Thursday, February 26, 2009

Lone Wolf and Cub month: Death of a Clown in Volume 26: Struggle in the Dark

SPOILER ALERT: This post concerns a major development in the antepenultimate volume of Lone Wolf and Cub, volume 26: Struggle in the Dark. However, it's a totally predictable development and the title of today's post pretty much gives it away already. If you'd prefer not to see details about it, however, you may want to skip this post. (Even if the images it contains are mighty cool.)

That's right: after dogging the steps of Itto Ogami and Retsudo Yagyu for seven volumes, a full fourth of the epic series, the poisoner Abe-no-Kaii meets his end in the last pages of this volume, finally checking out on page 304. And the hell of it is, he's a marked man as early as page 111, when Retsudo—still Kaii's prisoner!—manages to pass instructions to one of his ninja to arrange an accidental fire that will have Kaii sentenced to death by the shogun himself. Even before then, however, Retsudo's hatred for Kaii has become rather plain:

I think Kaii's expression in response to Retsudo's words is pretty priceless. He doesn't even look scared, just incredulous—and yet all too aware that, in a way, Retsudo means it.

The first time Kaii sees Retsudo again after the instructions have been given to cause the fire—but even before the fire has taken place—Retsudo plays with his head by giving him instructions in the proper performance of seppuku, the ritual suicide to which Kaii will be doomed shortly thereafter:

This scene is exquisitely cruel because, again, the crime that condemns Kaii hasn't even occurred yet. But immediately after the seppuku lesson, the alarm bells go off, Kaii rushes to the fire, and then, at the end of this titular episode, "Struggle in the Dark," he realizes that he is doomed.

For almost two hundred pages, then, the volume strings out the slow culmination of Kaii's doom. At first, the suicide-execution plays out as a disgraceful farce: Kaii has no dignity, blubbers and pleads for mercy, even picks up the knife with the wrong hand before he tries to run away. At that point, the administrators of the execution hold him down bodily and start cutting his stomach open for him. But, holy mackerel, the cowardly clown fights his way to his feet—and it's hard not to hear a certain justice in his words here:

By one of those coincidences that make this series great, who should happen along next, as Kaii defends himself with the knife that was plunged into his own belly, but Itto Ogami, newly dressed in his old formal attire, with family crest and all. Incredibly, a sorely wounded Kaii has managed to slay three of his would-be executioners already; but when he sees Ogami, he knows it's all over. And, wouldja believe? Ogami actually has some soothing words for him:

Ogami's words give Kaii the strength to face his final end with a measure of dignity, after all. He lives up to Retsudo's cruel command to be a bushi (warrior) in death at last.
But even though Kaii's head is taken by the most skillful executioner of them all, Retsudo is wrong about it dangling by a strip of skin:

Well, let's let the clown have his last laugh. For he knows that just as his summer is over, so too must an end come to Ogami and Retsudo, the autumn and winter. No telling the fate of that little spring chicken Daigoro...though the end is nigh. Two volumes to go!

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