Archive for December, 2010

Five deep – it’s nice to still be here!

The LW&C chapters begin (and sometimes end) with a panel that begins (or encapsulates) the story as a whole. The panel for the fifth, that of a peeing Daigoro, does the trick by a mile.

Beginning with that surprising image, we quickly transition into the heart of the story. That same urine produced by Daigoro lands on the hand of a mysterious, eye-patch bearing samurai. Outraged, his retainers immediately seek to discipline the boy. Itto appears and takes responsibility for the child, but refuses to apologize for what he sees as human nature.

The man with the eyepatch turns out to be Bessho Mondo, leader of armies and master of fencing for the Mito han. Bessho, enraged by what he perceives as the dishonor Daigoro has committed,  challenges Itto to the sort of honorable duel we’re familiar with from the end of the second and third stories of the series.

Before the duel, Itto ensures his future safety by seeking a sort of peace treaty so that if he wins in the middle of the Mito han he will be able to live peacefully. The two duel, and as Itto adopts a curious pose he is able to defeat Bessho who remarks in his final breath “Suio-ryu zanbato…?!”

Sweeping off, the scene shifts to a hillside where an old man has been watching the duel. The man explains to an aid that Bessho had advocated the Imperial court in Kyoto over the Shogunate in Edo. Knowing the penalty for disobeying Edo would be harsh, and that if he arrested Bessho the young samurai who followed him would revolt, he elected to hire the Wolf and Cub to have him silenced. Shedding genuine tears for the loss of his old friend the man is revealed to be a Mito han elder, acknowleding that there is nothing he can do to stop Itto. The Wolf has used the Sun Tzu art of infiltrating an enemy camp and strengthening himself with a just cause (here his peace treaty).

The scene shifts again, only this time to the group of samurai who had accompanied Bessho earlier. Plotting over his dead body, the group elects to challenge Itto on horse back as a way of overcoming his short dotanuki sword. As the four men charge Itto in a field, the battle is set, and three of the men prepare to attack the assassin on horseback. Standing strong with his spear, Itto sweeps the feet of the horses and quickly topples them. And, with a swift stroke of his spear kills the three men. One samurai is left to watch, contemplating the nature of the zanbato/horse-cutting stroke. As he will so often do throughout the series, Itto fades with Daigoro into the distance.

Noteworthy aspects of the story primarily revolve around concepts of the samurai. Bessho evokes “bushi” for instance, the morals of the warrior class. Sun-Tzu is revisited here, as is one of the unique aspects of having a child. Daigoro must pee, and the possibility of this action disgracing a high-ranking samurai makes for an interesting impetus as well as a gateway into class politics. The emotions of the Mito elder who is forced to eliminate his own ally for the good of his han are both touching and affecting. Finally, the concept of honor is both heartened by the devotion of the men to their leader and completely nullified by their inability to respect his death. Thus, we see the transitory nature of honor (both for these men, and the dual leadership of Kyoto/Edo represented through the elder and Bessho) is expressed as something in migration.

Artistically, nice moments exist when Bessho is obscured by urine (sound funny – looks great), the forest where Bessho and Itto duel looks very life-like, and there’s nice detail on Bessho’s eye-patch. The wind-swept road which Itto and Daigoro attempt to leave the Mito han is appropriately distant and the horses and birds (as always) look beautiful. The points on the spears, with their tiny glinting lights, are eye-catchingly detailed. and the final scene of a human face – the young samurai who witnesses Itto slaughtering his friends – are almost achingly human… the face of a young man staring down a demon.

Each story thus far has ended with the Ogami fading into the distance of their road. One might call this a bit overbearing, but it also creates an appropriate atmosphere for the story. The two are really like phantoms, caught between life and death, trying to find their way towards a goal we’re not yet aware of. Things like the three-frame ending may, at times, drag the series… but it’s something of a trade-mark. Much in the James Bond would always end up with his girl of the film at the very close, or Lupin the III stories would end with Lupin and co. having just missed the treasure. They’re episodic touches, and give the stories an interconnected feel.

That’s the fifth – hope you enjoyed! – A.R.


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Life, boredom, and a lack of personal ambition have a fantastic of way of slowing us down. Still. it’s a productive process to write in a new facet, and in that regard I soldier on. Feeling remotely on the right track, but mostly soldiering on in the dark.

