"Wrongfully accused of plotting to overthrow the Shogun, Itto Ogami becomes an outlaw, wandering through the provinces of feudal Japan with his infant son Daigoro by his side, seeking vengeance for the murder of his wife and family... Once Ogami had been the Shogun's official executioner, using his deft swordsmanship to end the lifes of rebellious lords who defied the Shogun. His skills with the blade were legendary." (from the back cover of LW&C)
Lone Wolf and Cub (Kozure Okami) is a very well-known manga series which debuted in 1970 and spanned 114 chapters in 14 volumes. In addition to manga, the story has seen numerous television and film translations (see Animeigo's Samurai Cinema line of videos). Lone Wolf and Cub was the first major manga (along with Legend of Kamui) to be translated and distributed in the United States, starting sometime around 1987. The distribution rights belonged to First Publishing, which eventually folded, cutting the story short at 45 issues (up to chapter 48 of the original manga). Even though I've only read the 45 translated issues, Lone Wolf and Cub is one of the finest manga stories I've had the pleasure of experiencing.
The story is a samurai epic, but beyond the hack-and-slash you typically see in Japanese period stories, the writing is superb -- the story well-executed by Kazuo Koike, who also wrote the Ryoichi Ikegami-drawn classic, Crying Freeman. Koike also founded Gekiga Sonjuku -- the manga artist training school, Rumiko Takahashi being its most famous graduate. Lone Wolf and Cub has enough action to satisfy any fan of martial arts, but it also spends a good deal of time exploring the nature of bushido -- the way of the warrior and the samurai's code of honor.
Itto Ogami is a paradox, neither good nor evil. He is both an amoral assassin and the epitome of bushido. He is a product of his harsh and confusing times, which was very much like the American Old West, relatively lawless and quite brutal. For this reason, I liken Lone Wolf and Cub to the classic "Dollars" trilogy of Clint Eastwood westerns directed by Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly), where the nearly invincible protagonist wanders from town to town, bringing his particular brand of justice wherever there is money to be gained. But where Eastwood's "Man with No Name" does not seem to have any greater purpose, Itto Ogami is clearly driven by his desire for revenge; but this is no common revenge story, not in the hands of Kazuo Koike.
The artwork by Goseki Kojima is superb, as well. It is very reminiscent of watercolor brush-painting, especially the backgrounds and landscapes. Combat is sometimes drawn as a blur -- not a repetitive mess of lines to indicate action, but long sweeping strokes of the pen to indicate the frantic pace of combat and the fine angles Itto Ogami uses to cut down his opponents. Kojima's depiction of sword combat conveys its beauty, harshness, and utter speed all at the same time. Kojima portrays a controlled violence, the violence of a man harnessing his hatred and using it to cut through his opponents. Yet, all of the blood and violence is kept in check by the presence of Daigoro, Ogami's 3-year-old son who sits in the baby cart or rides his father's back amidst all the carnage.
Daigoro is the primary humanizing factor of Lone Wolf and Cub. Despite being born into a life of violence and vengeance, Daigoro is remarkably gentle by nature. Over time, we see how father and son are truly one in their quest, both characters sharing one overwhelming trait: unshakable resolve. It is the relationship between father and son which is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the manga.
If you are familiar with American comics, you probably know who Frank Miller is for his work on Daredevil, Batman, Ronin, and Sin City. The first several issues of Lone Wolf and Cub feature well-written introductions by Frank Miller, as well as fabulous cover art by Miller and Lynn Varley. Miller is a big fan of Lone Wolf and Cub and manga in general, and he is one of the American comic industry's most important and outspoken figures, speaking out against censorship, creative thievery, and the general concept that comics are for kids only. Miller has expressed his wish that comics in America could be appreciated as they are in Europe and Japan -- by all age groups. The influence of manga (especially Lone Wolf and Cub) on Frank Miller's work can be seen in his highly-acclaimed Sin City, a gritty but stylish black-and-white comic with a ton of LW&C-esque action sequences. According to an interview in Mondo 2000, Miller produced Ronin in response to having discovered Lone Wolf and Cub and French artist Jean "Moebius" Giraud in the same year, and wanting to imitate them both. Sin City, however, was his first comic to really utilize the lessons that he had internalized from reading manga.
The Lone Wolf and Cub manga is not so easy to find anymore except in well-stocked comic book stores or for sale on the Internet. It is well-worth searching for, however.
Trivia: In the manga, Itto Ogami's enemies are the Yagyu clan. In real life, the Yagyu were a famous samurai clan whose members included Yagyu Munenori, who was the personal sword instructor to the Tokugawa Shogun, and his son Yagyu Jubei, the folk hero/secret agent who is portrayed in the Samurai Shodown arcade games. The Yagyu Shinkage-Ryu style of kenjutsu is still widely practiced, and there used to be a representative club on campus.
[12/2/04 Update: For further articles by Lawrence Eng, see his anime page.]