Togo and Daigoro back into the complex world of Tokugawa-era politics. While some might find the introduction of new plots and the internal machinations within the Shogun’s government redundant, it does in fact carry on the narrative thread left over by the original. In the previous story it was established that the post of executioner – which Itto held until he came into conflict with Retsudo – the ninja spy clans, and the assassins of the Yagyu were all necessary for the Shogun to retain control over the various lords across Japan. An entire governmental and social structure was based on preventing a massive rebellion and ruthlessly punishing those who went against the will of Edo. One of the main reasons that Lone Wolf and Cub’s quest for vengeance was so apocalyptic is that by the time of its completion, it had devastated the institutions upon which the Shogun’s authority maintained itself and, the story implies, without these pillars, the Tokugawa fall shortly thereafter.
While the collapse of the government – a symbolic necessity when Ogami and Retsudo, the last two great representatives of an ultimately untenable ethos, destroy themselves – is an implicit byproduct of the story’s end, Koike decides to show us that collapse by seemingly placing Daigoro right at the center of the final days of the Tokugawa Shogunate. While introducing new a new spy clan and a new scheming government minister, Koike shows the reader a plot to seize control of a rich domain from a potentially rebellious lord in Satsuma. Seeking to plant evidence of treason against the Shogun, it is the hope of the minister to have pretext to seize the land’s wealth and resources for the government. Togo and Daigoro, interrupting an assassination attempt on the road, stumble upon this plot. It appears that Koike intends to continue the story of the fall of the Tokugawa by placing Daigoro at the heart of the events preceding the Meiji Restoration, thus completing what began when father and son first set out on their quest for revenge.
This is, to say the least, an ambitious agenda that Koike and Mori have set for themselves. Then again, if the original tells us anything it is that Koike can handle ambitious projects. That he is taking it very seriously is clear and the way he has attempted to return the readers to the world, not with gentleness, but with honesty at least, is important. That the new story is most likely not going to contain the sprawling multitudes upon which the original laid its claim to greatness, is probably true. Lone Wolf and Cub, like all great epics, explored all of the big questions—society, politics, love, death, family, and relationship of the individual with the divine—and one wonders if this new story will be able to capture that same brush with perfection.
Ultimately, each fan of the original series who returns to this story must decide for themselves if the journey was worth undertaking, and if the question of what happened to Daigoro was one that needed an answer. The best I can say is that while it still might fail, it is not destined to fail. There is an earnestness and honesty in which Koike and Mori have crafted their tale that makes me hopeful that this may be a story worthy of its predecessor, and fully confident that it is, at least, not another one of those attempts to cynically add more to something that was already complete as is. And while the doubts remain and part of me rebels at the sight of Daigoro being pushed in that cart by anyone other than Itto, both the enduring affection for the old story and the strengths of this first volume of the new, compel me to follow the boy in the cart for one last journey. Let’s see where it takes us.