Friday, February 20, 2009

Lone Wolf and Cub month: Lips like venomous poison in Volume 20: A Taste of Poison

This is Abe-no-Kaii:

He's kind of gross. He chews his food with his mouth open,

he drools while he sleeps,

and he's utterly lacking in bushi, the honorable way of the warrior:

He's also, as you can see, determined to kill Itto Ogami and little Daigoro, by any stratagem that might work—never mind the coarseness or cowardice thereof. (And I'm sparing you some of the coarser images of Abe-no-Kaii in action. When did Kaii get the idea to try to attack Daigoro while going potty? When he, Kaii, was busy drinking urine freshly peed onto his face by his addicted slave-lover O-Toshi, all because she forgot to bring along a thermos. LOVELY.)

With volume 20: A Taste of Poison, we reach an interesting point in the Lone Wolf and Cub saga. From here on out, the stories are a lot more continuous and unified, as all forces conspire and converge to bring Ogami and Retsudo Yagyu to their final showdown. So who the hell's Abe-no-Kaii and what's he doing butting in?

Kaii, it turns out, is the shogun's personal taster, responsible for making sure the shogun's food isn't poisoned. And in order to make sure, Kaii has to be a master poisoner himself. At the beginning of this volume, the shogun himself cruelly humiliates Retsudo before letting him "borrow" Abe-no-Kaii in an effort to get rid of Ogami within ten days, or else. But Kaii and Retsudo, forcibly allies at the shogun's bidding, don't trust each other—and with reason. Each intends to get rid of the other once Ogami's out of the picture, the better to consolidate personal power. So now, with just nine volumes left, the line of vengeance and hatred has become a triangle, with Kaii the new angle on the proceedings.

I have to say, I reached this volume in my rereading of Lone Wolf and Cub with some trepidation. I remembered all too well the lurid coarseness involving Abe-no-Kaii, and even as I read this part of the series seven years ago I wasn't sure what I thought of this late complication to the plot. At the same time, while rereading volume 20 I recognized that I remembered more of its specific incidents than I did from earlier volumes, which got me wondering: am I just more prone to remember deliberately more lurid images, or is Abe-no-Kaii a more effective character than I thought?

Probably, truth be told, it's a bit of both. But I think now that Abe-no-Kaii does serve a purpose beyond titillation (of the gross-out variety) or mere extension of the plot (of the delaying variety). Rather, his vileness—his personal grossness as well as his amoral reliance on poison—serves to recuperate Retsudo Yagyu as a worthy opponent for Ogami, while his interference, which delays the final showdown between Retsudo and Ogami, only serves to provoke greater anticipation for the clearing-out of obstacles (including Kaii) that will make that final duel possible.

For make no mistake: Abe-no-Kaii is trouble. You know he's messed up if he wants to kill little Daigoro with poisoned toilet paper. He also readily dumps a ton of poison into a river in an attempt to snuff the Cub—an action that prompts Ogami to make a remarkable estimate of this new foe:
Similarly, when Kaii tries to turn one of Retsudo's shinobi (ninja spies) to his side by addicting him to the drug afuyo, the shinobi resists long enough to plead with Retsudo not to rely on Kaii's aid:

Sure enough, by the end of this volume, both Retsudo and Ogami are convinced that they need to take out Abe-no-Kaii first, then turn to each other as more worthy opponents. The thing is, Abe-no-Kaii may just seem gross and desperate, but he's fiendishly clever, outfoxing Retsudo at several turns and able to predict Ogami's moves and figure out his escapes. You'd think that he wouldn't last long with Ogami and the Yagyu after him, but Abe-no-Kaii is going to dog this series for several more volumes, at least. We'll see what I think about him after a few more hundred pages in his revolting company, but for now I grudgingly welcome him as a crafty villain who puts Retsudo in a new light. If only Abe-no-Kaii weren't prone to emit a "bweh-heh-heh!" laugh all the time!

I'd find him a tad more credible if he didn't sound like he was about to twist the ends of his waxed mustache.

Fun fact #1: Ogami doesn't appear until page 137 of this volume. He isn't even in the background or off-panel in the first two episodes: those stories are all about Retsudo, the shogun, and Abe-no-Kaii.

Fun fact #2: Believe it or not, Ogami makes it to the end of volume 20—308 pages—without killing anybody. I still think he hasn't wrecked his slaughter GPA, however.

A tip of the hat to my pal Liza for introducing me to the Alice Cooper song which provided the title for today's post!


Ben Towle said...

I just wanted to say how much I'm looking forward to re-reading these LW&C posts whenever I'm able to read the series. I've read the first few volumes, but dropped off after that... but you've inspired me to begin tracking down the rest of the series and reading it.

Mike said...

Glad to know you're still following along, Ben. It has been really fun and rewarding for me to revisit this classic series. I hope you also find it enjoyable or even instructive when you get back to it (Kojima's art alone is like a masterclass in visual storytelling).