Blu-Ray Review: Lone Wolf and Cub Box Set

Director: Kenji Misumi (films 1-3 & 5), Buichi Saito (film 4), Yoshiyuki Kuroda (film 6)

Writer: Kazuo Koike (screenplay), Kazuo Koike, Goseki Kojima (manga)

Cast: Tomisaburô Wakayama, Tokio Oki, Minoru Ôki, Tatsuo Endo, Go Kato, Isao Kimura, Yuko Hamada, Michi Azuma, Tomomi Sato, Akihiro Tomikawa

Cert: 18

Running time: 506 minutes (6 films)

Year: 1972-1974

  • Sword of Vengeance (1972)
  • Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972)
  • Baby Cart to Hades (1972)
  • Baby Cart in Peril (1972)
  • Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973)
  • White Heaven in Hell (1974)

Films: medium_5
Extras:


What’s the story: A ronin, a masterless samurai, pushes his three-year-old son around Japan in a wooden baby cart, seeking vengeance on those who killed his wife and clan.

What’s the verdict: We’re talking six films here (and spin-off Shogun Assassin) in Criterion’s mighty Lone Wolf and Cub box set. So, as the titular Lone Wolf does to many a hapless flunky in the films, we’re splitting this review into chunks.

BACKGROUND COLOUR

Fitting that Criterion UK are releasing their lovingly assembled Lone Wolf and Cub Blu-ray box set the same month Logan has been released in cinemas.

Hugh Jackman’s final Wolverine outing is indebted to the six-film series (and accompanying manga), reflecting the long shadow this early 70s saga continues to have on pop culture (Tarantino sings its praises and Road to Perdition is an acknowledged reworking).

Based on writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima’s 28 volume manga, the sextet (which only tells part of the story and ends unresolved) is a wonderful fusion of Kurosawa inspired kineticism, spaghetti Western cool and exploitation funk.

Lone Wolf and Cub also owes a figurative deep bow to the Zatoichi series. Premiering in 1962, the blind swordsman had reached films 23 & 24 of his 26-film run in 1972, the year Lone Wolf and Cub debuted with four movies in the space of twelve months.

Before Takeshi Kitano introduced a new generation to the Daredevil forerunner, Zatoichi was portrayed by Shintaro Katsu. The irascible Katsu (born Toshio Okumura) was also the lead in the Akumyo and Hoodlum Soldier series of films, but Zatoichi cemented his superstar status. His success allowed him to start Katsu Productions, his own company that focused on making movies rather than wasting money pampering egos.

Katsu produced Lone Wolf and Cub for his own company, with brother Tomisaburô Wakayama (real name Masaru Okumura) playing the fugitive one-time executioner to the Shogun, Ittō Ogami. Legend has it the beefy Wakayama (very different to the honed, sinewy Ogami of the manga) auditioned for the role by marching into Koike’s office and performing a somersault.

Trained in many martial arts and skilled in sword and staff techniques, Wakayama is from the same mould as Sammo Hung, another actor whose size belied his physical dexterity.

Brought on to helm most of the series (four films out of the six) was Kenji Misumi, a director trusted by both brothers and who had directed six Zatoichi movies, including the first. Showing the closeness of Lone Wolf and Cub’s creative team outside this series, Misumi also directed Katsu in 1972’s Hanzo the Razor, written by one Kazuo Koike.

WHAT’S THE STORY?

The six Lone Wolf and Cub movies follows the template of Zatoichi (and James Bond for that matter), with a basic template little deviated from across the series.

Audiences familiar with Shogun Assassin, the 1980 re-edit of Sword of Vengeance and Baby Cart at the River Styx into a single 90-minute movie, will know what to expect.

Sword of Vengeance establishes the central plot. Renowned Shogunate executioner Ittō Ogami is framed for murder by the Yagyū clan who covet the role of chief executioner themselves.