The fourth tale begins with several ominous panels of an overcast Japanese sky. Itto and Daigoro soldier on down one of those dusky Japanese roads, suddenly prompted by a samurai for a strange request. She’s a woman, a mother, and is desperately in need of an infant to relieve the pain in her bosom. Stopping to take in their tale, Itto remarks at their sincere politeness and is informed they call themselves members of the House of Jizo. The woman, and the men she is traveling with, are collecting allies for a Yakuza war. Unwittingly, Itto wanders into the middle.

As the father and son walk the town with their patented sign declaring “Son for Hire, Sword for Hire”, they again attract attention. This time from Kishinoda, a local Daikan (representative) of the Iwaki way-station. Thus unfolds the meat of the story, in which the Ogami are hired to kill the forthcoming Daikan of Iwaki. The shogunate is re-structuring things, and the aforementioned Yakuza war is going to dovetail with the arrival of the new Daikan – providing the perfect cover for his murder. To top it off, Kishinoda killed the head of the Jizo clan (and his son) just to create the conflict. However, rather than running from the messy Mexican stand-off… he takes the job for 100 ryo.

Shifting quickly to the scene of the armies ready to fight, Itto appears and enters the battleground just as the new Daikan, Atobe, arrives. In a flash Itto strikes him and Kishinoda sends his men in to do cleanup. The men turn on Itto and, revealing the iron underbelly of the baby-cart the two have ridden in thus far, he utilizes the twin spears of the cart to create a swirling wheel of death. Atobe, who it is revealed hired him in the first place to eliminate the scheming Kishinoda, is horrified at the art of true assassin. Itto and Daigoro whisk off, sailing the river Sanzu on their baby-cart to the marvel of that same mother the two encountered as the story started.

From a critical perspective, the story plays the same narrative structure as the earlier stories in the collection. Politics, as ever, play a vital role in every interaction. Other important aspects of the changing samurai culture are present as well, Itto’s surprise at the honor and politeness of the Jizo clan, for instance. This rare detail to honor is again exemplified in the fact the Jizo clan is willing to go to war over the loss of their head – this in the same set of stories where Shogunate officials routinely hire wandering swordsmen to kill one another for political power.

The first several pages are drawn with a heavy gray gauze, a strange but ornate touch that will mark many of the chapters. A looming and oppressive sun, a flickering candle doused with a sword, even a simple dark-gray on black flashback add beautiful artistic touches. The simple tree on rice-paper background of the Daikan’s den and the concise snapping of a decorative fan to punctuate dialogue add cinematic touches to to a well-choreographed story.

The fourth adds a few decorative elements to the story and foreshadows a few in the process. Note that Daigoro recognizes some of the mannerisms of the Yakuza – how did that happen? Also, Itto refers to himself as “more than just some wandering ronin”, and we’re inclined to believe he ought to be. Here’s a man who knows Sun Tzu, studies the machinations of his clients, and utilizes methods less obvious than murder to “kill” his clients. Clearly, there’s more to the man than meets the eye. Allowing the mother of the Jizo clan to nurse Daigoro presents another interesting facet of the LW&C hook – that the Cub in question is always a factor. In fact, the very thing that saves Itto is the metal-bottom of the cart (and why is THAT there we must wonder…) the boy travels with.

The very element of crossing the River Styx, as the title states, is evocative of the very nature between life and death. Alan Ball, writer and director, mentions in the commentary for the pilot of Six Feet Under that death is something we all live with in the midst of life. In the season finale of season one Nate Fisher (the charming Peter Krause) will explain to a grieving Tracy Blair (who has just lost her aunt) that we experience death to make life important. The first chapter of LW&C also discusses the concept of “Shima” or the death-zone. Atobe may react with horror at the way Itto kills all of the men who work for Kishinoda, but the fact is that one who works so intimately with death is also in the midst of life. That for anyone to give themselves so fully to an art, here the art of killing (we can apply this in less extreme fashion), they must dwell fully in it. As death surround the father and son, so it also teaches them fully of the joy and sorrow of life. Most importantly, it binds them inexorably in a world without forgiveness or remorse.

That’s the fourth tale. Again, sometimes they’re tough to judge as they’re both so short and hard to read. Still, they present interesting themes and motifs in the larger context of the work. And as a gateway to a character, a life, and nation in change – they’re awfully fascinating.

