Remembering Lone Wolf and Cub Creator Kazuo Koike

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

With the passing of Kazuo Koike, who died last week at the age of 82, the manga world lost one of its master creators—the writer who gave us Lone Wolf and Cub, Samurai Executioner, Lady Snowblood, and Crying Freeman, among others.

Koike was one of the first manga-ka to have his work published in North America and one of many whose work has made a strong impression on American creators. When First Comics published the initial U.S. edition of Lone Wolf and Cub in 1987, American creator Frank Miller drew the covers of the monthly comic editions and contributed short essays that ran in the back of some issues; a fan of the series from before it was translated, he cited it as one of his inspirations for his own Ronin. Writer Max Allan Collins also acknowledged the series as one of the primary influences on Road to Perditionhis graphic story about a mob enforcer who takes his son on a journey of revenge against his former boss (later made into a movie improbably starring Tom Hanks).

The influencing went in both directions: Koike was one of the writers of an original Japanese manga featuring the Incredible Hulk (simply titled Hulk), and he wrote a Wolverine story that appeared in X-Men Unlimited #50.

In addition to his writing, Koike ran a school for manga creators, Gekia Sonjuku, whose graduates include Rumiko Takahashi (Ranma ½, Urusei Yatsura), Hideyuki Kikuchi (writer of the Vampire Hunter D novels and manga), and Tetsuo Hara (Fist of the North Star).

In honor of Koike-sensei, here’s a look at his work available in English.

Lone Wolf and Cub
Lone Wolf and Cub, cocreated with artist Goseki Kojima and originally published in Japan in the 1970s, wasn’t the first samurai manga, but Koike’s idea of bringing a young child into the heady mix of violence, loyalty, and conspiracy that was the raw material of samurai stories transformed it into something more than a bloody action saga. The lead character, Ogami Itto, once held a high post in the Tokugawa shogunate, but he lost everything when his wife was murdered and evidence was planted to suggest he was disloyal to the shogun. He escapes with his son Daigoro and travels the countryside, working as a hired assassin as he seeks revenge on those who killed his wife and engineered his downfall. Ogami uses Daigoro as a decoy and tricks out his baby carriage with all manner of weapons, but the most intriguing thing is simply the presence of an innocent, often smiling child in a tale of violence driven by conspiracy and revenge.

New Lone Wolf and Cub
Nearly 30 years later, Koike teamed up with artist Hideki Mori (Goseki Kojima passed away in 2000) for this sequel, which picks up at literally the last moment of the original Lone Wolf and Cub and follows Daigoro’s path after he is taken under the wing of another samurai, Tōgō Shigetada. Tōgō trains Daigoro to use a sword in the Jigen-ryū style of fighting (which was created by the historical Tōgō Shigetada), and eventually, after becoming ensnared in another power struggle, they set out on their own journey of revenge.

Samurai Executioner
Koike again teamed up with Kojima in 2004 for this series featuring Yamada Asaemon, a ronin who tests the shogun’s new swords and also performs executions. Although Asaemon (nicknamed “Decapitator”) wields the sword, most of the stories are about those being targeted for executed. The condemned often tell their stories to Asaemon as they face the end, and in some cases, the consequences of what they reveal continue to linger after their deaths.

Path of the Assassin
Set in the 16th century, 2009’s Path of the Assassin is a fictional story about two historical figures: Tokugawa Ieyasu, who unified Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603, and Hattori Hanzō, the ninja who saved his life and later became his protector and confidante. The story takes place before and during Ieyasu’s rise to power, with Hanzō’s using his skills in both swordsmanship and political intrigue to help him find his way.

Color of Rage
In 2008, Koike teamed up with manga and pin-up artist Seisaku Kano for this one-volume story of two slaves, one Japanese and one African-American, who escape from a whaling ship in 1783 and wash ashore in Edo-era Japan. The twist here is a black man would be completely unfamiliar to the Japanese of that period. The black man is named King; his Japanese companion George fights alongside him as they make their way across the country, looking for a place where they can live in freedom and peace.

Crying Freeman
Set in modern times, Crying Freeman (1986-1988) features an assassin who literally weeps for his victims: Yo Hinomura was a rising star in the world of pottery when he was kidnapped by the Chinese mafia and programmed to become an assassin—first hypnotized, then trained in killing techniques. The title comes from the fact that after each kill, he comes out of his hypnotic trance and sheds tears, feeling remorse for what he has done. Hinomura is a finely honed killing machine, with keen senses and quick instincts; he is not only adept with many weapons but also irresistible to the ladies, which provides plenty of plot fodder for Koike and artist Ryochi Ikegami.

Lady Snowblood
Another violent tale of vengeance, Lady Snowblood is one of he manga-ka’s earliest works, published in Japan between 1972 and 1973. It tells the story of Oyuki, who was born in prison and fated to avenge the wrongs done to her family. Oyuki’s father and brother were murdered, and her mother raped, by four people; her mother killed one of them and was sent to prison, where she died giving birth to Oyuki. The child grows up to become Lady Snowblood, a contract killer who uses her beauty to seduce her prey and kills using a knife concealed in an umbrella. The story follows her as she performs a number of assassinations on her way to finding the objects of her revenge. It was later adapted into a feature film that heavily influence Quentin Tarantino’s manga-esque exploitation film saga Kill Bill.

