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Archive for May, 2011

The Industry of Cool

Are we still allowed to like things? The immediate response might well be – were we ever? I don’t think the debate between the tragically hip and the understated squares is anything particularly new, and the anxious losers the debacle has produced have been railing against the norms of society for far longer than I’ve worn the banner, but I think there’s much to be said about the ugliness of our era.

Before we get started, I want to take a moment to herald the inspiration for this piece. A wonderful character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the 2000 film Almost Famous (a personal favorite of mine) who, as rock journalist Lester Bangs, portrays the beauty of the loser. I did a series not too long ago about outsider artists, and I think Bangs is one of them. But I take less interest in his career as a whole than the snippet represented by Hoffman within the film, where he serves as a mentor to the young journalist William Miller, played by Patrick Fugit. Bangs is brash in his dismissal of fads and movements, and consistently encourages William to remain protective of his genuine nature regarding music. That as a fan, a lover of music, he has to keep his pure voice from the danger of the hip, or momentary, that would try to sway him. I worry that we as youth, that the entire nation we’re cultivating, is obsessed with a superficial understanding of the world around us. As Bangs puts it, we’ve becomes an “Industry of cool”.

I’m a devotee of ugliness. I never really expected to be one, and certainly I’m attracted to a very particular kind of unsightly charm, but even that’s an anomaly in our culture. Sure, we’re obsessed with pretty things. We like to watch super-thin popstars combat irrelevant challenges, follow the children of third-rate hacks, even marvel at E-list celebrities who seem disturbingly unaware of their irrelevance to a larger culture outside of sanctimonious voyeurs. That’s not to forget the flip-side, where we afford religious devotion to people outside the mainstream of generally good taste, self-destructive figures, and people ordinarily ostracized from their communities for unsightly actions. America loves the grotesque, although the popularized version of the moment is a bloated and unseemly one.

Yet another facet of our current reaction to the world around is the rise of hipster culture. Now, I’ve been accused of being a hipster once or twice – but you’d think it would happen more often than it does. I like Kurosawa, listen to Royce Da 5’9”, and read Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I wear a lot of flannel. I love girls with glasses. But for whatever reason, the hipster culture never really picked me up. To that end, no culture ever really picked me up. As a kid I moved so much, and had such terrible social skills, that I was never adopted into any group or clique. I went through school with good grades, a genuine passion for learning, and was funny enough to avoid being picked on (at least partially). I missed the boat on the collective nature of hipster-ism (and of course, the coolness only works when others are there to observe it) to the degree that I missed the pretension and self-serving elitism inherent in that sub-culture entirely.

I think it’s also worth noting that I’m colorblind and legally blind. That might seem like a small detail, but I’m consistently surprised by how that facet of my life sprawls out into everything that I do. After a lot of consideration, I think my vision has a lot to do with why I never became a hipster. I wasn’t a very good dresser until my junior or senior year of high-school, and my lack of color vision meant that I couldn’t really coordinate colors or match clothing. And because I had poor distance vision I wasn’t terribly aware of the world around me. I ended up relatively living in my own, myopic, world where I was master of my own kooky interests. The large glasses I wore were prescription, unpopular at a time when all the kids were getting contacts as fast as they could. I was later offered the opportunity to get contacts, although I turned it down because I felt like glasses were more me. There wasn’t any irony in deliberately geek-ifying myself, it just felt right. That if people didn’t like me made up the way I felt right, they probably didn’t like me very much in the first place. That was an important decision for me.

Okay, cool. So I’m not a hipster and I’m not anything else, but why is that relevant in our culture today? Well, the hipster collective is made up of “outsiders”. Outsiders drawn together to the point where they resemble insiders, and as there’s strength in numbers, both groups are pretty developed wherever you go. Band kids, theatre kids, choir kids, individual sports, kids who have sex too early, kids who listen to the Arcade Fire, kids who hate those kids – and these groups are only solidified in college. With more kids who inevitably share your interest, the select group of things you’re allowed to like becomes both reinforced and increasingly narrow. Good teachers can combat this, as can an open-minded or diverse set of friends, but it’s no secret that your experience with anti-intellectualism in highschool and college is not unique.

