Choose the sword, and you will join me
Choose the ball, and you join your mother, in death
You don’t understand my words, but you must choose
So, come boy, choose life or death
– Ogami Itto, Shogun Assassin
After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.
– Morpheus, The Matrix
It’s being reported that Kazuo Koike has passed away at the age of 83.
He was probably the most successful and influential writer who was never considered a household name during his lifetime. Most famous for creating the samurai epic Lone Wolf and Cub with artist Goseki Kojima (who died in 2000 at the age of 71), the global reach of Koike and Kojima’s influence exists on the same scale as Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Will Eisner, Herge, Moebius, Osamu Tezuka, Rumiko Takahashi, and Katsuhiro Otomo yet their names were never equal to their influence outside of Japan.
It’s hard to know exactly why that’s the case for Koike and Kojima since they were always visible and credited in a way that, say, Bill Finger was not but I like to think that the breathtakingly diffuse scope of Lone Wolf and Cub’s influence has a lot to do with it. Eisner’s legacy is somewhat similar in that he isn’t tied to a specific set of wildly popular characters like the Marvel stable, Tintin, or Astroboy as much as he is a set of aesthetics and formal innovations.
Lone Wolf and Cub is, in my opinion, one of the greatest completed epics that comics has to offer, which is particularly rare air given the open ended nature of corporate run superhero comics and endlessly meandering manga that dominate our understanding of serial storytelling in comics.
I’m very hesitant to promote the idea of there being an equivalent to a literary canon in comics — a set of quasi-compulsory works key to understanding the nature and evolution of the medium — but Lone Wolf and Cub is one of the few reading experiences that has kept me entertaining the notion since finishing it.
There’s an arrogant, self assured quality to the decompression in the later chapters of the series that I’ve never seen anywhere else. The climactic duel — mostly Ogami Itto, the titular lone wolf, in a stare down with his ultimate nemesis while his toddler son silently watches — takes place across multiple volumes. It stretched the good will of the audience who had followed the epic up until that point to its absolute breaking point.
It also spoke to the mutual trust in Kojima’s strength as an artist, that he could carry the most important part of the series by finding enough different ways to draw two men staring at each other to fill entire volumes of the collected edition. Whenever ridiculous debates about the primacy of either writer or artist in collaborative comics, people point to a Larry Hama GI Joe issue, We3, or that one issue of Morrison and Quitely’s New X-Men as times when artists carried a few pages with no written dialogue or narration, but no has had the imagination to invoke the culmination of Koike and Kojima’s partnership.
The actual plot of Lone Wolf and Cub is instantly recognizable whether you’ve actually heard of it or not. Ogami Itto, the universally feared executioner for the shogun, is set up and is forced to go on the run as a mercenary for hire with his infant son at his side. From there he hires himself out to anyone who responds to the coded messages he leaves at shrines spread throughout the countryside, sometimes taking his son along, and sometimes leaving him in the care of someone halfway trustworthy. Itto is many things, but he is never going to be winner of father of the year, a central aspect of what makes him such an interesting antihero.
The comic is very clear on the moral failings of everyone from Itto’s occasional choice to weaponize his son to the entire corrupt and exploitative structure of the Shogun’s regime without the need to point to a heroic figure or ideal. Good people are few and far between, and most of those are trapped in the crushing poverty that Koike and Kojima take pains to illustrate is a vice that presses from the top down.
Ogami Itto is hardly an avenging angel, though. He’s amenable to negotiating his rates on a sliding scale, but his function in the episodic segments of his journey are to be an interloper who exposes the social and political dynamics that would drive someone to the point of desperation necessary to hiring him.
Much like the most effective Punisher stories by the likes of Garth Ennis and Becky Cloonan, who may have found an example worth emulating in Itto. One of the most interesting aspects of Itto’s characterization is that he willfully defines himself as an outcast who has chosen disgrace and criminality as the vehicle for his son’s survival rather than moral outrage at his betrayal. Itto repeatedly declares himself to be on the path to Hell, or “Meifumado,” the term invented by Koike to describe what is effectively an inversion of Bushido.
If you’re feeling like I just described a Tom Hanks movie that featured Jude Law as a prematurely balding hitman who had a kink for photographing his victims, well you’re not wrong. Road To Perdition was adapted from Max Allan Collins’ graphic novel of the same name, which was in turn a restaging of Lone Wolf and Cub. The same way that classic westerns like The Magnificent Seven and A Fistfull of Dollars were restagings of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. It’s indicative of the series of funhouse mirrors that Koike and Kojima’s influence has ricocheted through while staying easily legible to the sharp eyed.
Like the dubbed narration of Itto telling his infant son to choose the ball and die like his mother, or take the sword and join his father sampled by GZA on 4th Chamber. The quote came from Shogun Assassin, a compilation of two of the Lone Wolf and Cub film adaptations produced for the American market.
Thankfully, the influence and legacy of Lone Wolf and Cub is much more easily discerned in comics. It’s most intimately connected to Frank Miller, who became as entranced with Japanese art through it as a whole host of impressionist, post impressionist, and modernist painters like Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt, Vincent Van Gogh, and Georgia O’Keeffe were before him. In that sense, Miller’s infatuation with Lone Wolf and Cub can be understood and problematized the same way that we understand Pablo Picasso’s interest in African tribal masks or Emily Carr’s fixation on totem poles.
