Most every society has mythologies that refuse to die even when there isn’t a shred of support for them. On the contrary: lack of evidence forces people to rely all the more on indestructible faith. Consider Japan’s long-standing fantasy that Yoshitsune never died, but instead escaped to Mongolia and became Chinggis Khan. Yasushi Inoue futilely sparred with the concept, and in his afterword to The Blue Wolf he mentioned how he’d attempted to read one “extremely tedious” defense of the idea before realizing the reality of the Khan’s life was far more interesting. The idea that the Genji general could have become the Mongolian warlord was only slightly less ridiculous than pigs achieving escape velocity unaided.
But aren’t crazy ideas, the exceptions to the rule, the very mainstay of fiction? Well, sure, up to a point, but after that they have to bring in things that don’t just rely on novelty and shock value. King of Wolves’s biggest problem is not that it recycles the Yoshitsune-is-Chinggis trope, but that the original story it tells is pedestrian. It also stirs in another trope Japanese pop culture resurrects too often for its own good: the Time Slip. You remember this from G.I. Samurai: people from the present day whisked away to the past; they realize they’re standing at the crossroads of history with the fate of the future in the balance; and so on. I don’t know about you, but if I was whisked off to 11th century Mongolia, I’d be more worried about dropping dead of typhoid than whether or not my actions were trashing the future. (And how is it that the characters in these stories come fully-equipped with an understanding of temporal mechanics, anyway?)
So, the story. We have Iba, a typical Golden Boy character whose historical scholarship is only matched by his unerring precision in the kendo ring. After a championship match and a night of sweet lovin’ with his girlfriend Kyoko, he’s off to the Silk Road for a six-month archaeology dig. When he doesn’t return, brave Kyoko sets out to find him and is whisked back in time to China in the 1200s. Chinggis Khan’s armies are spread far and wide, and one of the Khan’s generals spies Kyoko and steals her away for himself. He’s a cruel monster who pits captured mercenaries against each other for fun and games, and Kyoko is stupefied to discover one of the gladiators in his thrall is … Iba.
Iba fights to take Kyoko back, and in this manner comes to the attention of the Khan and his hulking second-in-command, Benkei. The Khan—Yoshitsune, if you couldn’t figure that out by now—recognizes a fellow Japanese by his sword style, and grants Iba his own army to command. But it’s not generosity; rather, it’s a ruse to get Iba and Kyoko to father a child of “true Japanese blood” so Yoshitsune Khan can have a true heir to the throne. The whole thing eventually turns into a cover version of “Should I Stay Or Should I Go”, as Iba has to choose between leaving with Kyoko for the present day or fighting in the past to keep his newborn son alive. I’m not sure if I should be relieved or annoyed that Wolves is only one volume: it might well work as a longer series, but only with a more sufferable writer at the helm. As it stands, it’s mercifully short.
Two things drew me to King of Wolves in the first place. The first was the bare outlines of the story: hey, it’s Yoshitsune and Chinggis Khan! The other was the names on the cover: Kentaro Miura (art), he of Berserk, and Buronson. That was before I remembered Buronson and Miura’s other collaboration, another time-slip story named Japan. Both books featured great art—there is nobody alive right now who knows how to draw a battlefield or a blasted wasteland like Miura—but also sported weak storytelling that only threw Miura’s work in Berserk into that much sharper relief. I should also mention that Buronson was the same guy who gave us the story for Fist of the North Star, and who has collaborated far more effectively with Ryoichi Ikegami in stories like Strain, Heat and Lord. At least with North Star you had no delusion you were getting junk food; the very presence of Miura here made me long for something a little more ambitious.
Other Lives Of The Mind