Rather, our country seems to be at war with smart people. From gradeschool up, the smart are not only ostracized – but encouraged to be dispassionate. Hipster culture encourages a sort of masturbatory self-interest entirely antithetical to the idea of liking things for what they are. Some might cite the rise of nerd culture as a positive aspect of our developing culture, that having G4 as a network and a collection of super-hero movies in theaters is evidence we’re re-branding our definition of cool. It’s cool to dress up as Heath Ledger’s Joker now, but it’s not cool to talk about Batman: The Animated Series. And the sad truth is that the G4 network and TechTV started off amiably, only to become a watered down shadow of itself running Cops marathons. As much as our culture can pretend we’ve embraced the nerd, accepted people who don’t make pretenses about their personality, our image of the nerd is still The Big Bang Theory. Passion always plays second fiddle to an acceptable ideal, something the majority can latch onto to feel comfortable about their progressive attitude towards outsider culture.

And I’ve faced this in my personal life more than anywhere else. It’s great to be seen as a person rising within your field, and people respect the idea of writing papers on the concept of body-modification in Frankenstein, but nobody really wants to hear about it. If you try to excel in your classes or show a genuine interest in the material, the kids all hate you. While my own personal experience might seem biased, it’s become increasingly clear to me that a legitimate passion for literature doesn’t carry much credit with girls or your friends. Attempting to have conversations about magic realism or queer theory is tricky, and the minutiae of an interest is secondary to the fact you’re interested. Just like comic books and movies, we as a culture are interested in the most palatable version available. I’m not trying to be Holden Caulfield or Morrissey or Freaks and Geeks, it’s just a reality. We despise passion, while the best artists of this and any generation have been the most passionate people.

This idea is tackled beautifully in the Hermann Hesse novel Siddhartha and the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken”. While many herald the Frost poem as recommending that the only valid sentiment is that of the unknown (hence, listen to the music unlistened to), Frost is merely suggesting that different roads work for different people. That road makes all the difference to the speaker, but perhaps it wouldn’t for you. It’s a testament to the variety of human experience, as are the characters of Siddhartha, Vasudeva, and Govinda, who achieve enlightenment from very different walks of life. I understand Siddhartha’s wish to find his own sense of enlightenment in the same way I understand Govinda’s desire to follow the awe-inspiring Buddha, but I think we need to be careful in associating free-will with the self-aggrandizing hipster culture. I’m all for the multiplicity of experience in relation to spiritual growth and life experience, but that’s the secret – experience. You have to walk down a road, get into gambling debt, whatever. Open yourself up to a genuine experience that you don’t micromanage for the sake of play-acting for a collective.

The musician Drake has a great line in “Light Up” with Jay-Z that defines that very ideal:

“Cuz while all of my closest friends out partying
I’m just here making all the music that they party to”

Now, I’m dubious if Drake is the guy I want to hold up as the pinnacle of passionate work (I’ll take J Dilla any day of the week), but we’re establishing a trend where artists aren’t afraid to be recognized as uncool for their art. Heck, they’re often uncool until the mainstream decides otherwise. This is a common theme in rap, where producer Just Blaze notes in the Jay Electronica song “Act 1”:

“The reason I had kind of gotten, not necessarily discouraged, but just bored with hip-hop in general is, uhh, you know people don’t like to take risks, don’t like to try anything different. You know, in order to really make any kind of impact these days, not just sales-wise but just on the artistry, you know, you gotta be able to go to the left and try different things. Sometimes you’ll get killed for it and sometimes you’ll succeed.”

That going to the left requires a passion and commitment I see wholly missing from the “cooler-than-thou” midsts of the hipster generation. So obsessed with today, with loving something just until it flares up into popularity, there’s no sacrifice. There’s no genuine connection established with the art, work, or person, because the link between the two is inherently transitory. It’s only, as the entire film Little Miss Sunshine seems to suggest, possible to truly succeed when we embrace the reality of our dysfunction. The dance sequence of that film might seem a little overblown for the metaphor, but the reality is that dancing is pretty apt for the sort of self-effacement necessary to do away with hipster standards. You look uncool doing it, because we all do when it boils down to it, and that lack of care for perfectly crafted public image is a physical spark for the intellectual idea of emotional nudity. Even the image of hipster-dom, the fake glasses, scarves, purposefully ripped jeans, smacks of masquerade. It’s armor, or a costume, meant to ward off the potential for individual ugliness.

