Lone Wolf and Cub #1: The Assassin's Road

Author: Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima
Year: 2000
Genre: Historical fiction

Reading Understanding Comics alerted me to some of the differences between Japanese and American styles of comic-book storytelling. This, in turn, inspired me (months later) to read a little manga. I've never been into it in the past; before Lone Wolf and Cub, all I'd read was Akira and a few issues of Crying Freeman. A serious gap in my comic book literacy, I decided.

I don't remember a lot of the peculiarities of manga that Scott McCloud identified, but as I was reading this book, I did have the feeling that something not quite "normal" was going on, as if I was watching a foreign movie. The structuring of the plot never seemed quite logical to me, and the conclusions were never fully satisfying. After seven or eight episodes, though, I started to get the feel of it.

The stories themselves are pretty formulaic, which helped. Itto the assassin and his son Daigoro show up somewhere, looking innocent; it turns out that someone is involved in illicit dealings involving land ownership or feudal succession; there's a big fight in which Itto's unbeatable samurai technique and/or the unexpected involvement of Daigoro carry the day; and we finally learn that Itto was hired by someone and on the job all along.

It's an enjoyable formula, though, and the strangeness helps to keep you engaged. The book is also interesting as a piece of historical fiction. It turns out (according to the last story in the book) that certain aspects of the decline of Japanese feudalism, particularly the disappearance of the shogun's assassin and executioner clans, remain unexplained; Lone Wolf and Cub, says Koike, "is one answer to this mystery."

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