Lone Wolf and Cub Volume 7 is comprised of stories that occur during the peak of the Yagyu clan's desperation to find and kill the eponymous father and son Ronin team. If you have never read Lone Wolf and Cub, then the beginning of this volume will seem like an overwhelming dive into waters steeped with Japanese situations and terminology that are wholly unfamiliar to most casual readers. But the beauty and elegance of every volume of this story is in its showcasing of the cultural nuances of Edo-period Japan through what is, at bottom, a very simple story. Ogami Itto, once head executioner for the Shogun, was betrayed by Yagyu Retsudo in a vicious power-grab. Now, Itto is on the run throughout Japan, with him and his son Daigoro being the last of the Ogami clan. To make a living, Itto puts his legendary sword skills to work as an assassin, as he vows revenge on Retsudo and the Yagyu clan.
Volume 7 sees the tension between Retsudo and Itto at its highest point yet, as Retsudo himself has already lost most of his children to Itto in battle. Yet even though Itto is again and again triumphant in battle, depictions of him and his son in the wilderness of Japan seem to only ever be desolate, even in the most bountiful settings. The triumph of this manga is in telling a thrilling story in beautiful settings, while still imbuing every frame, even the bloody ones, with a timeless message: even for a former executioner and current assassin bent on revenge who is raising his son to be a killer, violence breeds isolation, and never hope.
The reason Lone Wolf and Cub is able to triumph in this manner is because we are not being presented with a morally ambiguous hero in some ahistorical, fictional context. Rather, Lone Wolf and Cub is almost tediously historical, even refusing to translate certain words from Japanese and including a glossary in the back of the book. Because Itto, Daigoro, their friends, and their foes are all locked in a conflict in such a rich historical context, I find myself not rooting for an anti-hero but rather as a rapt witness to an entire country's way of life through the compelling story of one man and his son. It doesn't hurt that samurai and ninjas are super cool.
It is not just the historical accuracy that takes you to the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan. The artwork is a love letter to the beautiful landscapes of Japan, while simultaneously a meticulous recreation of ceremonial details and formalisms that impinged on every part of life back then. At the beginning of a new book or scene while cutting away from Itto, you will often find yourself reading a long, sometimes dozen-page sequence with no words, capturing a particular tradition that would precede some type meeting or even further ceremony. Even the artwork in this respect manages to further alienate Itto and Daigoro, who are often introduced free of any ceremony, wandering the wilderness of Japan. Here they truly earn their names as the lone wolf and his cub, free even from going through the inescapable motions that served as the foundation of their culture.
As a work of sequential art which demands interaction, you cannot take Lone Wolf and Cub lightly. All works of sequential art require some investment from the reader, and this manga falls onto a demanding end of the spectrum. As a reader, you will never be asked to transport your perception back hundreds of years: the writing and art masterfully take care of this. But some scenes will not make as much sense as they were meant to make without you taking a quick trip to the glossary. Though some such scenes really require this of you, others are simply augmented by a further understanding of a particular ceremony. Certainly you can enjoy this work to great lengths without ever peeking at the glossary or checking the Google machine, but I believe this work blossoms when you indulge in your curiosity.
In terms of raw value, we're talking 680 pages for twenty bucks. But, it's not just any 680 pages: it's 680 pages of a timeless, meticulous, beautifully rendered, and tremendously influential work. I kid you not that there are story beats in these pages that can be instructive even to writers of mystery, romance, comedy, and horror. Other than the choppy starting point for new readers of this volume, I am remiss to think of a reason not to have this on your shelf.
Writer: Kazuo Koike Artist: Goseki Kojima Publisher: Dark Horse Comics Price: $19.99 Release Date: 1/7/15 Format: Trade Paperback; Print/Digital