Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lone Wolf and Cub month: Tiger outfoxed by chicken in Volume 24: In These Small Hands

There are numerous pleasures to be had in revisiting a series like Lone Wolf and Cub after a seven-year gap. For one thing, I've forgotten enough details to be surprised all over again by a great drawing, a moving scene, or even a crucial plot point—such as the revelation here, in volume 24: In These Small Hands, that the McGuffin in volume 22 was no McGuffin after all. Lo and behold:

Your eyes do not deceive you: that is the cowardly poisoner Abe-no-Kaii, and he is clutching the notorious Yagyu letter, whose importance was first hinted at way back in volume 10.

I'll spare you the details of how Kaii got hold of it, or how it is that he, Itto Ogami, Daigoro, and Retsudo Yagyu are still alive after the end of the preceding volume (I should leave some reading pleasures to those of you yet to reach this volume in the first place!). Suffice it to say that they are all battered, but all recover sufficiently for Ogami and Retsudo, the Lone Wolf and the tiger, to set a second day of meeting for the conclusion of their final battle...and for Kaii to nab the letter from its hiding place, wrapped around sleeping Daigoro's topknot like a hair elastic.

But where Ogami's honor had prevented him from exposing the letter's contents—always alleged to be such as would "shock the nation"—Kaii has no such honor and therefore no qualms about taking his discovery to the shogun himself. In an amazing reversal of fortune, Kaii finds himself denouncing Retsudo Yagyu before the shogun while revealing his secrets (in the panel below, han means "feudal domain" and go-roju refers to the shogun's inner circle of counselors):

But where any other man might squirm at the accusations hurled at him by an angry shogun, Retsudo manages to face down Kaii, the investigating counselors, and the shogun himself for several pages. He claims the privileges of secrecy to protect the identities of the two hundred or so grass ninja under his command, and he reminds his accusers that the shogun's ancestor Ieyasu Tokugawa, the founder of the shogunate, had issued the command: "Never reveal the grass, or the Tokugawa clan shall perish!"

For a while, this argument stymies the frustrated shogun and his advisors: they all suspect that Retsudo has subverted authority to his own ends, but they lack direct proof that he ever personally received and read the secret correspondence known collectively as the Yagyu letters. They're about to condemn Retsudo to nothing more than house arrest when Kaii interrupts to make two salient points.

First: Itto Ogami, who first discovered the letter and cracked its code, must presumably know the identity of its author and its intended recipient. Therefore, if Ogami could be found and brought to the shogun's court, the truth might at last be known.

Second: Retsudo Yagyu has lost all his children, indeed all the male members of his clan, in his feud with Ogami thus far, and he might well die in combat with Ogami—which would mean the loss of all who know the identities of the grass:

Kaii is quite right, as an earlier scene has revealed to the reader already (in this panel, satoiri-nin[ja] is another term for the grass):

It certainly looks as if Retsudo considers the grass his personal army of ninja, and one wonders why a man who has lost all his clan in a battle with Ogami (and flood) would need to summon still more secretive warriors. I'm sure we'll find out soon enough, with only four volumes to go (!); but surely Ieyasu Tokugawa never intended the grass to be the private militia of his successor shogun's chief inspector. And the current shogun, hopping mad, commands Retsudo to wait in the castle—under Abe-no-Kaii's supervision, yet. The chicken clucks triumphant over the tiger.

That's not to say that Kaii gains a new dignity in this volume. He's still a figure of fun that edges into contempt, and even as he puts Retsudo at ever greater risk he cowers before his foe when reminded of their difference in status. Indeed, numerous pages of this volume see Kaii reflecting to himself—volubly—about what makes Ogami and Retsudo such consummate bushi (warriors) and why he falls so short of their ideal. Still, Kaii's un-bushi-like cunning, ruthlessness, and luck—to say nothing of his deadly expertise with poison—have kept him alive far longer than any other foe of Ogami and Retsudo (excepting, of course, each of those two as the other's chief enemy), and thus far he has made the most credible threat to Retsudo's position in the shogunate. In this volume, the worm turns (and I mean that both figuratively and literally...but I'm not sayin' how for now).

Meanwhile, what about the Wolf and his cub? Well, little Daigoro himself set up the swords of a still-groggy Itto and Retsudo in anticipation of their final battle...

...and after he and Papa are both sufficiently recovered from bouts of poison, exposure, and (in Itto's case) sword-attack, they head for their former home in an effort to pay last respects to the site where wife and mother Azami perished some four years ago. Sadly, their white funeral silks are no longer quite so pristine:

...but, God bless 'em, they're not dead yet.

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