In Japan, where comics are an integral part of the culture, Koike Kazuo is one of the most famous manga, or comics artists. At 67, he is still a successful manga artist and is as respected as any famous Japanese novelist. Kazuo is best known for his "Lone Wolf and Cub" series, penned between 1970-1976. It is still one of the most admired and revered manga since the creation of the genre in Japan after WWII. The series tells the story of the epic journey of Ogami Ito, a former executioner for the shogun who walks the road between heaven and hell pushing his infant child, Daigoro around in a baby cart.
Lone Wolf and Cub paperbacks have sold an estimated 5 million copies in Japan alone and became a long-running TV show and a six-film series. The first issue of the U.S. Lone Wolf sold 120,000 copies, making it the bestselling manga in the United States for decades. It is being relaunched again in the United States, and Kazuo is also planning to launch a sequel, called ?Lone Wolf,? where Daigoro grows up in 2004.
Andrew Lam caught up with Kazuo on his recent visit to Japan.
Q: How well is Lone Wolf and Cub doing after all these years?
A: It was the first comic book - manga - that did well in the U.S. market 15 years ago. I?m very happy about it being reissued. Lone Wolf and Cub was made into a movie 17 years ago here in Japan and it was a big hit. Then it was translated in many languages: French, Arabic, English, Chinese and so on. Other works have also been translated all over the world. Japanese cultural exports are growing in influence.
Q: Especially in recent time. Why now? Why is it Japanese manga and Japanese anime are finding their way in the West after so many years of obscurity?
A: Japanese manga depicts family relations and love. And there's always a spiritual drama underneath. Manga and anime deal with complex characters. It is a mature subject. You don't find many U.S. comics that have this depth. Characters in American comics are all strong - Superman, Green Lantern - they are too overwhelming, like the U.S. military forces with its high tech weapons. They can never be beaten. But by the same token, these comics are not that interesting to adults. Manga heroes are not always so strong. They may have powers, but they are vulnerable. They might be beaten by somebody, and people who read Japanese manga sympathize deeply with the characters. They are not like American comic characters. Japanese manga has this kind of vulnerability that American comic books don't.
"Lone Wolf and Cub" is as much about a samurai saga as it is a spiritual drama, by which I mean it is suited both for young and old. Japanese manga in general can deal with modern demands ? work, love, affection, romance- and it describes and depicts situations that many can identify with. Many good ones are the same level of a contemporary novel.
Q: Is there a market for adult comic books?
A: I believe so. They are easy to read. In old days only novels were read by adults, and you form the character yourself. When you read manga, images are already formed for you. That's why they are popular all over the world when there isn't time for a novel. But with adult comics, it's not about superpower strength, but the daily life. If Superman and Spiderman have wives and kids and real domestic dramas, they will have adult readers. In the world of children, super heroes don't have families or don't deal with family life very much. Children, when they grow up, they also outgrow this kind of storyline.
Q: What do readers find most fascinating about "Lone Wolf and Cub"?
A: People who read Lone Wolf and Cub are very involved with the fate of Daigoro, the samurai?s little son. He is three years old and his father has to fight the best fighters and an army. What will happen to him if his father is killed? I am coming out with a new series, a sequel to "Lone Wolf and Cub" and it's called "Lone Wolf." It's what happens when Daigoro grows up. It should come out sometime next year.
Q: You have such a large international following. Do you create stories with say the West in mind because of growing demands?
A: No, not at all. My stories are written for Japanese readers. I never had any intention of introducing Japanese culture to an American mindset. It just happened. If I had the intention of non Japanese in mind when I work, I would not have any Japanese readers. I write first and foremost for my Japanese audience. Yet, because my work is so particularly Japanese, non Japanese are fascinated with it. All of my work, all of them, have been translated in many foreign languages.
Q: Who is your favorite authors in the United States?
A: I have many but the first one who comes to mind is Stephen King. His ideas are excellent. In Green Mile, for instance, the relationship between the warden and rodents in prison is just marvelous. When I was young, I used to love Alistair McLean, whose stories about war are excellent.
Q: How old were you when WWII ended? And can you tell me something about that time?
A: When I was 11 we were bombed by U.S. planes. B-29s I remember. I remember what it felt like to live under the bombs. I can certainly sympathize with Iraqi children when the United States waged a war in Iraq. I know how it feels to live like that, under bombs. I was born into a samurai family. My father was in the military during WWII and my grandfather too. But that ended when the United States dropped nuclear bombs in Nagasaki and Osaka. I remember when the U.S. soldiers came and confiscated all the samurai swords in my house.
Q: Are you optimistic for the future of Japan?
A: No. Nothing of the samurai past will be born into the future. What is lost cannot be retrieved. The young generation doesn?t have the ability to replace what was lost. Bushido ? the samurai spirit is gone. Today, Japan is a 50-something state.
Q: What does that mean ?
A: I mean that it's becoming another state of the United States. It has become the 'yes man" to America. That is why I want to write a continuation to "Lone Wolf and Cub." I might be the last person to write about bushido - the way of the samurai and the samurai morals and ethics of a period in Japan that is no longer here. By which I mean the days of samurai where the most important thing to do is to take responsibility for your word and action. They put their lives on it. Sepuku, the ritual suicide, word and action gave the weight of their own life. But politicians and leaders don't have this spirit. No one wants to take responsibility. I sometimes feel as if I might be the last person in Japan who writes about the samurai moral and ethics in Japan.
Q: The United States has become a warring nation, so it?s been observed. But do you see anything of the warrior's spirit in America?
A: None. It?s all military might with heavy technology. There is no warrior spirit in what America does.
Q: Are you pessimistic or optimistic for Japan's future?
A: Pessimistic. The young generation doesn't have the ability to replace what was lost. I would say you will be hard pressed to find someone who takes responsibility for their actions in Japan today.
Q: What do you make of the recent developments in the United States since 9/11?
A: I felt a lot of sympathy for the American people after 9/11. But I think the U.S. reaction to terrorism is wrong headed. It showed its weakness by showing so much military strength. It is quite natural for a stronger man to defeat a weaker man. My personal view is that the United States should have turned the other cheek. There?' no teaching in the bible that says "eye for an eye." If a big wrestler, for instance, is attacked by a little boy, he wouldn?t attack back. He can kill the little boy by one blow, but the world will see him as a bully and having no common sense. The boy can punch and punch and then will give up, having defeated himself against that strong wrestler. The United States, likewise, should have turned the other cheek. If it did that after 9/11, the enemy would have realized how big the United States is if it chooses not to fight. Then terrorism would have vanished, condemned by the world.