By Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
Published by Dark Horse; $9.95 US
The third volume of Lone Wolf & Cub finds the father-son team of Itto and Daigoro facing a trio of infamous ninja in the title story "The Flute of the Fallen Tiger," confronted with a deadly idealist determined to end Itto's trail of bodies in "Half Mat, One Mat, A Fistful of Rice," shielding a prostitute who killed her rapist in "The Virgin and the Whore," and caught in a han's dispute over a forest in "Close Quarters." We also find out more about the conspiracy that set Itto on his bloody course in the flashback tale "The White Path Between the Rivers."
Lone Wolf & Cub's fame grows. As Itto's victims multiply, so do his enemies. Thus the stoic ronin and his son are recognized by the elite Kurokawa ninja trio, the Bentenrai Brothers in "The Flute of the Fallen Tiger." The Bentenrai represent one the first significant human threats to Itto and Daigoro on their long journey. Itto's growing legend leads to his next battle as well, this time with the retired samurai Bizen in "Half Mat, Full Mat, A Fistful of Rice."
"Half Mat..." is interesting for a few reasons. Bizen is the first significant character to give voice to thoughts I certainly hope most readers of Lone Wolf & Cub humor while reading the series regarding Itto's morality. Unlike Itto who was framed for treason, Bizen chose to leave the path of the samurai. He despises the code allowing samurai to take the lives of peasants at will. He challenges Itto not for fame, money, or glory, but to stop his assassinations and save Daigoro from a future as bloody as his father's.
The final duel between Itto and Bizen enjoys an almost comically bizarre visual element. Since surrendering the way of the samurai, Bizen supports himself by charging money for the chance to stab, cut off, pound, or otherwise fatally wound his head. He sits beneath a custom-crafted table with a hole for his head and anyone who pays may take a weapon from the tabletop and do their best to get him before he can duck. This is how he faces Itto in their graveyard duel and while we're lead to believe this is the key to an almost insurmountable strategy, it's tough to take it seriously.
Whether it causes giggles or not, Koike and Kojima prove their versatility in the duel. Action-wise, one could argue Lone Wolf & Cub is nothing but swordfight after swordfight. Koike and Kojima consistently prove their ability to keep it fresh. They spend 16 pages - mind you, 16 pages is over half the length of a standard Western comic book - on Bizen and Itto visualizing their respective potential strategies and the other's likely counters.
Daigoro doesn't take as prominent a role in The Flute of the Fallen Tiger as he does in some other volumes, but there are subtly powerful moments for the character; one of them in "Half Mat..." Bizen entertains Daigoro with a spinning top, and once Itto sees his son's fascination with the toy he slices it in half to symbolically make a point both to Daigoro and Bizen, who has just announced his intention to kill Itto. Daigoro's response is heartbreakingly perfect. There is no surprise or anger; only a grim and quiet acceptance.
There are similarly quiet yet memorable moments between Itto and Daigoro in "The Virgin and the Whore." While silently eating with his father, Daigoro spills some of his food. Itto doesn't even bother looking up while his son - only two or three at this point - quietly and obediently cleans his mess. Later, when a prostitute who killed her rapist hides in Itto and Daigoro's room, Itto eventually orders her to leave. A brief, protesting glance from Daigoro is more rebellion than you'll ever see from the character toward his father again.
Daigoro is almost compeltely absent from "The White Path Between the Rivers," because it is a flashback set when Daigoro was still a newborn. While in Lone Wolf & Cub's first volume we learned of the conspiracy against Itto's clan, in "The White Path..." we see more of the specifics. Itto's role before his fall from grace was kaishakunin: the Shogun's executioner. When daimyo were ordered to commit seppuku - ritual suicide by self-disembowelment - it was Itto's job to act as their second, or to behead them once they had made the fatal cut to their own bellies. Itto's enemy Yagyu uses Itto's position against him. He convinces the clan of one of the lords Itto beheaded to frame him for treason.
What is most interesting to me about "The White Path..." is the introduction of Azami, wife to Itto and mother to Daigoro. Unless I am very mistaken - and in the coming months as I review the rest of Lone Wolf & Cub I may learn this is the case - this is the only time we meet Azami. In fact, I don't believe even her name appears again.
I find the lack of a female presence in the Itto/Daigoro relationship interesting. I'm not going to make any overbearing social arguments about it, but it's worth mentioning. It's particularly curious to me that in a series as long as Lone Wolf & Cub that boasts perhaps not as much sex as violence but the gap ain't that big - and the sex itself is often violent and bizarre - we only see its main character have sex once, and in fact it isn't with Azami. Itto has sex with a prostitute in the first volume's final story "Wings to the Bird, Fangs to the Beast."
It's funny. I've read the series from start to finish two or three times, and even though I know how the bloody trail ends, every time I begin the series over again I still look forward to making my way through it all. No one is more aware of the irony than I that even though most of my comic book interests lean toward the Super, if my apartment burned and I had time to grab comics (provided my girlfriend and kitties were all safe of course), I would watch all of my Incredible Hulk and Defenders comics go up in smoke before I'd let Itto and Daigoro burn. I am immensely happy to finally be reviewing Lone Wolf & Cub volume-by-volume, and I'm just as happy that it affords me an excuse to wander through the series one more time.
(Buy The Flute of the Fallen Tiger (Lone Wolf and Cub, Vol. 3) from Amazon)