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Lone Wolf and Cub Vol. 1: The Assassin's Road

Written by Kazuo Koike, Art by Goseki Kojima

Publisher: Dark Horse Comics

Format: Softcover, 4x6, black and white, $9.95

Category: Adult Action/Adventure

Dewey: 741.5 KOI or FIC KOI

Subjects: Comic books, strips, etc.; Historical fiction; Feudal Japan: fiction

ISBN-13: 978-1-56971-502-4

Reviewed by: Kat Kan

Thirty-one years ago in Japan, writer Koike and artist Kojima began publishing Kosure Okami, an epic story of a masterless samurai named Ogami Itto and his young son Daigoro. First Publishing began to publish the manga (Japanese for "comic book") in an English translation, but never completed it. Now Dark Horse has undertaken a commitment to publish the entire 7,000-page saga.

In the first volume, The Assassin’s Road, Ogami is the shogun’s executioner, the kaikashunin, who becomes the target of the politically ambitious Yagyuu clan. They cause his dishonor and murder his wife, but instead of submitting to ritual suicide to restore his honor Ogami flees with his three-year-old son Daigoro. They wander the countryside, and Ogami takes occasional jobs of assassination for a fee of five hundred ryo (pieces of gold). It is a grim existence, full of fighting and death. But there are moments of peace: with a bereaved mother in "Baby Cart on the River Styx," just before Ogami dispatches a crooked tax collector; with a kindhearted prostitute at a hot spa, the night before he slaughters the gang of thieves and murderers in "Wings to the Bird, Fangs to the Beast."

The stories are filled with violent action (lots of flying body parts), which makes this series not suitable for those with tender sensibilities. The art is very kinetic and cinematic, and is very clear despite the diminutive size of the book, which is more like a very fat mass market paperback. The original manga did spawn a series of movies in Japan, starring the wonderfully stoic Wakayama Tomisaburo (these were date movies for me in the 1970s). By the way, one of Ogami’s weapons is referred to as a "pole" (on p. 145); it is in fact a naginata, a halberd with a blade the length of a short sword. This weapon was used by samurai hundreds of years before the Tokugawa era, during which this series is set; by the late 1500s it was used mostly by the samurai’s wives to defend their castles. Oda Nobunaga’s wife died wielding the naginata against the men who came to capture her husband, giving him time to commit suicide (considered an honorable death).

The story of Ogami Itto captured the imagination of the Japanese when it was first published; it will captivate a new audience in its English translation. Those who want to read authentic Japanese literature should read this; comics in Japan are considered a legitimate form of literature by the general public in that country, and this is a classic example of excellent writing and art.