Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Review - Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 2: The Gateless Barrier

Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 2: The Gateless Barrier
By Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
Published by Dark Horse; $9.95 US
304 pages

While Lone Wolf & Cub's first volume captured my interest, it was this second volume that convinced me I'd found a series worthy of my committed attention. Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 2: The Gateless Barrier finds disgraced ronin Ogami Itto infiltrating a prison to solve the mystery behind an arson in "Red Cat," disguising himself as a military adviser to assassinate a traitor to the Shogunate in "The Coming of the Cold," learning the secret to kill the Buddha himself in the title story "The Gateless Barrier," and avenging the honor of a dead prostitute in "Winter Flower." The Gateless Barrier also brings us the first of many memorable and usually heartbreaking Daigoro solo adventures (or mostly solo) when the Cub half of Lone Wolf & Cub is used as bait to lure out his father in "Tragic O-Sue."

The most immediately noticeable difference between Lone Wolf & Cub's first and second volume is time, and in more than one way. First, most obviously, Koike and Kojima have more time per story and they use it well. While The Assassin's Road contains 9 stories - most of which are around 30 pages long - The Gateless Barrier contains only five 60 page stories, and this becomes the standard. Second, Koike is more willing to play with the sequence of events, choosing more often than not to start in the middle of the story rather than the beginning. "Red Cat," for example, opens with Itto carted off to prison. It isn't until after Itto kills a handful of prisoners and is sentenced to death that we are shown the beginning of the story and learn that his imprisonment is a ruse.

It's also worth noting that "Red Cat" is something of a continuation of "Wings to the Bird, Fangs to the Beast," the penultimate story of The Assassin's Road. A prostitute Itto saves in the latter story recruits him for the assassination in "Red Cat." The other stories up to this point are completely self-contained. It isn't a huge deal, and to be honest it's not even remotely necessary to read "Wings to the Bird, Fangs to the Beast" before "Red Cat" - in fact, it wasn't until my second read-through of the series that I realized the woman who recruits Itto in "Red Cat" is the same woman from the previous story, probably because the two stories are separated by the flashback origin story "The Assassin's Road" - but it's worth mentioning because, along with the doubling of Lone Wolf & Cub's page count, it's indicative of how popular the series became between the original publication of the stories reprinted between the first and second volumes.

Itto and Daigoro's relationship seems much more complex in The Gateless Barrier. In the first volume, there are moments when the contrast between Itto's ruthlessness and Daigoro's innocence almost comes off as gimmicky. Daigoro appears oblivious to the things his father does. When Itto drowns and stabs a ronin in the first volume, for example, and Daigoro responds by simply reaching out playfully for his father and laughing, it seems that the toddler has no concept of what's going on. The murder he helped his father commit could be no more than a game in his mind.

This changes in The Gateless Barrier. While Daigoro is clearly still a child in mind and body, Itto doesn't treat him as one. Itto expects Daigoro to follow a strict code and makes no allowances for Daigoro's failure, but at the same time Itto's love for his young son is clear to see. This is no more perfectly demonstrated than in the second story of The Gateless Barrier, "The Coming of the Cold." There is perhaps no scene in the series more perfect in displaying the strange, brutal, yet tender relationship between Lone Wolf and his Cub than one in which Itto instructs his son Daigoro how to survive in a cave while waiting for his father to complete his mission and how - if necessary - to die quietly and with honor. Daigoro responds with no emotion but clearly understands though he's still too young to do more than grunt cutely.

