Sunday, February 8, 2009

Lone Wolf and Cub month: The chill of winter in Volume 8: Chains of Death

[Note: Don't forget today's Doodle Penance post, which features a crossover of sorts with Lone Wolf and Cub month!]

That falling leaf from "Tidings of the Geese," the first episode in Chains of Death, sets the season for volume 8 of Lone Wolf and Cub: late autumn moving into high winter, with frozen ponds and heavy snows. Today in DC, the temperature was absurdly unseasonal: 65 degrees Fahrenheit beneath a sunny blue sky at three o'clock on an early February afternoon! So in today's post, I'd like to restore the usual course of nature by highlighting wintry scenes from four of the remaining five tales in this volume.

(One tale breaks the wintry progression across the volume: "The Infinite Path," a flashback to the sunny days when Itto Ogami first won the post of kogi kaishakunin, the shogun's executioner, by winning a duel with Gunbei Yagyu on a technicality—a technicality that proved Ogami's honorable loyalty to the shogun, whereas Gunbei's swordfighting theatrics resulted in a treacherous insult to the shogun. This story also features a "friendly" duel between Ogami and Retsudo Yagyu, the cruel leader of the clan whose schemes have driven Ogami to the assassin's road of vengeance. It's a valuable story for the light it sheds on the Yagyu clan's enmity toward Ogami, though it doesn't reveal all its secrets, leaving present-day Ogami to wonder "why [the Yagyu] were so desperate to be kogi kaishakunin....Only when I find the answer can we leave these endless six paths behind, and find an end to our quest." Anyway, more reasons to keep reading!)

Right...wintry scenes! And you know what Japanese art about the seasons requires...
That's right: haiku. Bear with me now. Here's the final, title image from the second episode, "The Frozen Crane":
The frozen crane waits
on one leg for spring to come,
untroubled by snow

The third episode, "Chains of Death," sets Ogami against a host of attackers from the Kurokuwa ninja, now freely working in concert with the Yagyu assassins against Ogami. This episode is largely silent, with very little dialogue and few sound effects, and the way the snow settles on tree branches and needles seems to muffle the scenes even further. Here's a great spread across the middle of two pages, with opponents framed by foregrounded trees (click to enlarge):

Snow-clad evergreens
observe the scene in silence
Foes prepare to fight

The penultimate episode, "Thread of Tears," sets Ogami against the widow of a man he slew in a previous volume—not the first time that he has had to face the loved ones or retainers of those he has dispatched in his two careers as executioner and assassin. He shows a strange kind of mercy to her, however, even as he coldly ignores Daigoro, who nearly drowns in an icy pond during the duel. "I am father but not father, he is son but not son," Ogami tells the widow, who nearly stops the duel to try to save Daigoro. Good thing Daigoro is too far away and distracted by his splashing to hear Dad: that's the kind of talk that can really mess up a kid. Anyway, he gets out safely on his own, Dad kills the widow, and father and son get patched up by the friendly heretic hermit who recited haiku while ice-fishing with Daigoro. Here's the hermit's comfy hermitage:

Mountain gate temple
Wayfarers find shelter here
as snow blankets stones

The final episode, "Beku-no-ji," sees Ogami find an unexpected ally among the ninja when one of their provincial operatives (as it were) decides to hire the Lone Wolf to ease a private grief. The series likes to explore the tensions that result when personal motives conflict with the duties of office or station, as in this ninja's case; fairly often, the result is physically destructive but spiritually redemptive, though I think the series avoids sentimentalizing this outcome or reducing it to a sort of Hollywood cliché. Anyway, the plot turns in part on the setting, which is this lovely mountain pass:

The path through the peaks
skirting icy walls of stone—
take care, traveler!

More prosy posts to follow!

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