If You Are Patient Like a Samurai, Kazuo Koike’s ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ Will Reward You

Dark and bleak, absorbing and fascinating, Dark Horse's reprint of this massive samurai manga classic deserves your time.

When the Japanese samurai manga Lone Wolf and Cub, created by writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima, was first released in Japan in 1970 it became an instant bestseller. The English translation took longer to catch on. An initial publishing run of the English-language version was attempted starting in 1987 by First Comics, but the company shut down before completing it. Between 2000 – 2002 Dark Horse Comics picked it up, emulating the Japanese releases with miniature trade collections, featuring the original cover art produced by Frank Miller for the abortive First Comics release, along with additional covers produced by several other award-winning artists.

The original release of the series comprised 28 volumes, nearly 9,000 pages, and has been long out of print. In 2013, Dark Horse began releasing the series again, this time in larger ‘Omnibus’ volumes of more than 700 pages each, comprising multiple volumes of the original release. The final Omnibus edition, Volume 12, was released in April of 2016, completing the series for those who have been following its latest print run.

The series follows the adventures of Ogami Itto, the shogun’s executioner. The title is a misleading one: in effect the job of the ‘Kogi Kaishakunin’ was to assist powerful nobles who had been ordered to commit ritual suicide, or seppuku. This involved the painful practice of self-disembowelment, a highly ritualized proceeding and one at which it was quite easy to falter before completing the act. Hence the role of the Kogi Kaishakunin, who stood by ready to assist with beheading the victims as required.

Itto’s role renders him a powerful figure in the Tokugawa shogunate; he is a talented samurai warrior as well. Needless to say, his fame and honour draws envy, and he returns home one day to find his entire household slaughtered, with the exception of his one-year-old son, Daigoro. Although the murderous attack was framed to look like the work of one of his victim’s retainers, he soon learns that it was in fact the work of the powerful Yagyu clan, pursuing their own plan to seize power in the Shogunate.

Itto, with his son Daigoro in tow, sets out in search of vengeance, earning a living as an assassin as he seeks to unravel the mystery behind what the Yagyu clan are up to. He’s determined to wreak his vengeance on that clan, but through the course of his journeys encounters a series of adventures and challenges both to his samurai honour as well as to his single-minded dedication to vengeance. In addition, the presence of his son Daigoro complicates matters, although in his own head Itto has consigned the two of them to ‘meifumado’ — the road to hell, or vengeance, which he anticipates will end in death for both of them.

The series is dark and bleak, yet absorbing and fascinating at the same time. It offers rich depictions of Japanese life in the Tokugawa era, and gorgeously illustrated scenes of town and countryside. It’s won both Harvey and Eisner awards in the United States, as well as prestigious awards in Europe and elsewhere.

For all its fame and awards, however, Lone Wolf and Cub is not perfect. The battle scenes, intricately orchestrated and illustrated as they are, grow tiresome after a point; as soon as one realizes that Itto will defeat all challengers handily, no matter how many or how talented, thus, the battles become far less interesting (the final one, at 178 pages, is widely cited as the longest single battle scene depicted in comics). My own interest began to wane halfway through the series; by that point, however, I’d committed so much time to it that I was determined to continue if only to find out how it ends.

The plot does pick up again in the last several volumes. The introduction of Abe no Kaii, the shogun’s food taster (and master poisoner) makes things far more interesting. He’s a quirky villain; one of the most down-to-earth, if repulsive, characters in the series. He’s entirely uninterested in the values of bushido, or samurai honour; for him the point of power is indulgence and a pleasant life. He has no qualms about the tactics he uses, no matter how dishonourable or underhanded. He’s a refreshing character amid the straight-laced samurai whose rigidly enforced sense of honour populate the rest of the series.

Another interesting character development involves Itto’s erstwhile enemy, the Yagyu clan leader Retsudo, who becomes almost humanized toward the end. He and Itto briefly put aside their quarrel to work together for honour’s higher causes (and to save Edo, the future Tokyo), all the while resolving to return to their feud at the earliest possible opportunity. During this time Retsudo becomes an almost sympathetic character; if not for the foreknowledge of how he slaughtered Itto’s family and clan, and the ruthless manner in which he sacrifices his own retainers in pursuit of Itto, one would almost be tempted to like this gruff old samurai.

The series contains female characters, but always in a secondary role. They assume a variety of roles, from warriors and assassins to sex workers and housewives. On the one hand, the authors deserve credit for crafting some very powerful female characters (author Kazuo Koike was also behind the Lady Snowblood manga, about a female assassin). On the other hand, like most secondary characters in the series they wind up getting killed off sooner or later, and sexualized violence is ubiquitous.

The first half of the series keeps the reader on their toes: outcomes of battles and situations are often uncertain. A secondary character, or the victim of a hired assassination, may or may not survive. This makes for a good read. But as the series progresses a pattern emerges: enemies and allies alike rarely survive beyond a single chapter. The inevitability of this outcome rapidly diminishes interest in the plotlines.

The charm of Lone Wolf and Cub lies in the juxtaposition of the lone wolf and his cub. Where Itto is a paragon of ruthless samurai honour, strength and discipline, his son Daigoro is the face of innocence. With the smile of a cherubim and a happy, innocent love of the world around him, Daigoro is the gentle foil against which to compare Itto’s ruthless blade. Yet Daigoro too struggles to emulate the father he loves and strives to assume similar samurai qualities. He says barely a word the entire series — besides “Papa!” — which renders even more stark his innocence and youth.

The most compelling and attractive quality of Lone Wolf and Cub is the medieval Japanese backdrop against which it plays out. The series was impeccably researched, and many of the individual stories depict particular elements of medieval Japanese life: from specific crafts or festivals, to period-specific religious or political issues. Everything from the dress of the characters to the tools they use is explained in the detailed end-notes. Indeed, many of the stories are merely vehicles through which the authors explored various dimensions and experiences of medieval rural and urban life in Japan.

Beyond the award-winning historical accuracy of the series, its visual depiction is stunning. The artwork is gorgeous and absorbing: from urban streets and temples to the mountains and other wild landscape vistas. During their journeys Itto and Daigoro travel the length of Japan, and this provides endless opportunities for the skilled artists to depict the varied landscapes and visual backdrops through which they wander.

It’s not a series for children. There’s a considerable amount of sexualized violence, copious amounts of gore, and even young children and infants are slaughtered in often brutal ways. The violence is perhaps less gratuitous than in some manga series, but no less ubiquitous. The intellectual stimulation in the series comes not from plot or narrative, but from the historical depiction of medieval Japan. It’s similar to watching a beautiful period film, one that goes on seemingly endlessly with little dialogue or plot, but which is visually absorbing almost to the point of satisfaction.

Certainly, amid the vast sea of samurai manga Lone Wolf and Cub is a satisfying stand-out. For a casual samurai saga, it’s delightfully informative about medieval Japanese life and it’s visually stunning.

The series has produced a virtual industry unto itself, including two television series, several movies and theatrical plays, and a video game. In addition there have been two spin-off series: Lone Wolf 2100 (a post-apocalyptic version) and New Lone Wolf and Cub, featuring the adventures of Itto’s son, Daigoro (the ‘Cub’ in the original series).

But for all the derivative delight these may provide fans, there’s nothing to match the original series for simplicity and beauty. The new volumes from Dark Horse lack the satisfying tactility of the small volumes from the early ’00s, but they afford an opportunity for a new generation to fall in love with the quiet beauty of Lone Wolf and Cub.