I often compare Ogami Itto to Malcolm Reynolds of Firefly and Serenity. While both Mal and Itto consider themselves to be less than they were - they in fact strive to be less than they were - neither can help but remain honorable and courageous warriors. You begin to learn this about Itto in The Gateless Barrier. He seems less of an assassin and more of a samurai. He still is an assassin. He still commits actions you could easily consider cowardly, murderous, and absolutely reprehensible; but his samurai roots shine through. In "Red Cat," for example, even after killing his target Itto goes further than he has to in order to solve a mystery and get vengeance for the fallen. A better example is "The Coming of the Cold," when Itto goes above and beyond for the sake of honor. For reasons I'd rather not spoil, Itto's clients willingly sacrifice both their lives and their names so Itto can achieve his goal. After killing his target Itto lectures his target's underlings to make them understand the reason behind the killing so his clients' names can be restored.

It was "The Coming of the Cold" that sealed the deal between me and Lone Wolf & Cub, and it remains one of my favorite stories of the series. It opens in the belly of a beached shipwreck - a perfect metaphor for Itto and Daigoro, two tattered survivors of a once grand and rich life - where Itto meets his latest client. Soon Itto travels to a land engulfed in blizzard. Daigoro must wait in a cave for his father and shortly after Itto leaves the cave, an avalanche covers the opening. Refusing to abandon his mission, Itto hopes for the best but accepts his son's likely death. After performing his mission, Itto manages to re-open the mouth of the cave and the story ends with Daigoro emerging from a blanket of furs, saying "Papa..." It's a heartbreaking moment and really the first time in the series that Daigoro's death seems a real possibility.

Another favorite of mine is the title story, "The Gateless Barrier," and it's a favorite for, I suspect, the same reason it was chosen for the volume's title. The specific message of "The Gateless Barrier" is one that is arguably the central message of Lone Wolf & Cub. Itto is hired to assassinate the Buddhist monk Wajo. Upon finding his target, Itto cannot make the fatal blow. He appears literally unable to physically strike the monk. Wajo explains Itto cannot kill him because he has attained Mu; that he has forgotten the self and become one with nothingness. Itto accepts this explanation and intends to kill himself in penance for his failure, but the monk urges him to find the gate where there is no gate and to become the Gateless Barrier. In other words, he has to go meditate a lot. Itto does, eventually returns to assassinate Wajo, and upon his death the monk says, "Is this not good? He who perfects his path? Is this not good? The gateless barrier?" The moral is one that is recurrent in the series; that it doesn't matter what path you choose as long as you choose a path and walk it well.

I've toyed with the idea of a top 10 list of favorite Lone Wolf & Cub stories and it's something I may eventually write. If so, Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 2: The Gateless Barrier will likely make 2 or 3 appearances on the list. The learning curve between the first 2 volumes is Cliffs-of-Insanity steep, and the first volume is superb, so that's saying a lot.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Review - Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 1: The Assassin's Road

Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 1: The Assassin's Road
By Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
Published by Dark Horse; $9.95 US
304 pages

I keep looking for a new Lone Wolf & Cub and nothing seems to work. That isn't to say Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima hold a monopoly on good samurai vengeance stories. But Lone Wolf & Cub is unique. It isn't just a bloody, kick-ass comic whose inspirational mark you can find in other comics, in hip-hop albums, in Quentin Tarantino films, in cartoons, in video games, and even in a Tom Hanks movie. It's an epic adventure highlighting the horror and beauty of Edo-period Japan. It's a story constantly asking which is more important: the path you choose or how you walk it. Most importantly it's a story about an unbreakable bond between a father and a son.

Before Wolverine or Kill Bill's Beatrix there was Ogami Itto. Itto is the Shogun's loyal executioner until he's framed for treason and his family is slaughtered. Itto becomes Japan's deadliest assassin on his quest for vengeance. Known as Lone Wolf and Cub, Itto often employs his toddler son Daigoro in his killings. Sometimes he uses the child as bait, sometimes as a distraction, and other times even as a shield. While it seems heartless and cruel on the surface, as Itto tells the ronin Furizue Geki in this first volume, "a father knows his child's heart, as only a child can know his father's. No stranger can understand."