And in the case of the J Dilla “Still Shining” documentary found here, Dilla himself remarks that “everytime I call Pete [Rock], he’s in the basement!”. Being cool is a full-time job, and you better believe so is being the best in your field. The two don’t really mesh, and I think the sooner we can embrace whatever it is we want, the sooner we can actualize that goal. Embracing the power of that single-minded drive, rather than eschewing it in favor of a more socially acceptable standard, can be such a powerful motivator. As his friend and fellow producer Houseshoes notes, Dilla would often miss shows to work on his projects! Imagine doing that when you’re trying to build profile and maintain appearances. His personal ethic was so devoted to music, and as it seems able to put that ahead of image, he never lost that craftsmanship in his work.

We see the flip-side of this in the novel Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson and the Arthur Miller Play “Death of a Salesman”. While Willy Loman whole heartedly buys into the power-paradigm of popular culture (with disastrous and heart-breaking results), George Willard is able to self-actualize himself through the variety of experiences he shares with the residents of the town. The fanfare for his train-ride is limited, and governed by George’s willingness to ostracize himself in the name of self-definition. Both of these works fervently deconstruct the idea of a rapidly changing America, both suggest the power of the individual and the crushing nature of the collective. George’s flight is a brave decision, but not one popular in the momentary. Rather, in the way that humans grow and develop through earnest self-reflection, unvarnished by insular ideals.

I had my own remarkable experience to tie all this together when I performed Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” my senior year of highschool. I’ll never forget that extraordinary passage in his memoir:

“2. Earnest Is Better Than Hip: Earnest comes from the core, while hip ties to impress with the surface. Hip is short-term. Earnest is long-term.”

I love that idea so much. That Pausch, is his beautiful simplicity, could just live his life. And faced with imminent death, it was all he could do. A life of sincere growth and a confrontation with very real death stripped away the veneer of self-conscious doubt that plagues so many of us. As I stood in room after room delivering the message of an impassioned father, a brilliant teacher, and an inspiring nerd, I took away as much as I could from the way Mr. Pausch lived his life. I’m still trying to live up to that message, to learn and grow and thrive without the parachute of social approval.

This is a day and age that tears down those brave enough to make something. An age that has burned so many idols that it becomes difficult to know what we actually worship. William Miller knows what he likes, and he’s not afraid to express that interest. That extends to journalism, but it also unfurls into life. The people I really respect and adore are in many respects immutable, willing to help or to listen regardless of the circumstance. While Billy Crudup’s character Russell Hammond totally buys into his personal power (you may recall his most famous statement – “I am a Golden God!”), it’s William that is willing to stay with Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane as she nears death. Sincerity, despite the way it can affect your cool quotient, is such a rare and brief thing. And to anyone that thinks image is more important, that attitude forwards such ugly ideals about our human connection to one another. Somewhere along the line we’ve become so disingenuous as a generation, and our passion for anything has become a thing of eternal transition, of constantly looking for the next way to separate ourselves from the norm by interest, rather than ability or ethic.

Instead of becoming a nation of sharers, of people excited to cultivate as much interest in the things we love as possible, we’ve devolved into a nation of magpies. A pretty song isn’t ours anymore than a new television show or a great book, and I don’t think their creators would appreciate that self-serving attitude. At least I hope they wouldn’t, as all that says to me is that we’re concerned with what’s important today, instead of the timeless quality truly great art and relationships achieve. Hipsters have become the most bloated form of their own idealism, pushing the ethic of the momentary, intended to question grounded ideas regarding perspective and motivation, to such an extreme degree that it’s lost all sense of place, purpose, or continuity.

