By Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
Published by Dark Horse; $9.95 US
The world of Lone Wolf & Cub is brutal and unforgiving, and children are not immune to its cruelty. Even the bond between parent and child - of particular relevance considering Lone Wolf & Cub's premise - is given little consideration in the face of violently enforced standards of duty and honor. Though it seems like the connection is coincidental, all 4 stories in Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 4: The Bell Warden share the similar threads of either violence befalling children or parents aiding in the bloody ends of sons and daughters.
In the title story "The Bell Warden," executioner-turned-assassin Ogami Itto is hired by bell warden Tsuji Genshichi. Believing neither of his 3 sons are up to the task of replacing him as bell warden, Genshichi hires Itto to take the right arm of each if he can. At the same time, one-by-one he instructs his sons to kill Itto. Since the bell warden must be able to fight his way to his bell if need be, each son is Itto's equal in their particular schools of battle, and the duels are wonderfully executed. It's something of a refreshing conflict. You get used to scenes of Itto impossibly cutting his way through hordes of combatants. A story of three single opponent duels is a nice, suspenseful departure.
The second story, "Unfaithful Servants" opens on an uncharacteristically busy and bloody day, even for Itto. The story highlights one of Koike's unique strengths: mixing historical exposition with action and adventure storytelling. Itto moves from place to place, assassinating multiple targets and cutting a path through walls of henchmen to do so. Meanwhile, Koike tells us about the orisuke - retainers who were not samurai and laid claim to no code - while refusing to tell us why his main character is hacking so many of these unfaithful servants to pieces. Kojima expertly creates a tangible atmosphere, spending pages constructing the halls and showing us the preparation of meals delivered to the orisuke moments before Itto strikes. We learn later that Itto acts on behalf of the son and daughter of a disgraced lord. The children were about to kill themselves in order to restore their family's honor before Itto arrived and offered his assistance.
"Parting Frost" follows Daigoro through rain-saked rice paddies and Buddhist temples as he searches for his father after the assassin fails to return from a mission. During his journey, Daigoro attracts the attention of an ambitious swordsman who recognizes a powerful quality in the boy that makes him see Daigoro not as a child, but a worthy adversary.
"Parting Frost" is the second of what of could rightly be called the Daigoro stories - the first being "Tragic O-Sue" of the second volume - and it's one of my favorites not just because Daigoro is the sweet, sad, tender, yet alarmingly capable soul of Lone Wolf & Cub, but also because it features some wonderful landscapes by Goseki Kojima.
The final story, "Performer," is the reason for the relatively short list of stories in The Bell Warden. "Performer" is twice as long as most Lone Wolf & Cub chapters. Itto's target is O-Yuki, a warrior woman on a quest for vengeance. Defeated in combat with trickery and subsequently raped, O-Yuki gives up everything to get back at her attacker and she employs a bizarre and unique strategy. Before embarking on her quest, O-Yuki hires a tatto artist to mark her with images of demons and monsters on her back and breasts. The images shock and distract her enemies, rendering them easy targets.
The story works well in spite of some weaknesses. O-Yuki's tattoos are provocative but the idea that men ready to cut a woman to ribbons - men who likely have some experience with rape and murder - getting distracted by a little skin art just never rang true to me.
There's also a bit of irony that I'm not sure was intentional; at least it never read that way. We eventually learn O-Yuki has been cutting off the topknots of her samurai victims, causing inestimable shame to them and their families. It is these families who hire Itto to kill O-Yuki, and Itto gives her a bit of a lecture.
That this brow-beating comes from Ogami Itto is a little ironic. While Itto's sole target is Yagyu Retsudo - the man who orchestrated the destruction of Itto's clan, the theft of his position, and the death of his wife among others - like some kind of Hamlet on crack, Itto spends thousands of pages slaughtering just about anyone in Japan he can find who isn't Yagyu Retsudo. When he scolds O-Yuki with "The victims of your quest have a quest as well," you can't help but wonder just how many similar quests Itto's assassin's road has spawned.
"Performer" is not perfect but it's emotionally powerful, mainly because of the understanding that develops between Itto and O-Yuki. She is not the first sympathetic target in Lone Wolf & Cub, but Koike and Kojima invest a good deal of time in her, and she's one of the few you may find yourself rooting for.
(Buy Lone Wolf and Cub 4: The Bell Warden from Amazon!)