What makes a perfect samurai warrior? Koike and Kojima’s epic contemporary manga Lone Wolf and Cub sketches a grim portrait of a faltering Edo society through the eyes of a master-less Ronin and his innocent child.
By the middle of the Edo period, the samurai’s reputation had become tarnished. Swayed by fame and riches, these warriors and their retainers began to indulge in unsavory activities, transforming into insatiable scoundrels. Koike and Kojima’s manga Lone Wolf and Cub sketches a grim portrait of these struggling times, but also introduces a mysterious hero—our last remaining honorable samurai—who is seemingly tethered to humanity by the existence of his innocent son. Both the narration style and story line make a point of distancing readers from this lead character in order to focus on the plight of the times, as if to say, our story is not about the samurai and his son, but is rather a commentary on corrupt systems.
Lone Wolf’s hero, Ogami Itto, exudes an unrelenting sense of duty and steadfast morality. After halting shamed siblings in their suicide attempt, Itto advises them in revenge tactics, but without compromising his warrior code. “My road is the assassin’s road. I will perform any assassination, but cannot… will not take part in another’s adauchi (302).” Whether on or between missions, he will assist those in need, but only within the confines of his life’s oath. These virtues are the perfect balance of giri (obligation) and ninjo (individuality,) as well as qualities of the ideal samurai.
Itto actively battles the corruption which has been festering in samurai society. Where once there were loyal peacekeepers, now stand brutish and greedy men, content with liquor, women and money. “The Orisuke were a new breed. They served the samurai families, yet shared none of the values of samurai society—no loyalty, no self-sacrifice, no concern for the face and honor of their masters. The bond between master and retainer had been severed completely (268).” Those with a master have become complacent and corrupt under the comfortable umbrella of fame and wealth, foregoing valor for selfishness and betting sport. Only this Ronin assassin, our outsider, has the power to change society’s broken system.
The audience is aware of Ogami Itto’s flawless judgment, unmatched skill and blind devotion, yet is not meant to fully understand him, or his son, as characters. They are the outsiders come to restore balance and right what’s wrong. We find evidence of this intentional distancing in the purely fact-based narration style. Never do we enter our main character’s thoughts or glimpse personal emotion. The story’s auxiliary characters, however, are quite fleshed out. Take, for example Iki Jizamon, whose character we learn purely through inner dialog. In meeting Itto’s fierce son, his desires are revealed, “Shishogan… Eyes that even I, whose sword has dealt death beyond counting, may never attain! How has this child perfected such spirit?! I must find out! (368).” Much unlike Itto and his son, one is omniscient to Jizamon’s emotions and his drive toward achieving a pure warrior’s spirit. Might readers be meant to identify with the imperfect masses and not the ideal savior-type leads?
Koike and Kojima’s depiction of a degraded Edo society shows corrupt peace-keepers, greedy men and innocents forced on the path of vengeance. Against this stark backdrop is the ideal samurai, the loyal outsider Ogami Itto, the only man who possesses the strength to quell the disquiet which has been burning in the cities. One is not meant to understand this mysterious warrior and son, but to feel the power of honest virtues against nefarious foe. In distancing readers from these main characters, the story of Lone Wolf and Cub allows for better commiseration with the common man, those greatly wronged by injustice. In the hands of the outsider there is hope to lead us into a brighter future.