I’m not exonerating myself from those times I’ve tried to keep a single to myself, or got a little miffed when a buddy of mine glommed onto a television show, but a combination of things has transformed this desire. Chiefly, my embrace of the unpretentious – that same dorkiness Hoffman gave me pride in when he answered a phone call with the phrase “I’m always home. I’m uncool”. Indeed, I am. I’ve missed too many parties to write, too many weekends for speech, and spent so much time idealizing the lives of the cool and unphased. I get phased. Jesus, do I get phased. But the point where William connects to the fictional band Stillwater is through simple affection, passion without pretense. He remaks on a guitar sound, an album improvement, simple things that say so much about being a true fan. William wants to write about music not only to fill that odd void all writers have, but to communicate his love for music to others. Extrapolating this, then, a circular and self-serving attention to the things we like (music, books, etc.) becomes as immature as expecting romantic love to be solely self-gratifying. It all echoes out, and when examined from a distance reveals a remarkably shallow appreciation with disturbing alacrity.

So, like your own shit. Because it touches something intimate within you, and it’s ugly, and because you get so much more out of it when you do it for yourself than when you try to fit your round self into a square peg. And for goodness sake, don’t be afraid to share it! Because it’s not just yours, and as someone important once reminded me – you don’t lose power by extending it to others. You simply create an atmosphere where you, too, can be educated. And finally, because so many of the people you admire, whether they have the courage to admit it or not, were willing to risk personal ugliness to create transcendent beauty.

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Gateless isn’t recognized as a word… who knew?

The thirteenth story is the most peculiar of the book, and perhaps the most inherently Eastern. It begins with Itto deep, deep in meditation. Asking himself deeply personal questions regarding good and evil, he fights off wolves that he quickly realizes are drawn to his own bloodlust. He contemplates a way to overcome these feelings, to return to nothingness, before flashing back to a meal at the base of Ogami mountain where he was warned of the dangerous conditions, he soldiers on. Itto moves through what seems like every season until he reaches a pinnacle of zen, until he is finally able to walk out with sword in hand. Traveling to a distant temple, he goes about beheading the various Buddha surrounding him, returning himself to the moment where he was first challenged to kill the Buddha – priest Jikei.

The man is an ancient, gray-haired priest. Rousing supreme confidence in the people of Wakai han, the revered cleric commands much respect in the community. The castle warden of Wakai castle highers Lone Wolf and Cub to kill him, though, as he instills insurrection within the peasantry to revolt against the higher taxes. The castle would, ostensibly, prefer to give the peasants a break and do away with taxes as Jikei suggests – but cannot afford to lose political face by foregoing the money they owe to rice merchants. The challenge, then, is to kill a living Buddha.

And Itto does just that, although not initially. He attempts to kill the man, but is turned away when his death-lust is reflected with a sense of emptiness. Jikei explains that the desire to kill must be met with that same desire, or fear, to engage in combat. Shamed, Itto immediately moves toward his blade – suicide is the only punishment for a failed assassination. Jikei attempts to talk him out of his path in life, before ultimately advising him to attempt the Gateless Barrier, a technique to eliminate the self.

Having learned this on Wolf Mountain, Itto is finally prepared to fight emptiness with emptiness, and succeeds in killing Jikei Wajo. After a gruesome death, the peasants are prepared to tear Lone Wolf and Cub apart, but it is in fact the very people who hired him – the castle warden and his emissaries, who attempt to silence their pawn. They are killed, victims on the long and silent path of the assassin.

This is definitely a think-piece compared to some of the pulpier stories in this collection. It focuses on Buddhism, making it another very Eastern cultural aspect that might distance those unfamiliar with the precept discussed in the chapter. I won’t pretend to be any sort of expert, but I am familiar enough with it to recognize the idea that we must resume our own nature and not be drawn in by conception of the Buddha. Existing in nothingness, as I see it, means not giving into such hierarchy. The path must be a path towards the self, and not a foreseeable, and thus illusory, goal.

