One of the most interesting phenomena in the last couple of decades is the rise of Japanese Manga in the West. In fact now you can easily find shelves and shelves of translated Japanese Manga in book stores throughout Europe and North America north of the Rio Grande.
Now Manga are Japanese comics but they come from a quite different tradition of publishing going back to a long history of printing wood cut prints to illustrate the books that the Japanese read. also in Japan Manga are used not just entertain and titillate, (Erotic and Pornographic Manga are common.), but also to educate and teach, such things as calculus, and even engineering. Further unlike much of the West, Manga's main audience has in fact been adults. In fact in much of the West comics are usually considered entertainment for children and teens, and only in the last 30 years has that begun to change in the West.1
The other thing is that much Japanese Manga has been bluntly very adult in terms of plots, language and what was drawn and has been so for generations. Unlike in much of the West where the content of comics, was deemed fit only for children and teens, and so was censored by the state and by self censorship like the Comics Code in the USA.2
An outstanding example of an excellent Japanese Manga is the series Lone Wolf and Cub. Published originally in the 1970s; it has inspired in Japan several movies and TV series.3
In terms of plot the series involves the adventures of Ogami Itto and his son Ogami Daigorō has they journey through late 17th century Japan during the period of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Our hero Itto has been dishonoured and his wife murdered by the clan known has the Yagyū who operate has assassins for the Shogunate and wield great power. Angered and humiliated Itto takes himself and his son on the "Assassin's Road" has they follow the way of meifumado or hell.
Itto operates as an assassin for hire and does so to accumulate the money and skill to destroy the Yagyu. Dragging his young, impressionable, son Daigoro along with him and Daigoro sees routinely grotesque atrocities and killings.
As one story of killing and horror follows another it becomes clear that Itto is an almost supernatural, demonic force. He is apparently unbeatable and he is utterly remorseless. He takes has his sacred duty that if he is paid to kill someone, he kills that person. However he is not bereft of compassion or even humour but the relentless way he spills blood and kills makes one draw back from seeing him has fully human or heroic.
Another characteristic of this Manga series is the care taken with the details of everyday life, like what people wore, ate, the houses they lived in, the social mores of the time. This is after all Japan of the Tokugawa period and so quite different from the West then and now. And yet features of this society strike the reader has modern, like the greed, cruelty and lust along with love, kindness and charity. But over all this is the cruelty of Man over Man. It is a world in which the strong eat the weak and mercy is crushed by terror and violence. It is a world at the margins of respectability. In the world in which Itto with his son works his ghastly trade the extremes of human desires and hatred are expressed and nobility and virtue are tossed aside. So the world Itto and his son inhabit is the "Floating World" of prostitutes and criminal gangs, con men , beggars and thieves, of rebels and heretics and the destitute and desperate.
The result is that the stories in this series aside from the violence have a soupcon of sex and foul language so that this series is definitely not for children.
Perhaps the most outstanding aspect of the series is the excellence of the illustrations and drawings. The style can be characterized has realism with a bit of an edge and the abstract. Probably too both tone down the violence and too provide a distancing mechanism the illustrations are in black and white.
For some examples of the illustrations in this Manga series see the following:
In the series you see violent and evocative stories that are "told" in black and white drawings. What that does is to pare down the images to their essential elements without the distraction of colour and to of course make the stories if anything even more elemental. Of course Manga is routinely black and white but here that does, if anything, add even more to the force of the images and stories. Both the writer Kazuo Koike and the artist Goseki Kojima are very good but it is the illustrations of Goseki Kojima that are the outstanding features of the series.4
Is lone Wolf and Cub perfect? Of course not. It is hard to keep over the course of over 100 stories ensuring that all the stories, to say nothing of comic panels, at a consistently high level. Further perhaps the most wearying part of the whole series, aside from the violence which gets tiresome at times, is the impentratable plot armor that surrounds Ogami Itto. He is just too invincible. Especially towards the end of the series where he defeats hordes of well trained Samurai warriors in battles where he is outnumbered hundreds+ to one are laughably absurd at times. Now the series does try at some level to implicitly explain it by arguing that in some sense Ogami Itto has become a Demon of Hell (?), yet the series has a whole is so well grounded in the real world that this is simply hard to accept in terms of the world created in the series. Frankly if the series had made the supernatural a clearer element in the story this would be more acceptable but has it is the series does not do so and the result is that some of Itto's fights are just silly.
None of this however cast aspersions on the way, even in the silly fights, the contests are drawn for usually those fight scenes are drawn with consumate skill even in the silliest fights scenes. Although frankly the high point of the violence scenes in the series are Ogami Itto's one on one fight scenes. There are many in series and the variety, skill with which they are drawn are high points in the series. When Ogami Itto is facing one opponent all the distractions and the sometimes absurdities of the scenes of him with multiple opponents are pared down and reduced to essentials and it is remarkable what was done with them.
And then their is the climax of the series a one on one fight between Ogami Itto and his main opponent Retsudo of the Yagyu . It is a prolonged fight over several stories and the ending is shall we say not what you would expect. And in my opinion the illustrations there reach their peak of excellence.
All in all I recommend this Manga Series.
1. See Adult Comics, Wikipedia Here.
2. See Manga, Wikipedia Here.
3. See Lone Wolf and Cub, Wikipedia Here.
4. The series was published in 28 volumes of Manga that have been translated and republished by Dark Horse Comics in those same 28 volumes. Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima, Lone Wolf and Cub, (v. 1-28), Dark Horse Comics, Milwaukie OR, 2000-2002.