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 Perdition, his 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, co–created 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.
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.
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.
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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