Pretty big stuff. But as I’ve stated, I believe each chapter matters in terms of illuminating the lessons and ideals of the father and son. Here, that lesson is that they must remain focused on the goal, steadfast in discipline, and not be swayed by the nature or pretension of the people they meet on their road. Besides that, this is a great artistic chapter. The second page of the chapter features an almost Jackson Pollack-esque painting, and the contorted Buddhas that Itto slashes to bits are truly macabre. The seasonal panels utilized when Itto is resting on the mountain are also way cool, as are the incredibly detailed fight-sequences near the end. I haven’t seen the movies, but my understanding is the films often end with gigantic sequences where Itto fights an entire army. This kind of looks like one of those, and the sheer scope is super cool.

Lastly, the disjointed narrative is in keeping with the stories of this collection, and the middle-beginning-end framework is quickly becoming the standard. The “we hired him, now we’ll kill him” is also becoming a frequent plot-device, but my hope is they’ll draw back on that one for at least a few stories. Overall, a different tone for this story with many of the same techniques. Good stuff.

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This one is kind of kooky, at least in comparison to the direction we’ve been going. It’s important to remember, though, that the books are as much about the Cub as the Wolf, and this chapter certainly reflects that.

Today is Daigoro’s day, and when a young girl gives him a kite, he’s bullied by some boys for stealing an item that isn’t even his. Fighting ensues, and Daigoro quickly turns the tide by grabbing a boy’s sword and cutting his arm. He’s restrained and taken to the house of the wounded boy – the son of a samurai.

Meanwhile, a young woman is selected as a household worker, and the boy is returned to the house. His name is Shinnosuke, and though his wound will heal, Daigoro is beaten and held captive by the family for his crime against the young master. Eventually the master of the house returns, and recognizes the peculiar nature of Daigoro’s sword strike. He is the han police officer of Koriyama, and decides to continue keeping Daigoro in an effort to get his father out of hiding.

We find Itto sick and near death, fighting off the horse and ox-headed demons in his mind in an effort to stay alive. Daigoro is also fighting for his life, near starvation, he is fed a small amount of food by O-Sue – the girl taken on by the family, who feels pity for his sad condition. She’s eventually found out for her kindness, punished, and Daigoro is used to lead the offficers to where Itto is hiding. Finally waking from sickness, Itto eliminates the initial soldiers of the han. The grandmother of the house, the han chief officer, and some of his men charge Itto in a desperate hope to eliminate him, but ultimately none of them are successful. With the young girl, the tragic O-Sue in tow, the father and son drift off into the blizzard.

This is a very particular kind of tale that will become prevalent in this series. Every chapter is meant to teach a lesson, or reinforce an ideal that pushes the father and son towards their ultimate confrontation. To that end, much of the education is for the Cub. In this particular story, we’re treated to an example of the unheard voices of Japan at that period – finding the beauty of a “tragic” position like that of an O-Sue (the girl is never given a proper name) and her connection to the outcast in Daigoro and Itto. To that end, Daigoro embodies the idea of the Samurai doing right, even when it’s not convenient. He can outfight (initially) much older man and turns the tables on his enemy by grabbing a sword. It’s amusing that Granny notes his defiance as a trait “of the lower classes” when the reality is that defiance (in the context of doing right, or following a sel-imposed moral code) is a samurai virtue. In that regard, Itto and Daigoro continue to embody the best of their dying culture.

On an artistic note, Kojima shows off his diversity by showing lots of different female faces in this episode. Not only that, but the darkly inked power of the battle between Itto and the demons of Meifumado is absolutely fearsome, as is the clever panel where in Daigoro’s eyes the people of the house morph into those seame demons. The snow at the end is a sweet touch, and the ending panel of a series of bodies covered in snow (ultimately blending into the nothingness of white, to be forgotten) is reminiscent of a Jeff Tweedy quotation from an interview he did in Uncut for a Wilco album, where he discussed the idea that people in snowy countries like Russia would sometimes disappear under mounds of snow and never return. HE claimed it was a beautiful metaphor for rebirth. Interesting then, to think of how this quest for revenge has reborn Itto and Daigoro as beasts of the human world, but how their peculiar quest marks them as bastions of a dying art.

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I’ve always really enjoyed this story – it’s got a lot of great elements to it!

