Saturday, February 28, 2009

Lone Wolf and Cub month concludes with Volume 28: The Lotus Throne

The Lotus Throne, the twenty-eighth and final volume of Lone Wolf and Cub, has about three hundred pages of comics; of these, 172 are wordless and lacking even in such human utterance as shouts or groans, though they may occasionally feature a sound effect; and in the one hundred forty-second and final episode, "Arms," only fourteen of its sixty-one pages feature text. Accordingly, the images for this final post are all wordless, and I'll try to keep my remarks brief.

Because really: it's a bit daunting to approach the end of such a long and compelling narrative, and I really don't want to provide any major spoilers. The last image I've scanned comes with over a hundred pages left in the volume, so I think it's safe to keep reading—even if I show you this:

That's the blade of Itto Ogami's dotanuki, the sword that has sustained him in his four-year path of vengeance. The sword-polisher spy who offered to sharpen it the night before the day of battle sabotaged it, and finally it snaps off as Ogami faces the last thirty-six surviving grass ninja who stand between him and Retsudo Yagyu. He finishes them off—he's still pretty nimble, and there are lots of unused swords lying around in the hands of corpses, after all—but he gets a serious wound right after the blade breaks, and that wound doesn't want to close up.

The last sword he uses on the grass makes its final cut when Ogami uses it to slice through a strand of Buddhist rosary beads (as it were), draped across the blade by the dying ninja who revealed the treachery of the sword-polisher. Take a look at this page and tell me that Frank Miller didn't have it in the back of his head when he drew the murder of Martha Wayne in The Dark Knight Returns:

But, as I say, that's the last stroke that Ogami cuts with a sword from the grass [and Isaac, I'm using every fiber of my being not to make the obvious pun, here]. When Retsudo finally appears, he suggests that Ogami take up one of those whole weapons to face him, but Ogami declines, declaring that the souls of the grass could never rest if one of their swords chopped down the great tree of the Yagyu (these are Ogami's metaphors, not mine). So he begins the battle armed with just a hilt and a shard:

I should note that artist Goseki Kojima very rarely breaks the panel borders, even in scenes of high action, so it's quite an emphatic choice for him to put the broken blade outside the panel, and at the top of the page, yet, where the margin is widest. But look what he does with that broken blade here:

No, it hasn't grown back, nor is Ogami suddenly wielding a lightsaber. But this image shows something of the force of Ogami's connection to his sword: like a phantom limb, he can feel it though it isn't there.

And that magical image is one of several non-literal images that appear in this volume, adding to the grandeur of a work that must be one of the few comics that deserve to be called epic. Here's an earlier non-literal image, a stunner of a double-page spread:

This image gets extra force by way of contrast, coming right after a quiet page where Ogami and son Daigoro prepare to leave the opening scene of battle against the grass. It's also forceful as a terrible echo of an earlier image from way back in volume 3. In the central episode of volume 3, "The White Path Between the Rivers," the origin of Ogami's feud with the Yagyu is revealed in a conspiracy to disgrace Ogami and murder his wife. It is then that Ogami abandons the way of men to walk the demon path to hell, meifumado, a narrow road that he must navigate with a pure heart to avoid falling into the river of fire, greed, and the river of water, jealousy. There are drawings of that path in volume 3—but the rivers are not then choked with corpses, as here, and Ogami's footprints do not stain the path with blood.

Another non-literal image earns a double-page spread in this last volume to illustrate something of a little speech that Ogami gives to Daigoro. It's about the persistence of life even after the death of the body, and it uses metaphors of ocean waves to describe the ebb and flow of life across endless generations of reincarnation. After the speech, Ogami rests in his rude hut while Daigoro stares out toward the riverbank, where he sees this scene play out in his mind's eye:

But the unreality of this scene is broken by the arrival of the all-too-real figure of Retsudo, who comes striding up at last. The end is really about to begin. And before the epic duel is over, forces conspire to attract all the ruling class of Edo to the scene of the battle. The reasons why don't matter for this post. They may have intended to intervene, on one side or the other, but ultimately those assembled are hushed and stilled by the fight playing out before them. Here they are, watching:

And what do they see? I have chills just thinking about it. It goes on for a hundred pages, what they watch, and it includes such scenes as this three-way battle of wills and hearts:

It doesn't end here, but it does end. The ending is stunning, moving, epic. Amazingly, the conclusion feels both inevitable and worthy of the thousands of pages that have prepared for it. Lone Wolf and Cub by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima: it's for the ages.


Isaac said...

Let me be the first to congratulate you for finishing this series of posts, Mike. I hope you will inspire a lot of people to track the series down and read it.

If I haven't read Lone Wolf and Cub by next February, I swear I will read it then. You've made it look like one of the medium's truly colossal achievements.

Weather said...

Spoiler Alert!

Hi can any LoneWolf&Cub fans give me some insight into the ending? In the last moments of the stoy, ... does Retsudo permit Daigoro's final action? (if not, i am confused because Daigoro's skills are only basic when compared to Retsudo.
Also, Retsudo has some loving words for Daigoro; but in an earlier chapter, he stated he would need to kill Daigoro to avoid future problems.
Is Retsudo's wound fatal?

The final chapter is leaving me more curious than i expected.

Thank you,

Mike said...

Hey, Weather--thanks for the questions. More spoiler-y answers follow!

Now, I believe there are canonical answers out there in the form of the follow-up series that writer Kazuo Koike has created with another artist; that is, I can't know for sure if Retsudo's wound is fatal, but Shin [New] Lone Wolf & Cub would probably reveal the answer. (I'll say no more about that series, or what appears to be still another follow-up series, lest it further spoil plot points.)

Strictly sticking with the original work as it stands, though, I think the only reasonable explanation is that Retsudo chooses not to resist Daigoro to accept the attack without a defense; at this point, with so much of the Yagyu decimated, the concern about "future problems" is pretty moot; and given the operatic nature of the conclusion, I can only assume that the would is fatal!

It is pretty wonderful, however, that a work this long would allow for as much to be implicit as it does. But then a hallmark of the series from the beginning has been its commitment to showing whenever it can avoid telling.

MiriyaB said...

February 28, 2010: the end of Lone Wolf & Cub month redux -- I just finished this volume, so the other member of the household is finally caught up on this masterwork.*

I got maybe a week's worth of volumes under my belt last year before I got derailed... and even though we've got our own cub to deal with now, it may have been more of a help than a hindrance: I read a good number of volumes while immobilized by a sleeping baby on my lap, or while wearing her on my chest & walking around to get her to nap.

Babywearing works for samurai as well as moms: a sequence on p. 22 of this volume could serve as a how-to, as Ogami Itto crisscrosses a length of fabric across his chest and around his back to fashion a carrier for Daigoro. Of course, he then fights with the tyke on his back for about the next twenty pages...I think I'll pass on that part. And Mike better, too!

*I've still got my work cut out for me in other areas, though, e.g. Malory: when is Morte D'Arthur month?

This is well worth having read. I commend it to y'all for 2011!