Thursday, December 1, 2011

Lone Wolf and Cub, Vol. 1

    The myth goes something like this; violence can make the world better. Violence isn't pretty, per se, but it can be heroic, admirable, sexy, and even beautiful. Violence brings order from chaos, fixes what's wrong, puts things to rights. It's the myth that allows us to do violence that we might not otherwise be able to bring ourselves to do. We aren't madmen, after all, we want out violence to have a degree of rightness, of justice. Now, just because something's a myth doesn't necessarily make it a lie, but this one often is. And we know it. But we like violence. So we imbue it with meaning.
    There's a great line in the film Grosse Pointe Blank when John Cusack's character, a professional hitman named Martin Blank, is accused of being a psychopath and responds, "Psychopaths kill for no reason, I kill for money." It's funny because it's the kind of logic that only makes sense to a hitman; most of us in the audience think you'd have to be a psychopath to kill people for money. But what Martin Blank makes us wrestle with is why his work as a military assassin was legitimate while his work as a paid professional somehow isn't. It's good for us to have to think about.
    Koike and Kajima's Lone Wolf and Cub: The Assassin's Road is the story of an assassin and his young son. The title character's mindset is much like Martin Blank's, though he hardly needs money to make his excuse. He kills. Fortunately for him, more unfortunately for his victims, he lives in a time and place that accepts this; father and son cut a bloody swathe through Edo-Period Japan. 
    What's interesting is the way in which the myth of redemptive violence is utterly absent. In general, Lone Wolf's victims are "bad guys," but that's beside the point. Lone Wolf kills. He often uses his son as bait in order to lure his victims in. When this is pointed out as irresponsible, he dismisses this questioning of his parenting skills. A wolf cub is still a wolf, after all. Lone Wolf isn't an angry man, but he is almost always looking for a fight; the way a lawnmower's only happy when it's mowing a lawn. He wouldn't know what else to do. When his son intentionally urinates on a stranger and the stranger demands an apology (a perfectly acceptable demand), Lone Wolf opts for a swordfight instead. Violence makes sense in the world of Lone Wolf and Cub. Violence is what is. They don't need a hero story to make it pretty.
    And that, for me, is why the story works. Or, better said, why the action works; there's very little plot development and it's about as necessary as the plot development in porn. Lone Wolf and Cub is a series of action sequences held together loosely (almost flimsily) by plot. Plot isn't the point. You came to see this guy fight. He's more than happy to oblige.
    Some would argue that the violence in Lone Wolf and Cub is objectionable in a way that, say, the violence in some Clint Eastwood films is not, those who require the myth of redemptive violence. I would tend to argue the opposite. There's something less offensive about the violence of Lone Wolf and Cub; it's more artfully rendered than a Tom and Jerry cartoon, but it's just as pointless. We like to see anvils dropped on heads. We like to see assassins with swords. Better to have this violence in a story so void of morality that we don't mistake violence for something beautiful.
    So, did I enjoy Lone Wolf and Cub? As a story, not really, but that's not the point. As a series of action sequences it works, absolutely; I abhor violence in real life, but I like to watch a samurai swing a sword. And I appreciate the fact that Koike and Kojima don't try to sell me the violence as something good; something to be emulated, celebrated, or admired. My sense is that the authors' intent is to show the absurdity of the violence, by pursuing it relentlessly. There's no point to any of it, it seems almost arbitrary, and so honor and glory don't enter in as much as a need for money and taste for blood. The authors are saying something about violence and it isn't nice. I would be shocked to discover that things take a more heroic turn, unless the character of Lone Wolf experiences an epic transformation. The way the authors are going now, my guess is that this series wraps with Lone Wolf (and, maybe, Cub) coming to a bad end. If there's a message to be had here, it's that violence, for all its appeal, always ends badly.

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