Lone Wolf and Cub Interlude: Path of the Assassin

July 5th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

Path of the Assassin volume 1: Serving in the Dark
Writer: Kazuo Koike
Artist: Goseki Kojima
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
ISBN: 1593075022
320 pages

Yeah, I didn’t finish this one.

The biggest problem with Robert Kirkman and Ryan Ottley’s Invincible is the inconsistent tone of the series. Invincible veers from pretty enjoyable JRsr-era Spider-Man superheroics and drama to early Image blood-n-guts fairly regularly. And, well, the bits I like are like old Spider-Man comics. The bits that are covered in blood and severed limbs? Not my thing.

Path of the Assassin has a similar problem. It has a really interesting premise. It isn’t what I expected at all. Rather than being about a ninja steadily and stealthily killing dudes, it’s almost a goofy buddy movie. Hattori Hanzo is assigned to protect and serve Tokugawa Ieysasu, future ruler of Japan. Hanzo is a ninja, from a clan of ninjas, and is ordered to “serve in the dark.”

Pretty heavy, right? I thought so, too, up until Ieyasu plays with his wisp of a mustache in a mirror, frowns, cuts off a few of his pubes, and then fastens them to his face. Ieyasu is 16. Hanzo is 15. Ieyasu is pretty ineffectual and awful. He isn’t a bad person, exactly, just inexperienced. Hanzo isn’t all that much more experienced, but he’s a ninja, so he gets to do a lot of cool things.

I was digging it until the big tone shift came. Ieyasu is due to be married in a couple days, and he has no idea about sex. He asks his new ninja servant to show him what a man does with a woman. Not with a hooker, because you pay them to do whatever you like, but with a woman. So, Hanzo jumps in a river, drags a woman to shore, and rapes her. Later, after lying to and killing a few dudes Ieyasu still has questions. (Hanzo and the girl are still nude.) Hanzo gives Ieyasu some old fashioned knowledge from back home (“Sleep six times and listen to the woman’s bosom.” After that, you’ll know whether or not she loves you.), and then the girl, who actually saved Hanzo’s life shortly before, decides that not only is she going to take the fake name Hanzo made up for her when the guards approached, she is going to stick with him because now no man will have her. That’s amore, right?

Ieyasu later tried to apply those lessons to his new wife, who by the way had a previous lover he doesn’t know about, but found that he could only do it from behind. He pondered the reasons why, wondered why it worked fine for Hanzo, and blah blah blah this chapter is called “Oppressive Night of Ass” and is boring.

It’s not even the rape or dumb (and surprisingly explicit!) sex scene that really did it. I mean, they helped by being so terrible, but they were just a part of the problem, rather than my biggest problem. By now, about a third of the way through the volume, I’d realized that I was already getting bored, and a ridiculous twist like that wasn’t happening. The goofy interactions between Hanzo and Ieyasu were pretty good, if overly cute. But the switching between stiff samurai drama (which includes LW&C-style violence, rape, sex scenes) and the goofiness doesn’t work for me.

Like Invincible, it feels like a couple different books mashed together. The samurai stuff wouldn’t be out of place in Lone Wolf & Cub at all, and I think the relationship between Hanzo and Ieyasu has legs. The two halves of the story just don’t mesh well. The serious bits are too serious, the goofy bits are too goofy. I mean, every page of the fifteen page sex scene between Ieyasu and his new wife features Ieyasu pulling awkward faces, and he’s a George Costanza-looking chubby awkward guy.

Path of the Assassin can’t decide between being a light action comedy tale and a hardcore samurai drama. I’m open to either of the two styles. The mix of styles, though, doesn’t work for me. Lone Wolf occasionally does a goofy story with Daigoro, but it’s never quite so off the mark as the image of Tokugawa Ieyasu, of the brief pubic hair mustache, creepily observing his pet ninja raping a girl and taking mental notes. Path went on for fourteen more volumes, the latest of which was just released, so there must be some merit to it. Perhaps it improves later on.

