I've finished reading the manga series Lone Wolf and Cub for what is probably the seventh or eighth time. Maybe I've 'read' the Japanese version four or five times, and then since Dark Horse came out with an English-language edition (I did collect First Comics monthly installments when they were publishing) I've probably gone through it the same number of runs again.
In my opinion, this is just the greatest graphic story ever written.
To anyone who knows me, the surface elements already just seem to fit many of my interests; Japanese history and pop culture, martial arts, comics, exploitative or transgressive media-- its got it all. Even if you are not a fan of any of that stuff, this work is still something you should seek out. Unless you cannot deal with mature subject matter I cannot recommend it highly enough. I'd actually dare to put it alongside literary classics, though I won't claim enough expertise or credentials for anyone to take that move seriously. I'm no stranger to the great novels (or their criticism and context). Apart from the format (sequential illustrations, the so-called graphic novel) there is no less resonance, effort, talent or intelligence in this work. In fact there's probably more effort and talent comparatively, since it is collaborative between writer and artist... AND coupled with Dark Horse's translation staff pulling off a heroic feat in bringing this work to the English reader with dignity, and most cultural specifics intact.
The work of writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima, Lone Wolf and Cub (Kozure Okami in Japanese) was a years-long serial that ran in a monthly adult manga magazine in Japan in the early 70s. Hugely popular in its home country it spawned the expected films, TV shows, etc. that blockbuster movies do here. A country, after all, that has accorded comics a level of respect that we are only recently giving to our own. Despite this, due to the language and the culturally-specific nature of the material the book took decades to get translated into English in its entirety-- its twenty-eight volume, hundreds-of-pages-per-book entirety.
Despite its length, the story never gets dull. Part of this is due to the nature of the medium-- comics usually just read faster than books on a page-per-minute basis being mosly drawings, but here it is coupled with Kojima's penchant for huge sections of purely illustrated sequences devoid of dialogue or narration. You'll get through it at a brisk pace. The artwork is extraordinary. Realistic in one sense, and very stylised in another, it recalls much in the way of classical Japanese brushwork in calligraphy and painting while still using a lot of the conventions of modern comics and manga. And despite the exaggerated nature of some of the characters physical abilities, or the fictitious details in some of the martial arts and people, the book is pretty firmly rooted in reality, taking itself very seriously without somehow seeming to overstate its drama. It's intense or moving without seeming forced or corny.
The lead character Itto Ogami is an absolute killing machine in a way no real person could ever be, but by the time you get halfway through the second book not only will you buy into his abilities you'll halfway believe he was a real person. The book really backs up even its most (seemingly-) exagerrated aspects with a historical grounding. I would've told you the duckfoot gun in the baby cart was complete bullshit, until I saw the museum-held drawings of just such a design. No one had ever used one the way Itto did in the story, but that there was at least a precedent for the concept. Wow. And almost everything in the book is that way, with a historical fiber running through everything. Not TRUTH, but verisimilitude at least.
There is a lot of drama in the work. The basic story is about Itto Ogami's quest for revenge against the Yagyu clan. The Yagu killed his wife, framed him out of his position, and destroyed his life. He takes his infant son along on journey to avenge his family and his name, becoming an assassin-for-hire to be able to live on the road and to acquire money to finance his goal. The thing that prevents this from just being an endless series of violent setpieces is the boy, Daigoro. Daigoro makes possible a lot of the moments that let us actually connect emotionally with Itto because Daigoro himself does. He is also Itto's link with the rest of humanity and frequently Daigoro is himself the story. We basically have to watch him grow up in this brutal time amongst all the bloodletting his father's chosen path brings... and yet his father is a man of honor in a dishonorable profession, and so Daigoro forces us to reconcile our feelings towards Itto as more than just an assassin.
Warning. There is a lot of sex and violence in this series. It takes place in feudal Japan in the 1700s so there is the requisite samurai and yakuza carving people up, but the nudity and exploitation quotient is quite high. It is typically done in a way that serves the story, showing the underbelly of prostitution or insanity or slavery, but to some readers the presentation will come off as gratuitous. Personally, I think to bring these situations home, the degradation or horror of them, you kinda need to shock your reader. Its one of the reasons I enjoy transgressive cinema so much. Sensationalist to be sure but balanced by equally profound or touching moments as the story moves along.
