Sunday, February 15, 2009

Lone Wolf and Cub month: Reaping what's sown in Volume 15: Brothers of the Grass

[As is my custom at the start of a Sunday night LW&C month post, I would like to remind visitors not to overlook today's doodle penance, though I should warn you that this one is kind of dreary since we took the prompt, "12 reasons for penance," all too seriously. Still, there are new drawings to look at, so look away if you'd like.]

Lo and behold, we're past the halfway mark of the complete 28-volume run of Lone Wolf and Cub! For some volumes now, the Lone Wolf, Itto Ogami, has had occasional run-ins with a branch of ninja known as "the grass" for its strategy of adopting very deep cover. Not literally like this—

—taking cover under tall grasses—but rather by settling down in a han (feudal domain) and putting down long-term roots as a resident there. The idea is that these human grass will be as ubiquitous, as persistent, and as overlooked as actual grass, ideal spies and assassins who might never be activated during their own lifetimes but who pass down their task from generation to generation in their assigned domains.

The fifteenth volume, Brothers of the Grass, devotes more attention to this breed of ninja than any previous installment. The grass play a prominent role in each of the five episodes of this volume, and authors Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima allot ample space to exposition of the curious practices of these ninja. Here, one of Ogami's latest victims explains the grass to him while slowly bleeding and burning to death (the first balloon is a little blurry in the scan; it begins, "The grass he commands are the shogun's satoiri-ninja..."; meanwhile, o-metsuke is defined in the glossary as a "[c]hief inspector. The supreme law-enforcement officer of the shogunate"):

It can be a hard life, the life of a blade of grass. Here, in a flashback scene, Ogami hears the dying words of a grass ninja who explains some of their complicated marital and parenting arrangements (apologies for another blurry first panel; Ogami says "A sad song," in response to the tune that the dying ninja has been singing):

You can read "The Women of Sodeshi," the second episode in this volume (and seventy-fourth over all!), to learn all the Byzantine details of how the grass father suitable children to carry on their terrible birthright.

Understandably, not all those born to this task choose to embrace it. The title episode, "Brothers of the Grass," looks at two brothers who have rebelled in different ways from the expectations of their upbringing as shinobi (ninja). One, the corpulent, pleasure-loving priest pictured below, seems to think that "deep cover" excuses him from letting his athletic, man-killing ways go to seed:

His handlers beg to differ, in the harshest of ways, but only after he has usefully led them to his brother, who may have absconded from the life of proper grass but who has retained all of his murderous skills. Once that brother is forcibly "reactivated," he tries to wear down the Lone Wolf and his cub not by attacking them directly but by killing or maiming all those who show them the slightest kindness on the road. The consequences get pretty gruesome before Ogami fights back by going off-road, retreating to uninhabited, forested hills. In that setting, the grass's skills are useless—whom can he hide among, whom can he prey on, when the only ones left are his deadly foes?—and he doesn't last long.

Other grass still make a little trouble for Ogami before he makes it out the end of this whopper of a volume (the longest yet, with over 320 pages of comics), in a literal cliffhanger. But there are only thirteen volumes left, and we join Ogami over the hump: it's all downhill from here.

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