Next week, we’re back to Lone Wolf & Cub, I think.

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Lone Wolf and Cub 06: Lanterns for the Dead

June 28th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

Lone Wolf and Cub volume 6: Lanterns for the Dead
Writer: Kazuo Koike
Artist: Goseki Kojima
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
ISBN: 1569715076
288 pages

(Pardon this being a little late again– I may move it to Sunday@6 instead of noon, depending on how this week goes. Blame the podcast, which took forever to edit!)

Volume 6 has five tales: “Lanterns for the Dead,” “Deer Chaser,” “Hunger Town,” “The Soldier Is In The Castle,” and “One Stone Bridge.” Once again, Daigoro provides the most interesting stories or scenes in the book, this time in “Hunger Town” and “One Stone Bridge,” with a brief appearance in “Deer Chaser.” I’ll get to those at the end, though, while I look at the other stories.

Notable, if delayed, realization this week: Ogami Itto is invincible, except when fighting nature or himself. The man has walked through a forest of blades at this point in the series, and escaped basically unscathed. The only time he ends up flat on his back is when he gets sick, or when he sets an entire field of grass on fire to trap a target, and then fights inside those flames.

I can see why Frank Miller enjoys these stories so much. Ogami is the manliest man ever, incredibly secure in his choice of livelihood, devoted to his task and family, and able to spout off important facets of his ideology at a moments notice. Every in the book spends their time being afraid of him, in awe, complimenting his skill, or all three. He spends a portion of “The Soldier Is In The Castle” explaining “kanjo,” which can mean either shield or warriors, depending on the situation (though the two are inextricably linked), to a gang of skilled and respected warriors. Though they brought it up first, he understands it better than they do. He employs a technique called “kanjo satsujin,” which I believe means “Warrior Killer” or “Shield Breaker” if you want to get lyrical, and destroys his enemy by way of a fire trap and skilled swordsmanship.

“Hunger Town” doesn’t focus directly on Daigoro, but he’s used to emphasize the crap nature of their lives. It opens with Ogami firing blunt arrows at a small puppy. He’s training the dog to dodge arrows and run to Daigoro. Of course, Daigoro is three years old and he gets attached to the dog. It’s clear that they have a real friendship growing, and Daigoro almost, but not quite, pitches a fit when the dog is taken away by samurai.

Ogami was setting a trap for a lord who is a fan of Inu-oi, dog hunting for sport. Most people use blunt arrows when doing this, but the lord is so corrupt that he uses real arrows for a thrill. His men demand Daigoro’s dog and deliver it to their lord. He gets set up in the area where he practices inu-oi, shouts the equivalent of “PULL!” and the dog dashes off. The lord tries and tries to hit the dog with his arrows, but the dog dodges all of them and sprints into the woods. The lord follows.

As soon as I realized what was going on, I became certain that the dog would die. In a completely unsurprising move, I was right. The dog catches an arrow through the neck just as he reaches Daigoro, licks Daigoro’s nose, and dies. Daigoro simply watches the lord as he approaches with something like pure hate in his eyes. It’s very clear that he’s his father’s son in this instance.

Another scene where that becomes clear is in “One Stone Bridge.” Daigoro is catching fish under a bridge. He’s amassed a pretty small collection, but he’s made the rod, stolen hair from a horse’s tail for fishing line, and dug up worms for bait himself. He’s trying to feed his father, who has been sick after the events of “The Soldier Is In The Castle” and unconscious for days. All the fish Daigoro has caught and grilled (!) sit beside his bed, untouched. However, he fishes every day.

When boys come to harass him, he takes their taunts and a beating to protect the fish. When they kick the fish back into the river and go back to beating him, he goes and grabs his father’s sword, which is taller than he is, and moves to kill the boy.

It’s awful, but I like seeing how strong the bond is between Daigoro and Ogami. Their lives are in terrible shape, and the only thing either of them have is each other. So, their bonds are amazingly strong. Daigoro is a very bright boy, smart enough to have been a scholar in another world, and capable of judging a situation correctly. He was willing to take a beating to protect his father, smart enough to realize that feeding his father was important, and a volume back, wise enough to build a fire break and save his own life.