The translation is superb, probably a model for how all film, DVD, anime, TV show, and manga translators should approach their work. As far as non-comic media goes only Animeigo probably approaches the quality here. The language is natural, respectful, and in many instances they leave the Japanese intact (in English characters, duh) because there is no direct English equivalent AND because the reader really NEEDS to be educated as the story goes along. They could've substituted 'lord' for 'daimyo' every time daimyo is used, but they aren't EXACTLY the same thing, and it just helps the immersion of the reader to get on board with the culture a little more. There is a glossary in the back to help the English reader. It might be jarring to have to flip back to learn a definition, but it beats Dark Horse having to awkwardly figure out what alternate word (or often a whole phrase) to jam in their to keep you from having to do that. Their handling of honorifics, the -san, -sama, etc that suffix names when you address someone. They leave them in. You just need to learn what they are and go with it. Again, they define them in the back. Its worth the work getting used to it. Another illustration of the the translators difficulty; Daigoro calls his father 'Chan'. This is an honorific used as a term of endearment usually to young girls, or to and from little kids. So to say 'Sakura-chan' to a five year old girl is to call her 'dear Sakura'. Daigoro is abbreviating the phrase 'daddy dear', as three year olds might do to just the honorific. Just the -chan part. So it would not make any sense to an English reader to hear Daigoro calling his Dad 'dear' or 'sweet' all the time. In our culture it is just strange. So the translators change it to 'Papa'. A little kids endearment-laden term for his Dad. In my opinion, a REALLY good choice, but not a direct translation.
At times there are quite a few English expletives used which were Dark Horse's choice to represent words that don't mean the same thing in Japanese but still occupy the place of swear words in that language. Translators of anime run into this issue a lot. The word, 'chikusho' for instance, actually means 'beast' in Japanese and usually an expletive issued when someone is confronted with something they don't like. So most translators go with the word 'shit' or 'damn' because saying 'Beast!' in that context doesn't convey correctly to English speakers.
Since we're on the subject of the English translation, I will move to pointing out a few of the weaknesses in this work. There are times when a dialect needs to make an appearance in the story. People living in Japan can often tell what region a person hails from or what occupation they hold by peculiarities of language in the speaker, ie someone from Osaka speaks differently than a person from Tokyo. Rather the same as people from Boston or Mississippi speak distinctly different from someone from California, both in accent and the words chosen. So in order to convey rustic or less-educated people in Lone Wolf and Cub, the translators have chose to give them 'Americanized rustic' modes of speech. So you'll see lots of 'ain't' and 'no never mind'... that sort of thing. A little like black folks spoke in movies from the 40s. While I understand what the translators are going for, and the people in the story DO occupy an analgous place in society to the roots of that American dialect, it is just jarring to read that mode of speech in a story that is otherwise so obviously 'foreign'. I'm sure I'm not smart enough to have come up with a better method, but it was still one of the few elements actually taking me out of the story, and took me longer than other translation aspects to get used to.
Another problem is the format. The books are really REALLY small. I know this was done to keep costs down, and guarantee the whole series would sell. They are ten bucks a pop. So the whole thing will run you 280 dollars. I can see any bigger edition might be daunting to prospective buyers if they knew just how much of a commitment they were in for. Dark Horse continues to issue other series of similar subject matter in this same size. I'm sure that is for consistency of format with Lone Wolf which was the original release in these Koike/Kojima historical fiction manga.
But it is high time Dark Horse came out with a bigger edition. The Lone Wolf books have proven themselves to stand the test of time AND be great sellers. Even at substantially higher cost, these need to be in larger volumes that show the artwork to best effect, and perhaps even printing in color those sections that actually were in color during the manga's original serial comic release. And if you are going to re-release it, flip the pages back. Japanese manga are read 'backwards' to English readers. They read right to left. When Lone Wolf and Cub was first released in the USA it was (just like the size) considered too daunting to expect readers to accomodate reading backwards. Dark Horse was already making the fans accept Japanese feudal terminology, history, glossaries, and all that stuff. They needed to turn the needle back to 'accessible' in some way, so flipping all the art so that the reader could go left to right was the way to go. But it had the effect of making everyone left-handed, along with a few other peculiarities. In the years since this series came out, the American public has been coached into accepting the Japanese direction for reading. Almost all manga series now follow THEIR convention. Even the subsequent manga Dark Horse publishes from Koike/Kojima. Time to get the greatest manga ever back into line with its Japanese format and all other manga releases, expense be damned.
That's really about it. Apart from dialect stuff, and my own preferences for a bigger 'correct' edition, the series is awesome. You will laugh, cry, be stunned, and get an education through thousands of pages of the world's greatest comic.
And here's a cool thing: Dark Horse MUST re-issue these books bigger and flipped because they've acquired the rights to the sequel which began in Japan not to long ago. I think as of this writing it is up to six volumes or so. Artist Goseki Kojima died several years ago, but new artist Hideo Mori seems very respectful of the older material. Despite his style being different his Daigoro is a dead ringer from the pics I've seen. For this new manga to be issued in a decent edition, it would follow that its progenitor should be done at least that well.
More about this when Shin Kozure Okami (New Lone Wolf and Cub) finally comes out over here.