With his clan and wife killed, Ogami flees with his young son Daigoro (Tomikawa). Vowing to walk the “Demon Way to Hell”, Ogami takes killer-for-hire jobs while working his way through Yagyū family members and the various grotesques they enlist. Typically, there is a side adventure that may or may not intersect with the main story. Father and son become known the land over as the ronin pushing his lad in a wooden baby cart.

Modern audiences to Lone Wolf and Cub will be surprised at how pitiless Ogami behaves. Sword of Vengeance opens with the executioner beheading a child lord on the orders of the Shogun who fears he may rise to power.

That’s not the only child to fall to Ogami’s sword. But, Lone Wolf and Cub’s plots are primarily concerned with restoring and maintaining order, a Japanese preoccupation. Ogami and Daigoro may walk the Demon Way to Hell, but it is to restore the order the Yagyū clan have disrupted. Almost exclusively this is done through the cleansing fire of death.

Death for serious transgression is an understood law of the land. Certain jobs Ogami accepts target people exacting understandable vengeance. They are permitted to achieve retribution, but still must pay the price for rocking the established order. Ogami’s duty is to his employer, and sentiment in given short shrift in Koike’s feudal Japan.

The taciturn ronin also appeals to the Japanese “salaryman”, that archetypal wage-slave locked in the same grim routine for the good of his family. Though the lone wolf and cub are forced to go off-reservation they still live Japanese principles in microcosm: absolute loyalty to the group and a rigid observation of hierarchy (Ogami frequently commands Daigoro into action, orders the young boy unquestioningly follows).

The central story of a master less samurai wandering the land for work to support his clan would also have found an empathetic audience when Japan’s bubble economy burst in the mid-90s.

The six films are a flavourful trek around Japan. While not profligate, Katsu Productions invested money to ensure a movie was good. Along with handsomely mounted studio sets the films showcase the country’s natural beauty, from the lush greenery and stunning sand dunes of southern Japan to the imperious, snowy mountain ranges of the north.

A GALLERY OF GROTESQUES

Ogami and Daigoro are the determined, scowling centre of the storm (Daigoro mimics his pa’s expression of fury) and surrounding them is a gallery of memorable freaks and opponents from Koike’s fertile imagination.

Chief antagonist is the aged, insane Retsudo Yagyū, played by Tokio Oki, Minoru Ôki, and Tatsuo Endo across the different films. Go Kato is a soft-spoken ronin with a mysterious past who challenges Ogami in Baby Cart to Hades, and Isao Kimura is suitably deranged as Yagyū’s illegitimate heir murdering anyone the father and son encounter in the delirious White Heaven in Hell.

Shogun Assassin fans will have fond memories of the straw-hat wearing warriors Ogami and Daigoro come across in the sand dunes. They crop up in Baby Cart at the River Styx and have spiritual cousins in the three undead assassins who burrow through the earth in White Heaven in Hell.

1970s exploitation T&A is not left wanting, but Lone Wolf and Cub’s most memorable supporting characters are strong, dominant women. Primarily using their bodies to accomplish goals now appears retrograde, but women are a formidable force in Koike’s feudal never-neverland (not too surprising when noting Koike also wrote Lady Snowblood, a considerable influence on Kill Bill).

Baby Cart at the River Styx features a cadre of female ninjas who dazzle with vibrantly coloured clothes and acrobatics before dismembering victims. Yuko Hamada is a memorable Yakuza boss in Baby Cart to Hades and in the next film, Baby Cart in Peril, Michi Azuma is fantastic as a vengeful, tattooed killer dispatching those sent to silence her. Light relief comes in Baby Cart in the Land of Demons with Tomomi Sato’s “Quick Change”, a comic pickpocket whose conscience is pricked when Daigoro takes the fall for her light fingers.

SWORDS, CAMERA, ACTION!

Lone Wolf and Cub belongs to the chanbara (samurai swordplay) sub-genre of historical movies (jidaigeki). Chanbara is onomatopoeic, meant to resemble the sound of samurai blades clattering against each other.