There’s a word for this, I’m sure, but I don’t know it. It’s really nice to see a book that’s as much about the relationship between father and son as it is about the father killing several dozen people at a time.

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Lone Wolf and Cub: Black Wind

June 21st, 2009 Posted by david brothers

When I started this, I didn’t expect to read about Ogami Itto mowing down several people with a shotgun. However, he did, I did, and now I get to tell you about it.

Volume 5, Black Wind, has five stories this time: “Trail Markers,” “Executioner’s Hill,” “Black Wind,” “Decapitator Asaemon,” and “The Guns of Sakai.” I found “Trail Markers” to be pretty snooze-worthy. It’s a short tale, just thirty pages, and it’s almost like a recap/infodump of sorts. We find out how Ogami finds his clients, which seems to be based entirely around luck and being in the right place at the right time. The Yagyu clan reveals that it has been around two years since their last encounter, and that the shogunate has heard rumors of Ogami’s current status and how he came to be there. They’re beginning an investigation, which means that it may be the end of the road for the Yagyu clan.

And you know, this story was pretty boring. I realize that it sets up “Decapitator Asaemon,” but it could’ve just been left out with no issue at all. We see Retsudo, and he’s menacing, and they send people out to kill Ogami. He effortlessly dispatches him and reiterates the fact that he doesn’t care about the life of a samurai any more. His way is death, he knows only meifumado, blah blah blah.

“Executioner’s Hill” fares somewhat better, but still ends up being predictable. We meet the Zodiac Gang, they see Ogami, they realize that he’s the guy who decapitated their lord back when he was kogi kaishakunin, and decide that they want revenge. They lure Daigoro away with the sound of the drum that candy salesmen use, which was a fascinating reveal, and then attack Ogami. He dispatches them easily.

“Executioner’s Hill” had one moment that stood out to me. When Ogami realizes that Daigoro is being kidnapped, he rushes after him. Once he catches up to the gang, and they threaten Daigoro, Ogami simply tells them to kill his son. All that will remain are corpses in the sand. The Zodiac Gang call him out on this, since meifumado is supposed to be emotionless and hard. Why did he show concern for his son?

lw-c-05-01Ogami explains that he was simply following natural law. It is the nature of man to avoid danger and death. However, once you are in the midst of it, the only sensible thing to do is embrace it and approach the situation with a clear mind. I thought this was the best part of the story, as it explained something that genuinely needed an explanation.

“Black Wind” was my favorite of the book, for the exact same reason I liked volume 4 so much. It dealt with Daigoro more than Ogami, and in doing so, revealed something about the life the father and son are leading. It opens with Ogami working in a rice paddy with the women of a village. Daigoro is not confused, exactly, but he looks at Ogami as a “new father,” as he’d never seen this side of Ogami before. He enjoys it very much, and for the first time, he wants to do what his father does. He never gave a thought to being an assassin, but this looks good. It makes him warm.


We’re treated to more of Daigoro throughout the story. He finally gets to pick with the women and his father, and he enjoys it. He eats dinner with some members of the village, and they’re all impressed at his poise and manners. He’s an exceptional child, and it shows. He smiles. And then, when men come to the village and threaten his father, the boy’s face turns empty again and shishogan sets in.

The revelation of why his father is doing the planting, which is considered beneath the status of even a ronin, is fascinating, as well. A young girl was killed by accident during the course of his quest, and her dying words were thoughts of her family and hometown. While doing the planting, Ogami buried strands of her hair with the rice. It was a surprisingly tender turn, and shows that Ogami still has some sense of decency.

“Decapitator Asaemon” is straightforward. The shogunate sends Asaemon, the third best swordsman in the land, to investigate and find out if Ogami has genuinely become an assassin. Retsudo interferes with their battle, and Asaemon dies. Nothing particularly special here, though it does set up Samurai Executioner, another Koike/Kojima production.

