Lone Wolf & Cub (Manga)

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There are many anime and manga that can rightly be considered classics for one reason or another. Of these, only a few can surpass this status and truly be considered masterpieces in the purest form (and when I say a few, I mean exactly that). Supreme amongst these titles is a manga that is considered the single most influential piece of literature (and I do not use that word lightly), to come from Japan during the 20th Century.

That manga is Lone Wolf and Cub.

The creation of writer Koike Kazuo and artist Kojima Goseki, the story tells of Ogami Itto, the Kogi Kaishakunin (Shogun’s Executioner), during the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate. He returns home shortly after the birth of his son, Daigoro, to find his wife and retainers brutally murdered, and himself suddenly named as a traitor who is expected to commit seppuku. Instead, he gives his 1 year old son, the only survivor of the attack, the choice between a ball and a sword. Should his son choose the ball, then he will be sent to his mother’s side. Should he choose the sword however, then he will join his father on the road of blood and vengeance, of slaughter and heartless cruelty.

Thus begins the legend of Lone Wolf and Cub.

To say that the story is breathtaking would be an understatement. There are very few words that can truly convey the depth of the individual tales, or the depth of one’s emotions as you join Ogami and Daigoro on the road to meifumado (the buddhist hell). This is a work that will evoke almost every emotion you’d care to name, from righteous fury to heartwrenching sorrow, from earnest hope to blind hatred. The complexity and detail of the plot reveals a level of sophistication that many have tried to copy over the decades since its release, but none have managed to better. The episodic format of the series allows the reader a greater degree of accesibility to the story, whilst losing nothing in terms of character development. If anything, the format actually enhances the various roles, with a number of characters being far more “real” in just one appearance than many lead characters in other stories.

The artwork of Kojima Goseki is nothing short of exquisite. The style adopted throughout the series has a certain gritty realism to it, whilst retaining an expressionist form reminiscent of traditional Japanese art. Kojima’s simple yet evocative style allows for a greater degree of expression than can normally be found in manga, with the characters themselves retaining a feeling of reality. The quality of the artwork, together with Koike’s gripping storyline, allows for a suspension of disbelief that is difficult to match by any other series.

The characters themselves are wonderful in their uniqueness, style and personality. Ogami is a truly complex and many layered character. An assasin with a strong sense of nobility, a “demon” who is a loving father and husband, a symbol of hope for some, terror incarnate to many. Daigoro, on the other hand, is how one would expect a child to be, innocent, playful, and with very few cares in the world. One of the most wonderful things about the series is the how it addresses the bond between father and son, and in many stories Ogami bets his life on the strength of this bond. In a very real sense, he is trusting his 3 year old child to “watch his back”, and this leads to some truly astounding development between the two, especially at the end of the series, with it’s truly awe-inspiring climax.

There are many other characters who appear throughout the series, but the majority will only appear in one story or another. However, this does not impact on their level of realism, as many of the characters with only one appearance possess an enormous amount of depth from the start.

In the case of Lone Wolf and Cub, enjoyment is purely a specualtive term. The level of realism in the series is breathtaking, and the various action sequences will often leave you speechless, with the most exhilerating being the 178 panel sequence (you’ll know it when you read it) – possibly the longest fight ever portrayed in manga. The scope of the series is of epic proportions, with each panel searing white-hot across one’s mind, and unlike many other long running series, this never gets old or stale. I first read this back in 1989, and 20 years later I still get chills whenever I pick it up again. This is a tale that you will find yourself re-reading for years to come.

This masterwork of the storyteller’s art has had an incredible and lasting influence both inside and outside of Japan. As well as spawning 7 movies and various TV movies, the series has also been adapted into two TV series and four plays. In terms manga and anime, one need look no further than Rurouni Kenshin, Hokuto no Ken, Black Jack, Vampire Hunter D, Mushishi, etc. In addition to this, the influence on Western media has been just as great. Comics and novels such as Sin City, Cable, The Road, Ronin, Road to Perdition and Waylander all pay homage to the series, with additional references being found everywhere from Final Fantasy and Samurai Jack, to Usagi Yojimbo and Kill Bill.

Lone Wolf and Cub is a work that has truly crossed the boundary between popular media and true literature. The style, pace, artwork and characterization throughout the series are the benchmarks by which many mangaka set their standards. The global popularity and influence of the series crosses the boundaries of age and gender, with many fans of the series being uninterested in other manga and anime.

Lone Wolf and Cub is, by any measure, a true masterpiece. Even now, as I close off this review, I still feel I haven’t done it justice.

Yes, it is that good.

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