The movies and TV you need to watch, the music you need to hear, the books and comics you need to read, the games you need to play — The Playboy Library is an ongoing series that offers the 21st century man the pop ammunition to carry himself as a gentleman of culture. Never obvious, always essential.
A man who has lost everything dedicates what remains of his miserable life to hunting down and killing those who are responsible for his loss. We’ve seen this a dozen times. It’s Lee Marvin in Point Blank. It’s the Punisher. It’s Liam Neeson in, increasingly, everything he does. It’s a burnt-out cop. It’s an architect pushed to the edge. It’s a ronin: a masterless samurai.
But then there’s the hook upon which hangs Lone Wolf and Cub, one of the greatest comic book series of all time: This samurai is not alone, he has an infant son. And rather than shielding the boy from his single-minded obsession and violent retributions, he includes him. Even though the boy is too young to be much more than a decoy or distraction, the two are fully a team, and as assassins for hire they cut a bloody swath through pre-Meji Restoration Japan and across thousands of pages of manga — black and white Japanese comics written for and read by an adult audience the way novels are here in America.
The “Lone Wolf” of the title is Ogami Itto, once a master executioner for the Shogun himself, a position of honor requiring impeccable skill and a nearly-flawless understanding of the bushido code. Both this position and his honor were stripped from him by the same conspiracy that also killed his wife. But Itto is a swordsman nearly unmatched in prowess, and rather than accept his fate and surrender for execution, Itto kills the Shogun’s men sent to arrest him and abandons the way of the samurai to live instead as an assassin, wading through an ocean of blood to destroy the Yagu clan, which framed him and dishonorably murdered his wife. And he takes his son, Daigoro, with him in a wooden baby-cart.
From there, Lone Wolf and Cub becomes an odyssey of honor and death nearly unparalleled in graphic storytelling. The entirely of the story is written by Kazuo Koike and drawn by Goseki Kojima (and his many assistants — manga is produced at a much faster pace than American comics and the art is often handled by a studio taught and overseen by a master). Manga stories tend to be longer and slower-paced than their American comic-book cousins, and at over 8,000 pages Lone Wolf and Cub is one of the longest. But the unique pacing of manga turns what feels like a monumental task into a pleasure. The aesthetics of the form were designed in their native country for a busy, train-commuting culture, and a 300-page volume can easily be digested in an hour. Protracted moments of nature, place, and setting that take up many pages are meant to be read quickly, moving at a cinematic pace, where dozens images are absorbed in seconds. When masterfully executed, as in Lone Wolf and Cub, one has the feeling of reading a story occurring in real-time, with the ebbs and flows of life itself. That is, if your life included an absolutely staggering amount of people killed by samurai swords.
But Lone Wolf and Cub is not just an orgy of senseless violence, even when it is. The first half of the saga tends towards the episodic, with each chapter usually beginning with Itto taking some contract that draws him into scenarios which allow the story to investigate as many nooks and crannies of feudal Japan as possible. Itto’s adventures take him to prisons, mountain monasteries for female warriors, apothecaries of poisoners, and dozens of places in-between. His “cases” also often contain Gordian knots of honor and loyalty and complex applications of the bushido code which need to be teased out. In this way, any given chapter of Lone Wolf and Cub also functions as both a fascinating historical re-creation and philosophical puzzle-box. Ones that almost always end in a maiming or decapitation.
As the series accelerates into its second half and begins to draw a tighter focus on Itto’s bloody mission, the themes only become weightier. Common to any serious-minded examination of revenge in pop culture is the lesson of hopelessness and dissatisfaction it it’s core. Whether the revenge-seeking protagonist makes the brave choice in the final act to end the cycle of violence, or is instead consumed by it, he ultimately learns that revenge always comes at the cost of one’s soul.
One of the most hard-boiled elements of Lone Wolf and Cub is that Ogami Itto doesn’t need to learn this lesson — he is fully aware of it when he accepts his destiny. Early on we’re given a flashback to the day Itto began his furious campaign. With his wife lying dead, he gives his son the choice of either a ball or a sword. Should Diagoro crawl to the ball, Itto would mercifully kill him so that he might join his mother in death. The boy chooses the sword, and Itto weeps. He explains to his son, too young to understand intellectually, but clearly guided by a samurai’s soul, that they are beginning their first step on the road to meifumado. Literally, the “road to hell,” and there is no salvation from it. Diagoro has not chosen death, but something much worse. They will walk the demon road of assassins, and while it is implied that the utter purity of his purpose is one of the things that makes Itto so seemingly invincible, it is not a purity of justice, but of inhumanity.
All of this might seem desperately grim, but the work’s unique stoicism allows it to eschew misery and instead feel cathartic. It’s tragedy, but an Aristotelian tragedy, with blood and guts and samurai swords, and which climaxes in a 200-page duel (200!) that after thousands of pages of build-up is so sublimely executed and satisfying you’ll need a cigarette after.
There have been adaptations of Lone Wolf and Cub — namely a six-film series — but none of them capture the brutal elegance at the core of the manga. That same elegance would go on to inspire a young punk named Frank Miller, who was writing and drawing a low-selling superhero called Daredevil for Marvel Comics. Drawing from Lone Wolf and Cub — then not widely known outside of Japan — Miller introduced a ninja clan (the Hand) as his main antagonists, and a beautiful ninja assassin (Elektra) as his hero’s main love interest. (Later, two guys from Massachusetts named Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, would borrow from Miller when they created Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and called their ninja clan “the Foot.)
This series is a corner stone of the tower we’ve built as fans of action movies, of revenge thrillers, of comics, of manga and anime. We can thank Koike and Kojima for giving us such a solid foundation, and remember there’s a lot of blood mixed in with that mortar.
Mike Costa writes comic books and video games in Los Angeles. He has also contributed articles to Genie and Magic Magazine, and has lectured on pop-culture’s confluence with the history of sleight-of-hand at magic conventions. He took three years of Japanese in high school and college.