Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Lone Wolf and Cub month: Old friends and new foes in Volume 17: The Will of the Fang

At the end of volume 16 of Lone Wolf and Cub, Itto Ogami and Daigoro found themselves newly pursued not by Yagyu assassins or Kurokuwa ninja but by bounty hunters and even peasants, all tempted by the reward money put up by the Yagyu for their heads. In volume 17: The Will of the Fang, the stakes get even higher. Where Ogami normally earns the princely sum of five hundred ryo (gold pieces) per assassination, the bounty on his head has now been upped to the positively sultanish sum of five thousand ryo. You can practically see the bounty hunters drooling as they assemble to tackle the Lone Wolf (though the single strangest image in the volume features not a bounty hunter who drools but one who coughs needles out of her mouth; I guess that explains her nickname—"Needles" O-Kuma—but still: WTF?!?).

So: a number of new foes threaten the Lone Wolf and Cub. But in the first episode, "To a Tomorrow that Never Comes," a former foe returns as a new ally. She gives her name as Torizo, leader of the bohachi or prostitution-ring yakuza of Kioroshi. And while she recognizes the Lone Wolf right off, I had to do a little sleuthing to find her way back in volume 3, Flute of the Fallen Tiger, where she appears in "The Virgin and the Whore," the eighteenth episode of the series—a full sixty-five episodes prior to this one!

Interestingly, "The Virgin and the Whore" was the first episode of the series where Ogami made it out of a story without killing anybody. In fact, he seems to have reached a strange understanding with Torizo by the end of that episode, though earlier she had tried to kill him and did indeed subject him to a couple of rough bouts of yakuza torture. Now, many thousands of pages later, she tries to help Ogami escape a police dragnet by disguising him and Daigoro as fellow yakuza. When Ogami reveals that one of her henchmen has betrayed him to the authorities, Torizo nearly kills the traitor herself—but Ogami stops her, with some interesting remarks, to boot:
By now there have been countless occasions where Ogami has presented an impassive face before all manner of horrors, and he has repeatedly declared himself to be "not bushi [warrior], not human" when others have appealed to his feelings, his honor, or his humanity. Yet here and at the end of this story, he shows a surprising tenderness, a lingering capacity to feel emotional hurt. When Torizo dies in his arms, revealing her real name and referring to Ogami as her "love," it's hard not to think for a moment that they had a past as lovers, though that's an illusion. That the illusion should be at all effective after so many oceans of blood have been shed by Ogami's blade is a credit to creators Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, who have kept their protagonist human after all.

And if he shows tenderness to Torizo, his former foe, just look what happens to Ogami when circumstances force him to do battle with a former student, Masatsune of Sanuki han (feudal domain). Flashbacks show scenes where Ogami trained Masatsune in his trademark suio-ryu school of swordplay, a training interrupted by Masatsune's duty to his han. The key stroke of the suio-ryu is a wave-slicing stroke (which explains Ogami's fondness for facing opponents in streams, lakes, or even tall grasses whenever possible), and when Masatsune turns it on his old teacher it nearly succeeds. As Masatsune succumbs to Ogami's killing stroke, Ogami declares, "Your breath and timing—a perfect wave-slicing stroke! In water, your victory! I name you suio-ryu!"

It's a worthy tribute to a worthy opponent, whose duty and honor forced him to face his old friend and master. And how does that old teacher react at the death of his student, who has finally perfected his studies? Like this:

[Blurry text in last word balloon: "Nng...hhnng... .... ...."]

Ogami has occasionally shed tears before, but I don't recall him bending over anybody's corpse with audible sobs since the death of his wife Azami back in episode seventeen (also in volume 3, with "The Virgin and the Whore"). For all his demonic, murderous ruthlessness, he's still a man, despite everything; which goes a long way toward explaining how the butcher of hundreds can somehow seem like a hero still.


Isaac said...

Are you actually keeping a tally of how many people Ogami kills over the course of this series?

Because I'm guessing that he'd rank somewhere above congestive heart failure in terms of leading causes of death in Japan during the period when this is set.

Mike said...


I'm not even sure that would be possible, given the number of group assailants he shreds. It's noteworthy when nobody dies at his hands; it's normal for only one to die on occasion, a duellist or an assassination victim; but there are bloodbaths every now and then, and it seems to be somewhat more often as the Yagyu (or, well, Retsudo) get more desperate.