I mentioned a while back that this represents the most important new manga release from Dark Horse in quite some time. Not only is it a sequel to the most popular manga the company has ever released, but its success may even spur the release of new (old) series from the classic creative team of writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima. So its success or failure will have a very real impact on what manga we see from the company in the future. Of course, that all hinges on whether or not this turns out to be a worthy sequel to “Lone Wolf and Cub.” This title already begins with one strike against it as it features a new artist, Hideki Mori, to replace the late Kojima. Based on this first volume, however, this series doesn’t dispel the fact that it’s an unnecessary sequel but it doesn’t embarrass itself or its legacy either.
At the end of “Lone Wolf and Cub” (Yes, this is a gigantic spoiler for that series but if you haven’t read it what are you doing here?), Retsudo Yagyu, the head of the Yagyu ninja clan, finally defeated his nemesis and series protagonist Itto Ogami through equal parts treachery and skill. Yet, as a sign of respect, he allowed Ogami’s son Daigoro to run him through with a spear as he swept the boy up to acknowledge him as a grandson in spirit. That’s how the series ended after 28 volumes and how it remained after nearly 30 years.
As Koike explains in the afterword, Kojima’s death and the 2002 “Lone Wolf” TV series brought a new series of questions about “What happened to Daigoro?” after the end of the manga. There are certainly worse reasons to continue a classic series, and the writer is certainly an accomplished storyteller with a great understanding of how to use the medium. It also helps that his signature series features the writer at his most restrained and less prone to spiraling off into madness as he did in series like “Wounded Man.”
So this new title begins as the shogun and his daimyo have left in the wake of Ogami and Yagyu’s deaths while Daigoro mourns his father’s passing. Into this scene comes Togo Shigekata a wandering ronin from Satsuma. He happens upon Daigoro, and while the boy is initially wary of this new man a challenge is proposed. If Togo’s sword fits into Itto’s scabbard, then that will mean that his soul is accepted by Daigoro’s father and the boy will be placed into his care. I don’t think I need to tell you how this particular challenge turns out, but it’s still one I liked. Given how much emphasis the original title placed on the sword as the samurai’s soul, Togo’s interpretation of this makes for an interesting way to bridge the two titles and establish himself as the new “Lone Wolf” to Daigoro’s “Cub.” So far, so good.
In fact, Koike does a great job of establishing Togo as a supremely capable swordsman in his own right and someone with a very different personality than his predecessor. Where Itto was stoic and impassive most of the time, this new guy is outgoing and downright avuncular at times. Being from Satsuma (and the four or five of you who read the three volumes of “Satsuma Gishiden” that were published out here will know this) he’s also as hardcore a samurai as they come. If the bit with the sword didn’t clue you in, then the sequence where he won’t let Daigoro eat until he splits a rock will make it undoubtedly clear how much he values the samurai ethos. There’s also a key moment when he realizes that he’s being tested by Daigoro after they encounter the famous “baby cart” the kid used to ride in. Rather than being shocked or angry at such a thing, Togo simply laughs it off and acknowledges it as proof that he has passed the boy’s test and is worthy of being his guardian. The plot thread towards the end about whether or not the samurai is simply after the money Itto got as an assassin also serves the same purpose, but also serves the purpose of wrapping up a long-running thread from the previous title about what happened to the cash.
Now, it’s certainly possible to read everything that happens to Daigoro in this volume as thinly veiled child abuse. It can be interpreted that way and there’s no doubt that the kid has experienced more than his share of trauma after all of the death and depravity he witnessed while traveling the assassin’s road. On one hand, it’s disturbing. On the other, Koike rationalizes it as the kid having an innate understanding of the samurai code. Daigoro did choose the sword when offered a choice between it and the ball way back in the first volume of the series. This is something that was reinforced over and over through the course of the original series as he became known as the boy with the shishogan eyes -- eyes that have seen countless others cut down in front of them.
Whether or not Daigoro is a victim of trauma isn’t something this series is interested in exploring. The boy’s history is taken very much in stride here as Togo appears to have some understanding of what he has been through and chooses to refine the warrior spirit within the boy. What makes him different than Itto is that he’s certainly more caring than the boy’s dad. Witness how he licks the blood from Daigoro’s blistered hands after he finally manages to split the rock. There’s also an interesting dynamic between the two as while Togo fulfills a father/mentor role here, he’s constantly being tested by the boy to see if he’s worthy of such a thing. It’s as if Koike recognizes the skepticism readers might have with someone trying to replace the legendary “Lone Wolf” and has built a response to it into the fabric of the series itself. As far as I’m concerned, that’s some clever writing right there.
Less clever are the antagonists that have been set up here in the first volume. From the start of the previous series, Retsudo and the rest of the Yagyu were established as clever, ruthless bastards that would stop at nothing to advance their own agenda. Here we have an advisor to the shogun seeking to have a troublesome daimyo disbarred and using ninja to manipulate Togo into doing his dirty work. It’s a decent enough villainous scheme, but it lacks the personal investment that made Ogami’s quest so compelling. I can understand Koike’s reluctance to try and repeat things here. The problem is that at this point the antagonists motivations feel more perfunctory and in service to the plot than anything else. Even if they do have a talented crossdresser in their ranks.
Even if that part doesn’t measure up to the original title, Hideki Mori’s work certainly does Kojima proud. The man is clearly working in a style reminiscent of the elder artist, yet he demonstrates more range here. Not only are the backgrounds and environments thoroughly detailed, Mori makes each face in this volume distinct. That may not seem like a big thing, except anyone who has read “Lone Wolf,” “Samurai Executioner,” and “Path of the Assassin,” knows that while the main characters are recognizable, the members of the supporting cast tend to blend together after a while. Here, Mori gives us faces that have distinct personalities and are capable of displaying vibrant emotion. He may not have his predecessor’s flair for intricate swordfights, though that could change as things go on.
The original “Lone Wolf and Cub” continues to stand as the most thorough and entertaining examination of feudal Japan published out here. Its long, winding story had plenty of digressions, but they all served to illuminate the reader on some new aspect of Japanese culture, introduce us to an interesting new character, or showcase some new cleverness on Itto or Daigoro’s part in overcoming the threats they faced on the road. This new series continues that tradition with an interesting new protagonist and a compelling dynamic between him and his “Cub.” The bad guys don’t measure up, and most of the stories here deal with addressing lingering continuity issues from the previous series. So while this may not be a complete success, but it does manage to avoid being a detriment to the legacy it’s inheriting. In its own way, that’s an achievement to be proud of.