Lone Wolf and Cub: The Assassin’s Road

May 17th, 2009 by | Tags: , ,

Lone Wolf and Cub volume 1: The Assassin’s Road
Writer: Kazuo Koike
Artist: Goseki Kojima
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
ISBN: 1569715025
296 pages

Before I get into talking about the book, I want to take a moment and compliment the translation team for Lone Wolf & Cub. Dana Lewis is credited with “translation,” and a brief google search reveals that Lewis is/was a part of Studio Proteus, one of the main forces that helped bring manga into the mainstream here in the States.

The translation is an adaptation, rather than a word-for-word find/replace job. It takes into account that certain things simply can’t be translated into English or American culture, and adjusts accordingly. Specific terms are often left in their original Japanese, and a combination of context and a solid glossary at the back help to explain what’s going on. There are also a few moments of re-contextualization in the text. One chapter ends with a woman looking on at Ogami and Daigoro as they cross a river. She says, “A baby carriage… on the river Sanzu.” The Sanzu River means nothing to most American readers, but the title of the chapter, “Baby Cart on the River Styx” provides a context clue. While the river Styx isn’t 100% the same as the river Sanzu, the basic idea is the same. The father and son are both caught on the path of the doomed and the dead. It’s an idea that’s repeated fairly often throughout the book, both from Ogami’s mouth and those of the people he encounters.

I knew many of the broad strokes going in due to a passing interest in Japanese history. Iga and Koga ninja, the Yagyu clan, Tokugawa shogunate, and a fistful of other terms will be familiar to anyone who has spent any amount of time partaking in anything that involves samurai or ninjas, from history books to manga to anime.

Japanese history tends to pop up everywhere in their pop culture. Amakusa Shiro is a popular villain in anime and video games, most notably Samurai Shodown. Yagyu Jubei has been presented more than once as the samurai equivalent of Marvel’s Nick Fury, from the eyepatch down to the war hero status and career as a spy. I don’t know that American culture can really compare. I’ve seen very little popular fiction starring George Washington or Benjamin Franklin, and I don’t think any of it has resulted in the same penetration that Japanese historical figures have. It’s fascinating.

Lone Wolf and Cub: The Assassin’s Road contains nine stories. “Son for Hire, Sword for Hire,” “A Father Knows His Child’s Heart, as Only a Child Can Know His Father’s,” From North to South, From West to East,” “Baby Cart on the River Styx,” “Suio School Zanbato,” “Waiting for the Rains,” “Eight Gates of Deceit,” “Wings to the Birds, Fangs to the Beast,” and “The Assassin’s Road” make up just a hair under 300 pages of samurai action.

lone-wolf-cub-v01-c001-038Most of the stories have the same basic structure. Sometimes Ogami and son wander into the local area, sometimes they are hired, and sometimes we pick the story up mid-contract. By the end of the story, all who drew on him are dead, Ogami has said something almost insufferably smug about swordplay, life, or their situation, and then he walks away while everyone else looks on in awe.

Itto and Daigoro aren’t on the run exactly, though they’re definitely fugitive. They travel Japan as mercenaries, going from village to village and doing jobs for money. What I hadn’t realized is that their banner actually reads “Son for Hire, Sword for Hire.” Sure enough, Daigoro is hired out to a nursing mother in a story in this volume. Ogami Itto’s Suio-ryu, a sword style that is more flexible than I expected, combining traditional swordplay with a variety of other bladed weapons.

lone-wolf-cub-v01-c008-264It’s striking how Ogami is portrayed as being not only always right, but also invincible. He murders warriors by the dozen and rarely takes more than a flesh wound. He’s skilled in a variety of weaponry, impossibly fast, and a master tactician. He displays a nearly complete knowledge Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (full text here), and employs it in an amazingly smug manner.

Daigoro is similarly gifted. He’s only three, but he follows his father’s orders exactly, and often acts in his favor without even being told. He doesn’t actually fight in this volume, but it’s clear that he knows what’s going on. In fact, it’s a little creepy how he’ll smile after his father has cut down an enemy.

The art is interesting. The panel layout is surprisingly simple. There is none of the insane angles or off-kilter layouts that are popular in both modern manga and ’90s comics on. Goseki Kojima sticks to a pretty traditional way of organizing panels, breaking borders only rarely. There is the occasional spread that goes across the top of two pages, but even those have normal panels on the bottom portion of the page.


Lone Wolf is a very easy comic to read because of this. While some panels are murky or composed almost entirely of action lines, they still make sense when placed in context. It isn’t the action that’s important so much as the movement or emotion that action incites.

lone-wolf-cub-v01-c008-253One last note on the art– Ogami and all of the male characters in the book, save for Daigoro, are drawn with tons of detail and grittiness. They look dirty and well-weathered. However, almost all of the female characters are drawn with very soft lines, and very few of them, at that.