You can expect the fifth before too long, and maybe a movie review or two before too long. I’m considering branching out…

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It’s holiday season around here. That’s always some form of exasperating and delightful. I’ve been spending more time with friends and my mom then I usually do at school, though, and I can’t be mad about that.

The third tale of LW&C continues the trend of making them shorter by a page. Here it’s 29, and we begin with some rumors regarding just what the wolf and cub are. These segue into a murky dock-side where Itto materializes to talk business with a nervous official. Initially hesitant, the attendant eventually reveals that the struggling Taimura han which he works for has discovered a gold-mine (literally) and while they would normally be required to inform the shogun – to save their land they’ve elected not to report it.

However, the Shogun has been informed and the man who had formerly aided the han (a land inspector named Wakai) is now being called in to inspect the land. The han had it destroyed, but for the safety of their land they seek to have Wakai silenced to protect themselves.

Itto receives his fee – 500 ryo, and a sword as downpayment. Suddenly, a wounded man enters the building and announces that soldiers of the Shogun’s secret inspectors have surrounded the house. With the challenge level mounting, Itto agrees to eliminate Wakai for the Taimura han.

Planning a way to strike the palanquin the soldiers are moving, Itto leaves Daigoro as a distraction and kills two of the metsuke (inspectors). Itto uses horses with bells tied to the ears to scatter the metsuke and rides on horseback to take Wakai’s son from the palanquin the men have been carrying. Having outfoxed the metsuke, he uses the stolen boy as a way of “killing” Wakai without harming him at all. Itto has little time to relish this, however, as Wakai quickly bites off his own tongue and dies.

The head of the yama-metsuke (special inspectors), Kuchiki Jonai, challenges Itto to a duel. In a series of quick flashes, he’s soundly defeated.

Some things that struck me: The opening black panels which start the episode are pretty evocative, and really explore the whole wolf-cub dynamic. There’s a series of panels where Itto’s face changes about three times – very strange. The horses and wolves look great – Kojima always did interesting work with animals. The discussion of Sun-Tzu was pretty interesting (I don’t know nearly enough about that guy) and the white panels of dueling were a cool contrast the opening black panels. Seeing Itto use Daigoro as a decoy again, although a bit concerning initially, is interesting as a continuing theme of the work. Finally, in terms of tracking Itto’s involvement with Edo (there’ll be ramifications for this chapter down the line) things deviate from the norm. He kills the head of the Shogun’s special inspectors – noteworthy on its own and a sign of things to come. Children are again used as bargaining chips, however the prominence Edo takes in the storyline gives off a different atmosphere than the previous two stories where Edo was distant and primarily represented by a single character.

That concludes our third story. As I progress, I may find some of these earlier stories lacking. They’re often complicated, and certainly suffer from some messy choreography or even storytelling. Still, they show a fascinating story in bloom. And if the third proves anything, it’s that things have the potential to get a lot deeper. – A. R.

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This one a day thing is working pretty well for me. Sleep late, watch movies, write tiny reviews – that’s Heaven for somebody.

Two things.

1. When I was about thirteen or fourteen there was a thing (there still are, but I don’t see them as much as I used to) called the “Pojo’s guide to Dragon Ball“.  I was pretty into Dragon Ball Z at the time, and to have a manual which laid out nearly everything there was to know about the show(s) was pretty powerful. I’ve never had much in the way of outside information regarding LW&C, and some of it I haven’t touched in years. I might make a few mistakes, or hypothesize some very silly theories regarding what the series is and wanted to achieve. Forgive me – I know not what I do. Thoughtful criticism by those who know more about the series (or have spotted my mistakes) is always appreciated.

2. I meant to mention after the first story just how small the print is! It almost assuredly got better over time. The art, too, seemed variously light and heavy. Perhaps that evened out over time – perhaps just my recollection. Either way, those little touches struck me immediately upon re-reading.

The second story, 30 pages altogether, begins innocuously with a samurai riding past a stream where the young Daigoro appears to be drowning. The samurai quickly dismounts from his horse and jumps in to save the boy. Meanwhile, we see Ogami Itto swimming towards the man and stabbing him beneath the surface of the water. Knife in mouth, Itto emerges from the water with son in hand.

The scene then shifts to a young woman named Lady O-Sen who is informed that the man by the stream, named Bazojutsu, was murdered. Sensing that her opponent Lady O-Kiku has hired a master swordsman, she dispatches her subordinate Geki to face the man. Not, however, before having passionate sex with him as a display of Geki’s loyalty to his mistress.

