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"Happiness Is Freedom, and Freedom Is Courage" [Pericles, Funeral Oration]
For centuries the Tokugawa Shogunate ruled the lords of Japan's feudal domains with an iron fist, dispatching samurai to subdue and control the population through intimidation and ruthless brutality. This they performed with relish, taking the opportunity to increase their own hegemony in the process. In 1655, however, the Ogami clan vanished completely; in 1681 so did the Yagyu clan. This, then, is a possible explanation for these events, a classic Japanese tale of loyalty, power, corruption, betrayal and revenge.
Unlike more romanticised fantasies, the samurai here other than Lonewolf himself are exposed as nothing more laudable than the highly skilled bullies and puppets they were. Nor is there a great deal of honour to be found amongst them (Lonewolf notes more common courtesy amongst the Yakuza he meets than amongst samurai), and when it's invoked it tends to mask mere pride or self-interest at its heart. On one occasion early on a promise of immunity is granted only to be shamefully ignored, as is the honourable option of a one-on-one duel in favour of a mounted ambush, the supposedly brave and mighty warriors seeking safety in numbers and trickery.
As you might suppose from his name, Lonewolf no longer considers that Happiness Is Belonging*, having fallen victim to the power struggles at the top of this corrupt and treacherous hierarchy (the story is partially revealed at the end of the first volume). Instead he finds the courage and determination to face the world alone, relying on his own skill and intuition, trusting no one and nothing other than his own judgement and conscience. Travelling with his infant son, he offers his services as an assassin, only to discover, as often as not, that those same agents who hire him seek his destruction. The work is filled with Lonewolf's iconoclastic pronouncements and selfless actions, standing up to authority, deflating humbug and exposing hypocrisy, dishonour and deceit. If it wasn't such dodgey territory I'd assert that, just like Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (a satire of society where form and manners take priority of genuine goodwill), there's something of the New Testament about all this.
So what of the form itself? Each chapter is self-contained and, unlike the dog's dinner of a film (Shogun Assassin, now available in its original, more coherent trilogy), there is more than enough room for the quiet, even tender moments here. This is where Koike and Kojima's storytelling skills come to the fore, in the pacing and evocation of mood through landscape, whilst Kojima's sense of movement is both acute and intelligently communicated. The tranquillity of a forest walk with gently falling leaves, for example, may suddenly explode into a fluid frenzy of speedlines and blurred limbs as an attack is instigated and parried; you'll find yourselves turning over a whole succession of pages without necessarily having seen anything just the impression of movement perfect for conveying the preternatural reflexes of the matchless Ronin. And then, as I said, there's the delicate handling of atmosphere where solitude is emphasised, subtly, by the use of single trees or potted plants, the retreat in Waiting For The Rains being a prime example, and internal thoughts are given expression by a change in the weather.
This is a new 3-in-one edition in a taller, broader format.
* A notion being taught to this day in self-styled 'Bushido' cults disguised as self-defence classes as an insidious means of recruiting then maintaining power over intitiates. Ironically enough this work and indeed the legend as a whole remains immensely popular with this same flock of sheep who appear to miss the point. Wherein, sadly, lies another New Testament parallel.