We pick up the story of Lone Wolf & Cub while it’s already in progress. Ogami and his son already have a reputation across the land, and never seem at a loss for money or food. They’re give off a hard sense of melancholy, but seem to enjoy each other’s company. Daigoro is especially happy, often laughing or imitating things that he sees.

The bulk of the book is dedicated to setting the stage and convincing us of Ogami’s reputation. In “Son for Hire, Sword for Hire,” Ogami allows himself to be caught just so that he can get close enough to complete his task. After he and his son are captured, he kills almost a dozen skilled swordsmen and walks away scot-free while the men who hired him look on in pure fear and respect at his intelligence.

There are a few odd turns to be found here, most of them contained in “Wings to the Birds, Fangs to the Beast.” It’s the lovely story of a father and son trip to the hot springs, and it goes horribly wrong. The town that runs the hot springs has been taken over by bandits, and they imprison Itto and Daigoro with the other travelers who have come. The villagers are sequestered elsewhere.

While being escorted into the village and toward imprisonment, Ogami witnesses a rape and murder. Rather than interceding, as you’d expect a heroic figure to do, he covers his son’s eyes while the bandits mock him. Later, he’s stuck in a house with the other travelers, and one of the bandits decides that Ogami insulted him. He challenges him to a duel, but Ogami silently refuses. Kushimaki O-sen, “the prostitute and casual thief,” speaks up in his honor.

lone-wolf-cub-v01-c008-250In exchange for not killing Ogami, he decides that Ogami is going to have to… have sex with O-sen while he watches. O-sen refuses, and the bandit gets ready to kill her. Rather than have her lose her life, Ogami decides to sleep with her and save her life. After, when someone else is mocking Ogami, O-sen asks him, “When you’re shaking and peeing in your pants that you’re going to die, could you satisfy a woman, mm?!” And I mean, what? She goes from disgusted to disgustingly grateful that he lowered himself to help her out.

The final story in the book is the tale of how Ogami came to shame. It’s clear that Ogami’s wife died and that he went against the shogun at some point, but the hard details are left out. What’s important is that Daigoro made the choice to travel with his father, his father made the choice to leave the path of the samurai to regain his lost honor. The Yagyu clan murdered his wife, apparently, and he needs to both clear his name and handle that affront.


The first volume does an interesting job of setting up the story and providing a hook. Eight stories to show that Ogami Itto and Daigoro are awesome, and then one more to bring you back in. I read the majority of it in one sitting, with maybe half a read-through more while writing this. It’s easy going and consistently interesting, though Ogami is essentially a cipher. He exists to fight, quote war scripture, and risk his son’s life.

From what I remember of the second volume, there is a story that is all about Daigoro. It’ll be interesting to see how Koike and Kojima deal with Daigoro on his own, as his father overshadows him just by virtue of being slightly more verbal and much more violent. While Lone Wolf and Cub is primarily adventure comics for grown-ups, I don’t think that Koike will simply let him flounder in the background.

Next week, Lone Wolf and Cub volume 2: The Gateless Barrier.

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7 comments to “Lone Wolf and Cub: The Assassin’s Road”

  1. Don’t want to steal your thunder — this is a fine piece of reading — but my buddy Mike Wenthe has also done a complete review / write-up on Lone Wolf and Cub, over at our blog.

  2. My only problem with Dark Horse’s release of Lone Wolf and Cub is the fact that the pages are flipped (or at lest they are in my copies) and no self respecting swordsmen in Japan would be left handed as long as they had a right arm intact.

  3. […] the Winds (Slightly Biased Manga) Julie on vol. 8 of Kurohime (Manga Maniac Cafe) David Brothers on vol. 1 of Lone Wolf and Cub: The Assassin’s Road (4thletter) Lissa Pattillo on Manhattan Love Story (Kuriousity) Connie on Manic Love (Slightly […]

  4. I bought every volume of Lone Wolf and cub over the course of a couple of years about 6 or 7 years ago. It was money well spent.

    It also represents the only Japanese comics I own.

  5. A.o.D.: As an Akuma fan, you should pick up Ryu Final. I think you’d dig it.

  6. I’ve read it many years ago (downloads whee!)

    It didn’t do much for me.

  7. I bought all twenty-eight volumes of Lone wolf & Cub upon release over the course of the two and a half years that Dark Horse took to publish them all. Never had a single moment of disappointment, even with the flipped artwork. In my opinion, there is no better epic story of love, honor, and revenge published anywhere.

    Also really enjoyed Koike and Kojima’s Samurai Executioner which Dark Horse also released. I just wish Dark Horse would release Koike and Kojima’s short manga “Bohachi Bushido: Code of the Forgotten Eight”