Beginning with a winter theme, and a few crabs, Itto meets with a man in the hull of a grounded ship. Offered a thousand ryo for some rare swords, the challenge is immediately set extra-high. With a map and challenge in mind, Itto serves as the executioner for a man compromising for the best of his people.

Itto wanders through the blizzard to find a small wind-tunnel with supplies for his son. He prepares to leave him for three days, and is confronted by four men working in league with the recently deceased leader. THe samurai share a few short greetings and prepare for battle. Quickly slaying the four warriors, and donning the disguise of a han member, Itto quickly establishes himself as the military counselor sent from Edo. Moving closer to Oyamada Castle, avalanches and class politics clash between warriors.

The men reveal that there has been dissension in the han between the han elder (the man Itto kills at the beginning of the story) and the han feudal lord. The followers of the feudal lord paint the deaths of the four men Itto killed as those of men attempting to inform the shogunate in Edo, and the han chief police officer laughs off the deaths of previous attempts by followers of the han elder to stop the feudal lord. The lord has now walled himself away in the hidden confines of Oyamada Castle. The men traverse the three gates, revealing the precarious position they’re in where their existence hangs in the balance of their ability to avoid the eyes of the shogunate.

A snowy flashback reveals that Oyamada Castle is being rebuilt by the retired feudal lord of Oyamada, and the current lord (his son) is afraid to oppose him. Not only that, but the han elder is now exploiting the situation to line his own pockets. Heading into the belly of the beast, Ogami has his work cut out for him. Moving towards the great hall, he presents his sword and flourishes it to eliminate the targets around him. In a flash, he kills the father, son, and advisor of the house – effectively ending the terrible corruption. On a final note, he preaches the importance of duty and honor to the men of Oyamada, internalizing the message in his own walk toward vengeance. Worried for the safety of his son, he attempts to move the fallen snow to find Daigoro in the wind-tunnel. Amazingly, he survived.

A pretty cool chapter, overall. A great message combined with the historical importance of Takeda Shingen creates a cool history lesson and an interesting moral message. There’s also the beauty of the snow splashed across the pages of the story, itself a feat of Kojima’s masterful talent. The avalanches at the middle and end of the story, as well as the spooky setting of the beginning, creates beautiful atmosphere. Another awesome part is just the steps for Itto to make it to the palace, the disguises and intrigue, even if the end result is a pretty sweet and simple ending inside the palace. We get an early mention of mefumado, and the horse-head, ox-head gods which will soon become viable characters. Overall, a really great chapter that encapsulates some of the cooler shifts in the early storytelling of the series. Great job guys!

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Volume two – so exciting!

With fewer stories and longer tales, things begin to move into a direction which Koike and Kojima will become accustomed to. That said, they’ll continue to find interesting and fun ways to challenge the norms of their own storytelling.

This particular story takes place in Fukuyama Han, and begins almost wordlessly with Itto being lead into prison. Daigoro is left with a nameless young woman, and we’re offered a flashback as to how Itto was captured. Stripped down, he’s placed into a fearsome dungeon of criminals and bandits. Warned by guards of “The Harvest”, things seem ominous and oppressive in the prison atmosphere. Refusing to talk to other prisoners, the men of the prison band together and decide to name Itto as the one to be harvested (a tradition where a man is sacrificed when prisons become too crowded). They beat him, kick him, and it is only after extreme abuse that Itto grabs a post and begins fighting back. Initially with fists, then making wooden swords and killing most of the men in his cell.

As the prison guards arrive, Itto is taken to death-row to pay for his murders. Rooming with a much smaller man, he recalls the events which lead him to the job. A woman, scarred by an arsonist named Amaneko Shinsuke (“Red Cat”), seeks his personal death before he is killed on death-row. As it turns out, her father was the warden of the prison and was forced to let prisoners go when Shinsuke set a fire in the prison. The prisoners were meant to return, but Shinsuke and a few others did not, leading her father to kill himself in shame. Found again, and waiting to die, the woman pays handsomely to see the arsonist killed. She is now the wife of the prison warden, Tatewaki, though there is little love between them.

