Previous Retro Reviews...
- MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO *** KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE *** PRINCESS MONONOKE
- HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE *** NAUSICAA *** CASTLE IN THE SKY *** PORCO ROSSO
- AKIRA Vol. 1 *** Vol. 2 *** Vol. 3 *** Vol. 4 *** Vol. 5 *** Vol. 6 *** TRIGUN Vol. 1
- LITTLE NORSE PRINCE VALIANT *** DRAGONBALL Vol. 1 *** GHOST IN THE SHELL
- MACROSS II *** LUPIN III: THE SECRET OF MAMO *** SPACE ADVENTURE COBRA
- BAKUMAN Vol. 1 *** MONSTER Vol. 1 *** DEAD LEAVES *** 20th CENTURY BOYS Vol. 1
More so than it’d be with any other classic manga title, reviewing LONE WOLF & CUB feels somewhat akin to appraising a historical text. Not only is its place in the comics pantheon permanently secured, it’s also had a well-documented direct influence on many legendary cartoonists - - from Katsuhiro Otomo to Frank Miller - - whose work has profoundly shaped my fandom. Any attempt at criticism is almost like trying to argue with long-proven facts.
Well, here we go, anyway…
You all know the set-up here. The shogun’s widowed executioner, Ogami Itto, wanders feudal Japan as something of a busking hitman-for-hire. Having gone to the same business school as Daniel Plainview, this killer knows the marketing value of a family business and a cute little mascot. Following that, he wheels his infant son around in a vendor’s cart that doubles as a baby carriage and mobile arsenal.
This volume collects nine shorts which see the father/son team taking hits on corrupt samurai, bandit gangs and even an outfit of naked assassins. Quite often, the cub serves to either lull these marks into a false sense of security or to shock them by demonstrating just how ruthless this Lone Wolf can get. “Surely, he’d never use his own son in martial tactics!?” is an oft-repeated sentiment.
Really, uncompromising ruthlessness is Ogami’s most defining quality. This isn’t the sort of historical adventure that mollifies its ethics as a courtesy to modern mores. The Lone Wolf’s cunning prowess as a swordsman is impressive, certainly, but he’s also not the sort of man you’d ever want to pal around with - - even with that highly-personal honor code of his.
In many ways, he brings another classic pulp icon to mind. Robert E. Howard and Kazuo Koike wouldn’t necessarily have been kindred spirits, but Conan and Ogami are very much kindred creations. Both heroes are less characters, perhaps, than forces of nature; wandering treacherous landscapes (this feudal Japan being rather close to the Hyperborean Age,) intervening in strangers’ conflicts and then dealing bloody retribution upon all the rat bastards who have it comin' to them.
After only a story or two, you get pretty used to the rhythm of the Lone Wolf’s operations. He’ll stroll into a complicated situation with his cub, trade some curt barbs with whomever’s caused the problem and, before too long, absolutely wreck all the bad guys without too many of the requisite setbacks we usually demand our heroes work through.
Perhaps it’s foolish to criticize an action-adventure serial for letting its hero win all the time, but the fact is… Ogami is rarely ever thwarted in any of these shorts. More often, they seem more like stolid records of the occasions some elemental force interrupted feudal conflicts - - you know, kind of like those you’d find in a historical text.
Indeed, History is a subject worth bringing up repeatedly here; if only because artist Goseki Kojima brings such rich authenticity to these pages that you quickly start taking all his heavily-researched detail for granted. Though his work can get rather expressionistic when the situation calls for it, there’s absolutely no “fudging” with anything - - not with the costumes, not with the props and certainly not with the scenery. The linework has a deceptively loose appearance that continually astounds with its demonstrations of the true breadth of imagery that can be rendered through harsh crosshatching.
Still, this comparison to history isn’t always a positive one.
One step of the aforementioned plot cycle usually involves exposition being plopped down in these very large, very dense and nearly breathless blocks of text that oddly recall lesson plan copy. Perhaps that’s an unavoidable drawback of Japanese characters sometimes being able to convey information more concisely than English words can. However, when all this intricate feudal scenario-building typically ends with the same catch-all development - - “And then he kills everybody!” - - you can’t help but chuckle at how these houses of cards keep getting built only to be immediately blown over.
As presented in this volume, LONE WOLF & CUB is another influential comics work that you appreciate and respect more than you necessarily enjoy without some self-consciousness. To further all the educational analogies, this is absolutely an essential textbook of visual storytelling for anybody seriously aspiring to make graphic fiction of their own. For those without such interests, it's again more of a historical text - - a document of both a period in samurai history and in the evolution of comics. However, that's maybe a nicer way of saying it's just a little dated.