Fittingly, I read Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 1: The Assassin's Road in a waiting room as my oldest nephew was being born. It was one of the first manga I'd read. I bought it specifically because I wanted to dip my toe into the world of manga, and while I liked what I saw I wasn't ready to dive in just yet. I can't say it left much of an impression just then. On one hand, my mind was on other things. On the other, while it was good and I wanted to read more, it was easy to get confused in the minutiae of Japanese feudal intrigue. Each volume of Lone Wolf & Cub includes a glossary explaining the meanings of any untranslated words. Still, glossary or no glossary, exposition scenes between Itto and his clients - with the clients explaining the reasons they were hiring him - often went over my head. I was often resigned to appreciating the artistry with which Kojima depicted the bloodletting without necessarily understanding why Itto was fighting anyone.

Having now read all 28 volumes and officially deeming Lone Wolf & Cub my favorite comic book series of all time, it is difficult to re-read The Assassin's Road without noticing what is so strikingly different between these early stories and what came later.

For one thing, the stories are much shorter. Most of the stories in the other 27 volumes were around 60 pages while only one piece - "Wings to the Bird, Fangs to the Beast" - reaches that length in The Assassin's Road.

Itto is certainly not as fully realized here. Physically he doesn't seem as taut or as ragged. There are panels in which Itto's face actually betrays a hint or two of chubbiness. Itto's characteristic stoicism and unflappability are absent at first. When he reveals his trap in "Sword for Hire, Son for Hire," for example, he laughs triumphantly at his prey and overall enjoys the victory of his deceit whereas the future Itto would reserve that kind of sadistic joy for only his most hated foes, usually seeming simply to accept and endure the consequences of his darkest acts.

The notion of Daigoro participating in the assassinations seems more compulsory in this first volume. While this was an element that never left the series entirely, it becomes less of an automatic plot point. I got the sense that perhaps Daigoro's help was a gimmick that sold the series to publishers, but became less necessary as it garnered success. At the very least, Daigoro's contributions to the killings are treated in a much lighter manner in The Assassin's Road than they would later. In "Suio School Zanbato," Itto tricks Bessho Mondo into a formal duel by instructing his son to stand on a ridge overlooking the road to pee on Mondo's head. In the beginning of "A Father Knows His Child's Heart, as Only A Child Can Know His Father's" - when Itto lures an unsuspecting ronin into water by telling Daigoro to pretend he's drowning - Daigoro seems absolutely oblivious to the murder he just aided when his father lifts him out of the water. He smiles and reaches out for his father as if they were playing in their own backyard pool.

While Goseki Kojima doesn't have the time and space in The Assassin's Road for the kind of expansive landscapes that litter the rest of the series, the cinematic perspective of this first volume is perfect. What impresses me perhaps more than anything else about the late Kojima's work is how he engages my senses. In particular, more than any other comic, I hear Lone Wolf & Cub. There is something about Kojima's elegant sense of timing and his understanding of the natural world that truly makes me experience the sounds of the story. At the end of "Sword for Hire, Son for Hire," when Itto halves a tree while disposing of his target's protectors, I really hear the tree's weight and girth crashing to the ground; just as I hear the metallic unsheathing of swords before Itto's duel with Bessho Mondo in "Suio School Zanbato."

As jarring as the comic book corners of the Internet can be, there isn't much about those corners that surprises me more than how little there is dedicated to Lone Wolf & Cub (and much of what's out there has more to do with the film adaptations). I guess I shouldn't be too shocked that I can spit in the air and hit a Spider-Man fansite, yet finding anything significant about Lone Wolf & Cub takes some real digging. It's in part because of this void that in the coming weeks I'm going to do something I've wanted to do ever since I started blogging about comics: I'm going to review every volume of Lone Wolf & Cub. I won't lie. Not all volumes are equal. There may be a few reviews where I'll struggle to say something more than, "Itto killed some dudes, Daigoro's cute, and there was some really bizarre sex," but hey. The challenge is part of the fun. When all else fails, I can just be a smartass.