Path of the Assassin Vol. 1: Serving in the Dark graphic novel
Writer: Kazuo Koike
Artist/Cover artist: Goseki Kojima
Translation: Naomi Kokubo & Jeff Carlson
Editor: Tim Ervin
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Price: $9.95 US
I didn’t expect to enjoy Path of the Assassin. It’s rare that a sample of manga that appeals to me, and the very first English-language edition of Lone Wolf and Cub (issued in the late 1980s by First Comics and championed by Frank Miller, long before Dark Horse Comics reprinted the series in digest form) failed to make a connection as well. Since Path was crafted by the same creative team as Lone Wolf and Cub, I figured my reaction would be lukewarm at best. Mind you, I’ve grown a great deal as a human being and as a comics reader since then, which may have something to do with it. But to be honest, I think the nature of the characters and the subject matter made for a connection this time around. Despite the cultural gap between the audience and the characters, there are elements here to which one can relate. My one qualm with the book is with the creators’ exploration of sexuality and the treatment of women, but it could be the writer was aiming for historical accuracy rather than dwelling on his audience’s comfort level.
The lives of two young men from radically different backgrounds converge when Hattori Hanzo, a young ninja of remarkable skill, is ordered by his master to serve and protect a samurai in training whose destiny was to lead his people. Hanzo is ordered to serve his new master “in the dark,” meaning he is never to be seen by others and only rarely by the young man he’s pledged to protect. Both Hanzo and the clumsy samurai, Tokugawa Ieyasu, are 16 years of age, and that commonality serves as the foundation for a growing friendship. Both lose their virginity around the same time, but the circumstances make for hard feelings between the pair even as it strengthens it in another way.
That this work was originally published in Japan in 1972 is stunning, given not only the maturity and complexity of the writing but the high quality of the art as well. Goseki’s linework is unlike the exaggerated, wide-eyed manga art of today. His work is quite grounded and realistic in tone. The backgrounds are minimalist in nature, but that’s in keeping with the raw, rural qualities of the ancient settings. The figures are well realized; the artist knew his anatomy quite well. There’s a hazy, gritty look to the art that’s played up in key, action-oriented sequences. The gritty quality reinforces the historical nature of the fiction and the dream-like tone creates a slow-motion effect that drives home the power and skill of the “suppa” characters.
As a modern comics reader, I was struck by how much Goseki’s work has in common with that of U.S. artists who would follow. Miller’s on record as being inspired by Goseki, but I can’t help but note how similar in tone this work is to Neal (Green Lantern/Green Arrow) Adams’s and Brent (Astro City) Anderson’s styles.
Given how far removed the Western reader is from the Japanese characters in terms of culture and time, the script is a challenge. A glossary provided, but given the use of Japanese terms and the difficulty in learning characters’ names and titles, it’s not quite enough. Still, I wouldn’t describe the book as inaccessible. Trying to learn these details is actually part of the reading experience. I found I’d just keep reading rather than dwell on the terminology and then use my knowledge of the characters and story as a context in which to appreciate the extra information provided. Basically, I built the bulk of the puzzle in my mind and filled in the peripheral pieces afterward.
This book features a violent rape that leads to love and lust, as well as the notion that anything other than missionary-position sex is to be avoided as unnatural. Women do not fare well in this book. Hanzo’s lover is a willing victim while Ieyasu’s wife is cold yet somehow controlling figure. Those scenes didn’t sit well with me, but I wonder if I’m viewing it through the wrong lens. Should I judge it as a left-leaning, 21st-century egalitarian or should I view those scenes as being representative of a different culture in a different time? I feel as though the latter is the proper course, but I’m at a loss.
What made this an intriguing read is how surprisingly easy it is for one to relate to Hanzo and Ieyasu. One is an unforgiving warrior and the other born into privilege and power. But they’re both teens, and they’re both confused and awkward in their own way (Ieyasu’s is more obvious). This initial volume of Path of the Assassin (the second volume has been released as well, with further books on the way) is ultimately about the awkward transition from boyhood to manhood. In this historical setting, adulthood begins a lot earlier than it does for us today, but Kazuo nevertheless demonstrates that these characters have a lot of growing up to do but are well on their way as well. 7/10