Flashing forward to the prison, Red Cat discusses the current situation, and relates that the tools of his previous fire were provided for him, and that many of the prisoners were slain on their escape from the burning prison. He provides Red Cat with tools, and the man gets to work setting his grand fire. Tatewaki charges the room as the blaze gains strength, and is confronted by Itto over the nature of his crimes. Realizing Tatewaki’s deed, Red Cat is slain by the prison warden, only to be toppled by Itto himself. As the prison is engulfed in flames, Itto escapes into the night.

This chapter is really very in-tune with the sort the series will produce from this point on. There’s a two or three tier story, interesting use of narrative device, and a pulpy sense of discontent. First, I’d like to point out that it seems to me like this story is connected to The Eighth, as the bridge referenced in this story is nearly identical, the prostitute in that story is also a prostitute in this one (with the same kimono), and the closing words (“Wait!) are referenced in both stories. It’s so hard to confirm any of that since there isn’t a lot of online research, but those curious connections are part of the reason I enjoy doing these.

Also, nifty narrative stuff. The sequencing in and out of the arrest, utilizing framed dialogue to give the audience a sense of scope and progression, works really well. As does the mid-way flash-back, although The Ninth also used this technique for book-ending. Finally, it’s just nifty the way everything is tied up. The underlying aspect of the new warden’s evil and conniving nature isn’t super drawn-out, but that really adds to the feel of tension and scheming.

This is definitely an art-driven tale. The flames and pouring smoke make for a lot of heavy inking, and it really looks good. Besides that, there’s lots of small flourishes. The big panel of Itto early on is gorgeous, as is the creepy flashback sequence of Itto’s arrest. The prison sequences are pretty cool, and the barred frame of Itto after the initial murders is very striking. Not only that, but perspective-bending picture of Red Cat is really cool, and seems more like some of the stuff I’ve seen Kazuo Umezu do in his work from that same period. Lastly, the darkness and water effects of the second flashback of the warden were a really neat way to tell the story with limited visuals.

All in all, a pretty great chapter. The cloistered feel of brick and city makes it feel more like the companion piece to Lone Wolf and Cub, Samurai Executioner. This is really a good direction for the stories to be heading, and I’m excited to see what other nifty techniques and flourishes the two put in their future chapters for the dedicated reader. Like short stories, or television, these artists really had to find ways to keep things exciting for audiences who were used to conventional stories. In that regard, I couldn’t be more excited to explore them further.

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And we’re done with Vol. One! How exciting.

The final chapter of the book acts as a nifty flashback to set up the claims and ideals of the series for the following volumes. A falling ball transports Itto back to a central moment in his life, and paints him as a man on the brink of destruction. Dressed in traditional death garb, he presents his Cub with a decision – death or life. Asking him to follow into the road of revenge and demon-hood, or a pleasant afterlife with a mother we gather has already passed on. The boy chooses life with his father, encapsulating the story we have since followed.

However, before the two can being their road to meifumado, they must firs t escape from the jaws of the Yagyu clan. While we’re familiar with the policeman Kuchiki Jonai from story #3, this is the first window we get into the assassins of the Yagyu, and the mention of the spy network of Kurokawa. Itto quickly dispatches of the men sent to detain him, and is confronted by the leader of the Yagyu clan who appears as a fearsome combination of gruff and beard. Hoping to slay the Ogami clan in one fell swoop, Yagyu arranges a duel to effectively end the revolt before it gains traction. If Itto wins, though, he’s allowed to traverse anywhere in Japan without the fear of being chased by the Yagyu clan.

So, set by a majestic sun-set and a climactic final duel between the two Ogami and Kurato, Yagyu’s son, Itto fights for his life. He doesn’t fight alone though, and as crows fly he slips a mirror onto Daigoro’s head and blinds Kurato just long enough to make the killing stroke. The sun morphs back into a falling ball, and Itto’s reflective moment is broken. The book begins, the book ends.