Miller was infatuated with the unreconstructed masculinity of Itto and his brutally feudal world in much the same way that he approached Sparta for 300. Miller found the same kind of thrill in the “primitive” and “exotic” as Picasso and his primitivist contemporaries did before him and brought it to bear alongside Chris Claremont for the pair’s miniseries that transformed Wolverine and the X-Men at least as profoundly as Miller and David Mazzucchelli did for Batman five years later.
Miller and Claremont’s interest was very clearly and deeply informed by orientalist fetishizing, but it also played a pivotal role in mainstreaming manga in North America. When Lone Wolf and Cub was translated for the American market, first by First Comics and then by Dark Horse following the former’s collapse, it came with cover art by Miller, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Matt Wagner.
Those covers are incredible artifacts of comics art history, clearly delineating the manga influence on all three artists and the internationalist perspective communicated by lending their names and the selling power of their artwork to an audience with little to no exposure to manga relative to its current market position.
This is also where the similar historical narratives around modernism and primitivism diverge: as Koike and Kojima were living, named creators whose work was being promoted by Miller, Sienkiewicz, and Wagner, the dynamics of the cultural exchange at work were much different from the exclusively predatory nature of Picasso’s enduring relationship to his influences.
Those covers also offer a fascinating glimpse into just how differently the influence of Lone Wolf and Cub and Japanese art more generally emerged in Miller and Sienkiewicz’s work. Miller took the visual language of combat and Kojima’s unmistakable facial expressions and worked them into ever more ambitious iterations of the spacial innovations of his work, laying out his growth as an artist from Wolverine to Elektra Lives Again.
Sienkiewicz, in contrast, bypassed Kojima almost entirely to enact a more classically modernist infatuation with Japanese art of the Edo period, rather than extrapolating from Kojima’s restaging of it. Where Miller gradually took Kojima’s consciously flattened work and brought an idiosyncratic depth of field to it, Sienkiewicz showed more interest in replicating the flattened perspective of Japanese woodcut illustrations that attracted the likes of Cassatt and Degas or a series of studies of Noh masks directly reminiscent of Picasso.
Miller and Sienkiewicz’s Lone Wolf and Cub covers also created a valuable frame of reference for their Daredevil collaborations in “Love and War” and Elektra: Assassin which in turn have had an astounding impact on pop culture far beyond the reach of their own names as well. Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird built most of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ mythos from Miller’s time on Daredevil.
There’s the clear cosmetic similarities between Raphael, with his red bandana and sais mimicking Elektra, but their mentor’s name is Splinter. Daredevil and Elektra’s is Stick. The evil can of ninjas that the Turtles fight is called the Foot. Daredevil’s nemesis are the Hand. All of that filters back to the influence of manga and Lone Wolf and Cub in particular on Frank Miller.
As does the considerable debt that Genndy Tartakovsky’s Samurai Jack owes to Miller’s Ronin, the latter’s work that displays the clearest influence of Kojima’s style. (Lone Wolf and Cub came full circle for Sienkiewicz when he was commissioned to draw the cover for RZA as Bobby Digital in Stereo given that The RZA sampled Shogun Assassin extensively for GZA’s Liquid Swords.)
Lone Wolf and Cub’s influence lived on in Wolverine’s connections to Japan right through to the introduction of his son Daken, but there have also been more subtle and fascinating vestigial elements of it.
Claremont and Al Milgrom’s 1986 Kitty Pryde and Wolverine mini series came hot on the heels of the Miller-Claremont collaboration, pulled Kitty into Logan’s Japanese connections, and placed Kitty in a new iteration of the Lone Wolf and Cub dynamic, using her time with Logan as a means of maturing the previously wide-eyed, innocent character and setting her up to be independently popular with the readership. (It also pre-empted The Professional, Luc Besson’s similar extrapolation on Lone Wolf and Cub by nine years.)
This quickly became one of the key rituals that established the unique kinship bonds of the X-Men, repeated with Jubilee, Angel, Armor, Pixie, and X-23, the latter of which being the first teen sidekick that Logan had actual biological ties to. It was Tom Taylor who brought that dynamic full circle in All New Wolverine by giving X-23 a tween companion (and clone) of her own who now goes by Honey Badger. That there’s a clear, unbroken chain of influence from Koike and Kojima to Honey Badger is one of the most truly surreal elements of the non-euclidean geometry of the X-Men franchise.
James Mangold’s The Wolverine and Logan revolve entirely around the Miller-Claremont miniseries and its lasting influence, but Mangold also arguably fused Shane and Shogun Assassin in much the same way that Sergio Leone and his contemporaries merged westerns with Jidaigeki samurai movies. It may not be a coincidence that Laura is shown playing with a ball when she first appears in Logan, a ball that disappears after she pulls her claws for the first time.
All of these diffuse and winding reflections on and responses to Lone Wolf and Cub — without even mentioning Kill Bill — suggest that Koike and Kojima truly captured lighting in a bottle with their epic drama. While we can certainly critique the intent and direction of those diffusions, they all speak to the magnetic appeal of the original.
That diffusion is a major argument for going on the journey of reading it from beginning to end as well as a rationale for a comics “canon” that would include it, but nowhere near the most compelling. That, of course, lies in the comic itself. Which you should read for yourself because, to paraphrase the Wu Tang Clan, it rules everything around you.