The other half of the story is displayed via a conversation between Ogami Itto and one of the attendants to Lady O-Kiku. As it plays out, the lord of Takai han took the beautiful and scheming Lady O-Sen as his wife. She bore him no children however, and so outside family (here Lady O-Kiku and the son she is pregnant with)  are to be named the successors to the Takai han fortune. Lady O-Sen seeks to have one of the Tokugawa heirs put in power by charming officials in Edo, and to grab power for herself. Ogami Itto is hired to kill Lady O-Sen as well as her retainers. 1,000 ryo in advance, and 100 for each branch (here, the retainers).  That number may be debatable, but I’d take that to be 1,200 ryo altogether.

All of this comes to head as Lady O-Kiku’s baby is being birthed. Lady O-Sen travels to the site and instructs her subordinates to wait until she has wished them well before killing the mother and baby. The baby, however, is still-born and the situation changes dramatically. Ogami kills Lady O-Sen in the internim and is challenged to a duel (the first of many in the series) by her retainer Geki.

The two fight, and in a surprisingly sparse number of panels Geki is defeated. His downfall having been that he relied too heavily on the nature of his furize pole and Itto took advantage of this to lock the extending chain around his scabbard and throw his sword to kill him. As Geki chastises Itto for using his son to kill him, Itto muses on the nature of his relationship with Daigoro. That they are, in fact, intertwined. A father and son united in both life and death.

These shorter stories certainly add a unique flavor to the LW&C series. And reading them with a bit of knowledge regarding what they’ll eventually turn into is really fascinating. With such a small space for storytelling, the crucial details of a story are often compacted into a few densely worded frames. Still, certain stylistic touches are already prevalent. The increasingly complex relationship between father and son becomes apparent, as does the gritty realism of the series. Sex enters the foray, and will become a frequent part of the stories to come. Likewise, this is the second story to feature political scheming around children, and the whims of elders will be another point of contention.

Some of the more impressive details of the chapter included the detailed underwater illustrations, the creepy noh-figures in Lady O-Sen’s room, the minor details in expressing Lady O-Sen’s character (she’s described as demonically beautiful, and Kojima’s small details such as a single frame of her lips only adds to this) and particularly a series of scenes where Lady O-Kiku’s caretaker swaddles a still-born baby. Even some messy choreography (and this will occasionally crop up given the antique nature of the art style) can’t hamper the more polished moments of the story.

Hinting at the surprising depth the series would unfold, the second tale offered much in the way of developing themes to look forward to. And hopefully we will!

More to come. Hope you’re enjoying reading them as much as I am writing them! – A.R.

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Comic-book aficionados will appreciate the distinctive Frank Miller & Lynn Varley covers for the beginning books of LW&C. Miller noted that the series “takes you to another time, and to a frightening, alien land, windswept and gray. Koike and Kojima tell their story masterfully and artfully, portraying a man, a boy, and a country on their journey into Hell.”

Volume 1, and the very first tale! Certainly, when I finally got up the courage to buy it (Darkhorse didn’t flip the book, as was the burgeoning tradition when I began reading them in… mid-2007?) the harsh and uncompromising art style made the series a dicy buy. The books themselves, at a steep $9.99, continually competed with the $7.95 price-tag Viz promoted everywhere. Oh, and the ambition! 28 volumes? My local Borders had 1-16 (missing 8 and 13, mind you – more on that later) and perhaps… 22, 25, 27, and 28.

But I bought it. And I’ve never regretted it for a moment. Beginning with the a short note to readers explaining some of the idiosyncrasies of the Japanese language, readers are launched head-first into the  Tokugawa Era of Japanese history and the steadily changing values of the time-period.

So onward – to “Son for Hire, Sword for Hire”.

Spanning only 31 pages, one of the interesting things about the first volume is how accurately it expresses a concept in formation. Kojima and Koike definitely have a story in mind, as evidenced by the ninth – “The Assassin’s Road”, but even four or five volumes in the comic will morph drastically from the style presented here.

Beginning with a frame of a flickering candle, Kojima quickly establishes a firm grasp on visual storytelling (think some of the more aesthetic touches of Sergio Leone, or in relation to something I’m watching at the moment Tom Fontana’s [as well as a host of others, including David Simon most prominently] Homicide: Life on the Street.) as a form of creating atmosphere. I won’t wax TOO poetic on his style, there are 27 more volumes and hundreds more stories, safe to say I was impressed from the first at his knack for allowing the audience to truly envision the dank and dusty hideaways his characters often inhabit.

