If you have an interest in Japanese history, the idea of reading about Ieyasu Tokugawa and his right hand man Hattori Hanzo taking on all comers to eventually unify the country under one rule, should be enticing. If you haven’t a clue about Japanese history, the idea of watching the rise of a samurai who would one day become Shogun with the help of a trusty ninja, should also be intriguing.
Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima's Path of the Assassin provides some enjoyment, although still trails behind their most widely praised works Lone Wolf & Cub and Samurai Executioner.
The ambitious concept is indeed fulfilled, as we watch the rise and rise of Tokugawa from a restricted childhood where he served as a hostage to a powerful clan, to breaking free and ultimately wresting control of the country through lateral thinking, a good-natured soul and sense of responsibility, and of course through adept use of his childhood friend/bodyguard Hattori Hanzo.
Just like Koike and Kojima's previous two masterpieces, Path of the Assassin is filled with compelling moments of tragedy or commentary on samurai era Japan, although unlike their masterpieces, a lot of those moments are ruined or muted through a lack of subtlety or just plain awkward storytelling. The manga loses quality when it involves female characters in any way at all, whether it's through misogynistic barbarity, crude humour or as is more often: just lazy writing.
The female characters of Koike's earlier two works ran the gamut of personality traits and situations, but importantly they came off as either justifiably tragic or heroic, or even when they were there as window-dressing everything revolving around them was justified usually, whereas with Path of the Assassin every single woman comes off as cheap writing devices or test dummies ready for abuse. You might begin to worry that the author has nothing but contempt for them, it's quite shocking at times.
Observe as a woman is raped and immediately afterwards, I mean literally a few minutes, decides to marry her assailant. This happens more than twice in the manga! It doesn’t help that the assailant is a main character of the story who we're supposed to empathise with. Although, and I'm sure this is counter to Koike's actual intent, it does make for thought-provoking reading dealing with a flawed hero. Koike doesn’t dwell on the character's swaying morality though; in fact he rams home that the character's morality doesn’t sway, so the casual raping employed dozens of times during the story is just a lazy way to get characters together with titillating violence and sex.
Ok, its not all men with swords, there's some female ninja who feature prominently in the story too, and of course you have to take into account the hierarchy of the time, so we shouldn’t expect any female shogun-wannabes as antagonists to Tokugawa, but these female ninja still don't feel like developed human beings when compared to every other male character in the story. The author doesn’t extend his imagination to developing female characters beyond caricatures, yet he has no problem developing outrageous ninja techniques that will surely have action fans smiling with glee. Seeing as realism is thrown out of the window at times during the manga, it seems unfair for female characters to not get some 20th century respect from the writer's pen too.
Despite any doubts I have about certain aspects of Koike's writing in this manga, what should be the main hook and indeed is the most interesting thing about this story is the relationship between Ieyasu Tokugawa and Hattori Hanzo. It is indeed a special kind of relationship, made complex over time as the trials of war take their toll on both men and the country itself. The manga goes through most of the notable moments of Tokugawa's ascendency, if you're a history buff you might get a kick out of seeing it all in manga form, but I think the manga succeeds not in just charting out a historical rise to power but in exploring the humanity of the main character and his relationship with another man that helped keep him steady in the face of great troubles.
Seeing how Hanzo deals with his master’s enemies, political obstacles and other miscellaneous problems leads to many creative and emotionally satisfying resolutions. Another addictive thing about Path of the Assassin is the whole strategic battling taking place by many leaders conniving to come out on top, using many different methods and strategies for their cause. It’s as close to a manga version of James Clavell's epic novel Shogun that I've read.
So there are no glaring problems with this manga that make it unreadable, despite the major problems with female characters which made me lower my score (and let us remember that we cant use 'its just history, right?' as a defence against bad female characterization ever) and although the art could be much better, it’s still embodied with some skillful composition, most especially when involving the use of shadows and silhouettes. There are picturesque sunsets and gory decapitations aplenty.
If you like machinations and hard decisions befalling compassionate characters, in the context of a historic struggle for supremacy written and drawn by two men who have already proven their worth through two masterpieces of the samurai genre, then you can’t go wrong with Path of the Assassin. Just be prepared for a dip in quality compared to their earlier works, the path is a bit rocky this time.