Mad Bull 34
One of Koike’s lesser known manga, this police action series was created with artist Noriyoshi Inoue and ran from in the late 1990 to 1992 in Japan. The story is set in New York City and follows Daizaburo “Eddy” Ban, a Japanese-American rookie cop who is assigned to Manhattan’s crime-ridden District 34. His partner, John Estes—known as “Sleepy” to his comrades and “Mad Bull” to his enemies—has an unconventional (and often violent) approach to police work and a fluid sense of ethics.

Kazuo Koike, 1936-2019

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Science Fiction Grand Master Gene Wolfe, 1931 – 2019

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Science Fiction Grand Master Gene Wolfe, the author of more than two dozen novels, most famously the four-volume Book of the New Sun, has died at age 87.

A former engineer turned prolific short-story writer and novelist, Wolfe has won many science fiction and fantasy literary awards over the course of his career. He is noted for his dense, allusive prose as well as for the strong influence of his Catholic faith on his writing. The Book of the New Sun was but the first part of his Solar Cycle, which also includes the trilogies The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun.

A full obituary will follow. Explore his work here.

 

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William Goldman Found Heart and Humor in a Fairy Tale

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Novelist, screenwriter, and memoirist William Goldman has died at the age of 87 after a brief illness and a long and truly extraordinary career as a writer.

Much of the mainstream coverage of his passing has focused, rightly so, on his Academy Award-winning screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men, just two of the many critically acclaimed films he worked on as either a screenwriter or script doctor. It’s astonishing body of work: Marathon Man (adapted from his own novel), A Bridge Too Far, Magic (another self-adaptation), The Stepford Wives—even lesser-known films like the 1966 hard-boiled crime homage Harper won him awards. So many of these films are immortal, and any one of them would’ve defined a lesser writer’s career. His run of hits made him the rarest of rarities: a celebrity screenwriter in an industry in which writers tend to be at the bottom of the pecking order. There were flops in there too (Dreamcatcher; ouch), but they’re dwarfed by his successes.

But for many of us—those of us who love fantasy, love it enough to be readers of this blog—one particular work that stands above the rest.

The Princess Bride began with bedtime stories Goldman told to his young daughters (famously, when asked, one child requested a story about a princess, the other, a bride). That might go a long way to explaining the silly-but-sweet tone of the ensuing novel, published in 1973.

Presented as an abridgment (“the good parts”) of an earlier work by the fictional S. Morgenstern (a billing that confused the heck out of a young me, who immediately set about to finding the nonexistent unredacted version), it is the story of Buttercup,the most beautiful girl in the world (eventually), her rise to princess-dom, and her bantering romance with long-suffering farm hand Westley. It all takes place a lightly magical Renaissance world of pirates, princes, and Rodents of Unusual Size.

Goldman’s genius is in the blend of puckish humor, sarcasm, and occasional scenes of straight up parody, both of fairy tales and picaresque literature. Though it is shot through with irony, it is never once cynical; this is satire shot through with genuine sweetness. Even as we’re laughing at the ridiculous situations in which the many colorful characters find themselves, we’re cheering along the central romance. Goldman celebrate the same virtues he could just as easily mock; the humor lures you in to a story about true love in an era (one we’ve never quite left) where stories that try to balance the fantastical with scenes of genuine emotion are often seen as passé.

He was clearly having a ton of fun with it, though—and not just in the writing. I’m sure Goldman would have loved the idea of kid-me hunting around for a full-length version of the “original” text (readers were even invited to send in a letter in exchange for a deleted scene that was never delivered—the prize, instead, was an explanation of legal interference from the Morgenstern estate. A more recent edition even directed readers to a website where they could read a snippet of the much-rumored reunion scene. Naturally, the site included only the text of the fictional legal notices.

Goldman did occasionally promise to pen a sequel, perhaps even sincerely (it’s truly hard to tell), but the story we do have is so wonderful, asking for more seems greedy. As a consolation, there is a lesser-known follow-up in a similar vein: The Silent Gondoliers, also a work by “S. Morgenstern,” a silly novella about the once-singing gondoliers of Venice.

The Princess Bride, as a novel, took on a following, and remains a beloved classic. But, of course, the film version became something even bigger. In his 1983 memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade, Goldman described feeling like a novelist first and a screenwriter second (he completed 16 novels), but in penning the screenplay for the 1986 Rob Reiner adaptation of his novel, he performed a different but no less enduring work of magic: he helped ensure that the movie is completely faithful to the book, and also it’s own thing, and that one of them is not better than the other. There will always be arguments about book vs. film, but this is a rare case where we might have to call it a tie. Is it the best book-to-film adaptation ever? Maybe. Misery is pretty good too. Guess who wrote the screenplay.

“Cynics,” Goldman famously wrote “Are simply thwarted romantics.” With that, one of our eras greatest writers summed up his own influence. We’re all of us cynics in 2018. It’s the default mode. But the continuing influence of Goldman’s work, especially The Princess Bride, reminds us to occasionally wake up and dust off the romantic hiding inside us all, and be alert for the moment when “As you wish” becomes “I love you.” He wrote that life isn’t fair, which is true, and that at least it is fairer than death, which is truer. But he also wrote that true love is the best thing in the world (except for cough drops), and that’s a truth universal. They’re both good lessons, wrapped in great stories.

William Goldman, 1931-2018

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