In 2006, when I was at ComiCon, I never expected to be attending a panel which was a Blazing Red Sun spotlight on one of my grand idols in all of comics–Kazuo Koike!
The man! The Legend in manga! And there he was. Right over there. In front of me!
The very legend who penned the greatest saga in all of manga–hell!–in all the history of comics: Lone Wolf & Cub (aka., Kozure Okami). And if you don’t know about this saga, then why the hell are you reading this? Go out right now and pick up the first volume omnibus (Dark Horse) of this life-changing graphic novel series. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
For the rest of us–those who do know of the executioner, Ogami Ito, his son, Daigoro, and their road to vengence–rejoice! The legend has returned to pen a continuation of the epic story from EXACTLY WHERE HE ENDED IT! I never thought that day at ComiCon that the master of historical manga would ever consider going back to his greatest creation. Little did I know, he was already considering it.
With the death of the series original artist, Goseki Kojima, Koike felt that the final blow to any possible continuation was dealt and it was permanent. It was when he met with artist Hideki Mori and reviewed some pages of sequential art by the enthusiastic, young man, Koike felt a tug. Thank the comic book gods he felt it because it invigorated Koike to rise to the calling, and with a “go ahead” from Kojima-san’s wife, he threw his lot in with Mori with astounding results.
And now, I have to go through another whole process of reading every single panel–absorbing as much ink from the images I can into my pulsing veins–permanently burning said panels into the cerebral cortex of my brain. Am I complaining? Hell no. I’ve been waiting for something like this in comics and I welcome it! You should too.
In this day and age of “Big Event” comics, we also get tons of restarts, or reboots, or just plain huge upheavals within the universes of the two biggest comic companies in the United States (names withheld to protect the innocent). We get entire Earths and other dimensions turned upside down or completely obliterated to get more readers–more sales!–because that’s what’s important! Stories be damned!
But while this is happening, a samurai is pushing a baby cart straight down the middle of all of this static and confusion (or is it disappointment?). We should follow this baby cart.
If you are unfamiliar with Koike, I urge you to seek him out. His comics will change your life–Lone Wolf & Cub alone is more than capable of doing this–so imagine if you hold your nose and plunge into the deep end Koike’s pool of imagination. Your head will explode. I’m still scraping pieces of my brain off the ceiling from a decade ago. His other titles include (and I’m sure some of you will recognize one or two of them): Samurai Executioner, Crying Freeman, Path of the Assassin and the title which “inspired” Q.T. to make Kill Bill, Lady Snowblood. All are worth your time and penny. Go forth and find them, my comic geeks, and you will be rewarded in ways you’ll never imagine. I dare ya.
Last week I bought volume one of Koike and Mori’s New Lone Wolf & Cub–subtitled The Jigen Scabbard–and raced home like I was the one holding the last golden ticket. I devoured it like a slab of rare prime rib–completely ignoring the side dishes–wanting more like a starved junkie looking for a fix. It’s that good.
Koike doesn’t spend any time recapping what has previously happened–he trusts his audience is with him; being completely unapologetic in picking up exactly where he left the story: the aftermath of the final duel between Ogami Ito and his mortal enemy, Yagyu Retsudo. Daigoro–Ito’s son–stands alone, looking upon his father’s corpse and remembering the words his father spoke to him of the afterlife.
Daigoro… where do rivers go?
Then another swordsman enters Daigoro’s life: Togo Shigekata. Would this man, Togo, be worthy to take the place of Ogami Ito? This isn’t a question for Daigoro but one for Koike’s audience.
My answer is, yes, he is worthy; so much so, that not only does he become Daigoro’s guardian, but his teacher as well. This is important because we–Koike’s audience–have watched Daigoro grow up with each passing tale of the Baby Cart Assassin. We have seen him learn valuable life lessons and watched him attain shishogan, the eyes of life and death. But, when will he become educated and how? We now know with the arrival of Togo Shigekata.
The lessons begin with the breaking of a rock. Symbolic? Of course. Koike doesn’t–pardon the pun–leave any stone unturned when presenting poetry within his manga. And I could gush for paragraphs about everything Daigoro’s breaking of the rock with a splintered staff of wood has in meaning but now is not the time. What is important about this action–poetically, symbolically–is the fact Daigoro’s story is far from over.
But where will it go?
With Ito, we knew what the purpose of their path was: to forge a road to revenge, funded with the gold of an assassin’s sword, and to bring down those who destroyed the life Ogami Ito had. With Shigekata it is a different path but one that will soon be stained in blood. I mean, you can’t have a samurai without some blood being spilled. I think there’s law somewhere supporting this fact.
When Togo prepares Ito’s and Retsudo’s corpses for their shared funeral pyre, he spends his time doing it with murmurs of finding nirvana–encouraging the spirits of the two deceased enemies to do so. His path is one towards enlightenment–enlightenment through the soul of the samurai that dwells within their katana. He doesn’t proclaim this is truly his purpose but it is hinted at again and again.
And we know Togo will be using his sword a lot because a shadowy organization want to replace the Yagu Clan as top dogs in the spy/assassination game needed in Edo politics. They know of Ito’s cache of hidden gold he was saving for his revenge and they want it to further their cause. Their plan: follow the Wolf Cub and he will lead them to the prize!
I like this new character, Togo Shigekata, and I like the way he cares for Daigoro–continuing the tutelage begun by the father. He is cruel in his teachings because life is cruel. Daigoro knows this–how could he not with all the baggage of his past spread out before in the first twenty-eight volumes? And because the Wolf Cub knows this, he does not complain or give up. Quite the contrary–Daigoro embraces each challenge; rising to the occasion to come out triumphant on the other end of the endeavor shoved into his path. And Togo Shigekata, the sword master, is pleased. Pass him the stone in order to sharpen his blade, please, because we are going to be going on a long journey and it will be death defying
Again, I reiterate, if you haven’t read Lone Wolf & Cub–Koike’s original masterpiece–I encourage you to seek it out. It is a very important work an not to just those who aspire to find a place within the world of comics as a profession, but to readers as well–opening a whole new world as to how comics fit into our existence. With Lone Wolf & Cub, Koike has not only crafted a swan song of drama but, like Aesop, has lessons to provide us with within the shorter tales woven within the fabric of Ito and Daigoro’s saga. I’ve turned many people on to the series–those who are comic book diehards and those who would never consider comics something worth reading–and I’d go back to these same people with this series to make their heads explode again.