Part of what is cool about a more in-depth reading of the series is the small connections I pick up on the second time around. As I noted in the last review, learning that the Ogami clan is the shogun’s executioners means a lot more once you get the context of this story. But understanding that most of the stories have been vignettes gives the last two a little extra kick. Not only that, but certain techniques become more recognizable through these chapters. The crows make another appearance, and so far Koike and Kojima have adhered very closely to the three-panel closing technique. It’s also noteworthy that Itto chastises the soldiers in his house for their “feeble arms”. That attitude of sloth amongst the shogunate will continue throughout the series, and Itto and Daigoro will make a strong case for the continual need to train oneself to avoid the temptation of spiritual or physical complacency.

Perhaps the most interesting note is a small one made by Koike as Kojima illustrates the sharp divide between Itto and the head of the Yagyu clan. He mentions that he is taking an approach to historical events – the dissolution of the Ogami Clan, then the Yagyu clan, and ultimately the fall of the Shogunate. This places the work on the cusp of a changing period in history, and adds an element of historicism and speculation to the work of the series. He mentions that LW&C is “one answer to the mystery”. Surely, there’s greatness in making such a bold declaration an answer. Reason enough, then, to keep reading.

Hope you’ve enjoyed the completion of the first volume of the series! The stories get a little longer, so it’ll be easier to do more volumes. It’s been a lot of fun doing closer reads of these, and if you’re considering tracking down the series – do it! It’s from a period far enough from modern manga that it won’t feel factory produced, and from a great artistic team who were weaving incredible stories even at the start of their storied career together.

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A whole 58 pages! Golly, now we’re finally cooking with gas.

The eighth story in the first collection of LW&C is the longest, and perhaps one of the most revealing. It begins with smoke billowing out of a long bridge (the same one from chapter seven?) at a hot spring/spa. On the bridge the father and son spy a man, beaten and bloody. He utters a few curse words and falls into the bubbling hot-water below… a single hand snaking up from the boiling stew. Clearly, things are going to get extreme. And as the two wander into the attached village, they’re confronted by dangerous and filthy bandits. Roping Ogami into their dangerous plot, we’re introduced to the town only to find it resembles the starving towns of the past chapter. Everything is quiet, save the brutal rape of a village girl.

After a telling test of skill, Ogami is placed in a holding cell with several other odd folks who visited the springs at the wrong time. A priest, a samurai, a thief, and even a merchant are all gathered together discussing their possible fates. A samurai bursts in, and unable to get the prostitute to cooperate, requests that Ogami and the woman sleep together for the amusement of the bandits. One of the men slowly realizes there is more to the ronin, who heads down to the hotsprings with the young prostitute and his son. As they share details of their lives, Itto realizes this woman knows his identity and has been chasing Lone Wolf and Cub for some time.

Meanwhile, the head of the criminals has figured out an important detail about Itto – he used to be the executioner for the Shogun. As Itto tries to leave the bandit-king encourages his peaceful retreat, but lets it slip that he knows who Itto is. In a massive bloodbath, Itto ends the lives of the dangerous criminals and secures his identity. To the call of his young female companion, the father and son leave by the very same bridge they entered.

Stylistically, there’s a lot in this chapter. The hand bubbling from the deep is very graphic, and in-line with the horrific manga style that people like Junji Ito would perfect later on. Also, the sex sequence utilizes light in very interesting fashion and manages to make some insightful commentary on the nature of self-sacrifice. While not the most interesting chapter in terms of bad-guy development, there’s a great moment where one of the characters notes that the criminals might have been samurai themselves at one point. This establishes, or begins to, the changing times and how they have eroded a sense of samurai conduct. Finally, the usage of crows near the end of the story is very mood-appropriate and desolate.

The most interesting thing here, though, is learning the true identity of the Wolf. While some details have hinted at a more developed past – sword-strokes, knowledge of the shogunate, choice of sword, and attention to bushido rules – this is the first we’ve heard of his work as an executioner. More importantly, it sets up the long-form storytelling of the entire series as well as the following chapter.

While not the most electrifying selection in the work, there’s much to be said for the movement of plot and the development of what might initially appear to be a series of vignettes about the samurai period. Here, with a combination of the violence, lust, and shifting eras of the best works in the samurai genre – we’re getting a taste of some of the best LW&C has to offer.

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