Koike introduces a quick political veil which will stand for many of the stories to come. Variously political and personal, the lens for the very first story is Subito Kenmotsu (the han-elder, or advisor) of the Mibu han (feudal domains, sort of like provinces from my understanding) who is pressuring their ailing Daimyo (leader of the han – there’s lots of terminology here… but the learning-curve is well worth it in terms of cultural immersion) in an attempt to install a small child named Takemaru as the new Daimyo and play puppet-master. Kenmotsu is guarded by several master swordsman, and as the tale begins, a nameless (and faceless) man is being paid 500 gold pieces (a tidy sum, to be sure) to kill them.

The scene shifts to a mountainside where a group of swordsman spot the assassin (Ogami Itto) and, after some aerial acrobatics Itto is… captured? Clearly a talented swordsman, the assassin expresses a range of facial moments and some very canny techniques in saving himself, and the mere fact he travels with a baby gives the story an unnerving edge.

In the clutches of the han-elder, Itto quickly reveals his scheme to infiltrate their ranks and, using his son Daigoro as a means to free himself, kills Subito and his men. In a host of panels, including a double-sided scene of Itto’s whirling spears, the blood-bath is only stopped by the arrival of the Edo-karo (or han-advisor of Edo) who hired Ogami Itto in the first place to ensure power transferred properly.

As an assistant to the Edo-Karo wonders in the final frames of the story – What if he tells people what he did? Not addressed in this tale, the idea of leaving an assassin after the job was a pressing concern. As the elder recognizes, however, the man is far beyond their abilities. He whooshes off, as he so often will, into a distant sunset.

A short, pulpy introduction. Nevertheless, it delves into many of the concepts that will shape the series. The payment amount, aspects of the cart, Itto’s dedication to craft – all of these things exist in a premature form in this short episode. Of note is just how dynamic Kojima’s early portrayal of Itto is. Perhaps part of it is that he’s purposely disguising his ability for parts of the story, but it certainly feels as though the Ogami who laughs or smiles is far removed from the stoic loner we will later follow.

Regardless, a fitting entrance to the LW&C canon. And as we’ll explore in later chapters, a fitting introduction to an engrossing tale.

Expect another chapter soon! Happy readings. – A.R.

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There’s something real and tangible coming soon, I promise.

However, in the meantime, I thought it might be charming to discuss some of the various pieces of arts I’ve grown attached to over the years.

One of those – Lone Wolf and Cub by writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima – made great waves in my conception of storytelling, comic books, and certainly Japanese culture.

A small overview of the series (created in 1970) reveals a pretty interesting team. Kojima and Koike would work together again (on Samurai Executioner from 1972-1976 and Path of the Assassin from 1978 -1984) to particular critical acclaim. The two would craft a unique style combining intricate, often brutal artwork with a pulpy (and strikingly emotional) sense of storytelling. Often cinematic, the example illustrated below echoes the sort of non-verbal storytelling the duo excelled at.

All of this to say, I spent about two and a half years of my life collecting each of the 28 individual books of what became one of my favorite series. Modern manga (“modern”, that is) looked distinctly different than  the Darkhorse and Viz Signature series available at the time. Series such as this, Akira, Great Teacher Onizuka, Golgo 13, The Drifting Classroom, Monster, and the variety of recently published Osamu Tezuka works, I think there’s a terrific argument to be made for manga as a potent art-form.

So, intrepid readers, we’re going to be exploring that hypothesis! To follow – a chapter-by chapter write-up for Lone Wolf and Cub exploring thoughts, connections, and the unique aspects of being a devoted reader and fan. This’ll be my second read-through, and goodness knows what I’ll find!

It’ll be fairly sporadic (or perhaps pretty devoted, as I’m on break now) but I have plenty I want to put into the blog.

Some other ideas to be explored:

  • A write-up of a few of my favorite Homicide: Life on the Street episodes (one in particular)
  • Something on the works of Nick Drake (examining symbolism in his work, perhaps)
  • Pressing thoughts on some of the Episcopalian (and over-all) elements of Six Feet Under
  • How you should all read Junot Diaz

And that big surprise mentioned in the first sentence! It’s coming!

Ha, it’s a brave new world – A. R.

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