“The Guns of Sakai” is… something else. There’s a lot of talk about what it means to be a man, to innovate, and to be honorable in it. I really enjoyed it. It features an expert gunsmith, one of the subordinates of the five gunsmiths of Sakai, the official gunsmiths of the shogunate. He’s under inspection because he is creating new weapons without the permission of the shogunate.

Ogami catches up with him, and grants him one last request. He speaks to his apprentices of honor, of innovation, and of what the soul of a gun is. He curses the shogunate and the fact that guns went from being killing machines to expensive ornamental pieces of stagnated junk. Later, he reveals that he knows that they sold him out and kills them. Before Ogami kills him, he declares that Ogami should use this new weapon and keep the plans for a repeating gun.

That, of course, leads to this, when the five gunsmiths catch up to him:


And well, there it is. Volume 6 next week. I won’t be sick, so it should be up on time.

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Lone Wolf and Cub: The Bell Warden

June 14th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

The fourth volume of Lone Wolf & Cub, The Bell Warden, is excellent. I enjoyed it more than any other volume so far, in part because it got right into the things that I really enjoy about the series. Lone Wolf & Cub has a couple of major draws for me: the historical fiction aspect and the way Ogami’s quest affects Daigoro. The Bell Warden digs into both subjects, and is stronger for it. There may be a bit of buyer beware below, so, you know, be wary.

Parting Frost is the third of the four stories in this volume, and probably the best of all of them. Ogami only shows up toward the end, allowing the bulk of the tale to be all about Daigoro. It’s a very sad story, as it opens on Daigoro being left alone and wondering about his father. After he realizes that his father is late, he decides to go out and find him. If his father died in battle, so be it. Daigoro will simply die, as well.

What’s striking about the story is just how capable Daigoro is. He’s smart enough to know that no one will be inclined to help him, so he sets out on his own. He knows that his father goes to temples to pray after an assassination, despite walking the assassin’s road. He seeks out a number of them, before finally stopping at one, exhausted and hungry. He gives up and sits down under the stairs of one. The text doesn’t say it outright, but it’s clear that he’s prepared himself for death.


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Lone Wolf & Cub: The Flute of the Fallen Tiger

June 7th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

Lone Wolf and Cub volume 3: The Flute of the Fallen Tiger
Writer: Kazuo Koike
Artist: Goseki Kojima
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
ISBN: 1569715041
319 pages

All told, it took me about an hour to read Lone Wolf & Cub volume 3: The Flute of the Fallen Tiger. I was surprised when I realized it, but there are a lot of wordless pages in this volume. Koike backs off the scripting some and lets Kojima really work his storytelling and show off some solid swordfighting. It works out for the better, as this volume moves along much faster than the previous one, due in part to the variety of stories inside.

The Flute of the Fallen Tiger keeps up the 60 page story. This time, we get five stories, chapters fifteen through nineteen. In order, we’ve got “The Flute of the Fallen Tiger,” “Half Mat, One Mat, a Fistful of Rice,” “The White Path Between the Rivers,” “The Virgin and the Whore,” and “Close Quarters.” “Half Mat” is definitely my favorite of the five, though “Flute” is a great story, as well.

“Flute” is a story I recognize, since it is essentially the ending of Shogun AssassinShogun Assassin. I was surprised at how faithful the movie was to the book, since my understanding was that it was a hatchet job. I’ve uploaded the relevant portion of the film and the ending of the chapter for comparison’s sake. The sequence from the film is one of my favorite martial arts flick quotes, so it was definitely cool to see it in action.


The jewel of the book, for my money, is “Half Mat, One Mat, a Fistful of Rice.” The title is a reference to a philosophy that a character espouses during the story. He says that when you sit, you take up half a tatami mat. When you sleep, you take up a full mat. Finally, your stomach holds a mere fistful of rice. That, in essence, is what life means. Everything else is artifice, simply words that actually mean nothing.
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