Thursday, February 5, 2009

Lone Wolf and Cub month: the Baby Cart Assassin strikes in volume 5: Black Wind

Lone Wolf and Cub gave rise to six films in the early seventies. The US releases of these films go under various titles, including Shogun Assassin, and at times their protagonist, Itto Ogami, has been called by still another name: the "Baby Cart Assassin." But perhaps that name better fits this guy:

Yes, when Gunbei Yagyu assassinates a cart, it stays dead! [Ed.: But in this case, not really.]

Whereas volume 4 of Lone Wolf and Cub strikes me as inessential, volume 5, "Black Wind," deserves attention as it starts to ratchet up the long-term plot of the series. Retsudo, the conniving leader of the Yagyu clan, renounces an earlier pledge to spare Ogami's life provided he stay out of Edo: rumors of Yagyu treachery toward Ogami have begun to circulate, and Retsudo does not wish to risk an official investigation. Hence he dispatches would-be assassins of the assassin, like Gunbei up there. That panel comes from page 29 of this 286-page volume, with another twenty-three volumes still to come. Gee, do you think Gunbei pulls it off?

More and more often, Ogami's reputation precedes him, both as a master assassin and as a foe of the Yagyu. Not all publicity is good, as the promise of rewards from the Yagyu lure numerous foolhardy men to seek Ogami's life—not all of them at the explicit instruction of Retsudo. But Ogami's reputation as an assassin pays off richly, as he earns 500 ryo (gold pieces) per assassination. That's a lot of money, and it's heavy. And what does he need it for, with such a young son (who is how old now?...
...ah, right. Thanks, Daigoro!) and his frugal, even abstemious ways?

Well, the third speaker in this group has a pretty good idea:

Now, I dimly remember, from first reading the complete series seven or eight years ago, that Ogami does indeed have a clever plan for how to use his ill-gotten gains. I also remember that his plan isn't revealed until the last volumes of the series. I have no idea how far in advance Koike and Kojima plotted their epic manga or how many changes it underwent en route, but I do know that one of the things that really impressed me as the series unfolded was the surprise culmination of plot points several volumes after they were first set up. And one of the most badass surprises will depend on a little scene depicted on the final page of this volume, from the story "The Guns of Sakai":
If I remember rightly, the payoff for this scene will have to wait a few hundred pages. Back in 2001, when I first read this volume, that also meant waiting at least a month, maybe more. If I can keep up my pace here, though, I may get to it in just a few days, so lucky you!

Without wanting to load these posts with spoilers, I do want to convey some of the excitement at seeing a deep continuity slowly surface over the course of many pages in this series. It all adds to the mix that makes Ogami such a say nothing of the artistic badassery of his fiendishly clever creators.


POSTSCRIPT: One of the episodes in this volume is explicitly dated May 22, 1770. Apparently I was mistaken in my earlier posts when I referred to LW&C as a saga about seventeenth-century Japan. My apologies to the eighteenth-century historians out there.


DerikB said...

Damn, Mike. At a time like this I don't need something getting me more interested in such a large series.

I don't think I ever read far enough into the series to get the idea that there was a larger continuity going on.

Mike said...

I think it was the unfolding of the larger plot that guaranteed I would see the Dark Horse edition to the end. By contrast, I only bought about a year's worth of the First Comics edition back in the late 80s, back when they printed a single episode or two in a pamphlet-sized square-bound book. I think I persuaded myself to drop the First edition (which ran for about 45 issues) because the episodes they ran were more discontinuous.

They were also reprinted in a different order from the original Japanese version (as reproduced by Dark Horse). Now, the Dark Horse version doesn't tell a story in chronological order from page 1, and it also features many "episodic" chapters alongside those that advance the plot more directly; but those interludes can offer almost a welcome respite from the stories that focus of Ogami's single-minded quest of vengeance, not least because the tone has a chance to lighten up on occasion (though some of those "episodic" tales are pretty grim indeed...).