Director Kenji Misumi, director of instalments 1-3 & 5, establishes the template from launch film, Sword of Vengeance. Action is swift as Ogami deploys the quick-draw Suiō-ryū style of swordsmanship, meaning one-on-one duels are resolved quickly. To counter this, the films ape the manga in tossing in waves of expendable soldiers through which Ogami cuts a messy swathe.

The films avoid repetition by playing their ace, Daigoro and his baby cart. Perhaps influenced by James Bond’s gadgets, the baby cart is a trundling booby-trap of concealed weaponry, capable of laying waste to the most resolute of expendable swordsmen.

Sword of Vengeance teases the cart’s hidden treasures until the climactic showdown against a band of mercenaries holding a village to ransom. A full-on furious action set-piece it echoes the surprise of the coffin reveal in 1966’s Django. This climax also turns on the tap of outrageous arterial sprays for which the series is known, and which become more outrageous as the series continues.

Director Misumi is not content with master shot, mid-wide and close-ups for his action. Scenes frequently superimpose one image over another, repeat sword swipes for disorienting effects (an idea of editor Toshio Tanaguchi), elevate the camera for a God’s eye view of the carnage and of course, zoom into eyes blazing with fury.

Those with fond memories of Shogun Assassin’s sand dune throwdown (lifted from Baby Cart at the River Styx) will be pleased to learn this is not the best ending of the bunch.

Baby Carts to Hades culminates in a banquet of destruction and a dessert of samurai dueling, set in a vast wasteland which offers momentary shelter but no chance of escape from the oncoming swarms.

An extraordinary action scene, it seemingly inspired the two other directors involved in the series to out do it. Buichi Saito helmed Baby Cart in Peril and has his ending in a quarry, with enough explosives to recall the opening of Saving Private Ryan redone as samurai cinema.

But, the series inadvertently saved the best for last. White Heaven in Hell director Yoshiyuki Kuroda may have spent as much time in TV as film, but his mountain based climax is one of the finest action sequences ever staged. Largely shooting on location in Yamagata Prefecture, the series ends on a high note of perfectly composed and choreographed fury and mayhem amidst a snow storm. When you’re asked to list the best action sequences of all time, remember this one.

White Heaven in Hell was not intended to close off the series. Star Wakayama became incensed when he learnt of plans to make a Lone Wolf and Cub TV series with another actor in the lead, and refused to do any more, even when offered the opportunity to also play Ogami for TV.

Unfortunate, as this series could easily have had another six outings before running dry. But, we still have over 8 hour of superlative samurai pulp fiction that still cuts it to this day.


DISC AND EXTRAS: Many of us first encountered the original Lone Wolf and Cub series through shoddy DVDs from fly-by-night label Artsmagic back in the noughties. Eureka first presented UK audiences with proper transfers when they issued their six film plus Shogun Assassin DVD box set.

Criterion now take the baton with a wonderfully mounted Blu-ray set, superbly showcasing the cinematography and sound design.

The main special feature is an HD presentation of Shogun Assassin, the film that for many Western audiences kick-started the Lone Wolf love. Chiefly of interest now for how American producer Robert Houston reversioned films one and two into a similar but simpler tale, it is amusing for how much story is crammed into dialogue spoken when characters have their back to camera or mouths are obscured.

Yet, it remains huge fun, with W. Michael Lewis and Mark Lindsay’s iconic synth score no more out of place than the wa-wa peddle funk that Kunihiko Murai and Hideaki Sakurai brought to the original films.

52-minute French documentary Lame d’un Père, L’âme d’un Sabre was produced in 2004 for Wild Side Films and features illuminating interviews with Baby Cart in Peril director Buichi Saito, editor Toshio Tanaguchi and cinematographer Fujio Morita among others. Full of anecdotes and information, it is an illuminating hour, providing background information on Kenji Misumi, who sadly died aged 54 in 1975.

Misumi is the subject of a 12-minute interview with his biographer Kazuma Nozawa, who sketches in more details of Misumi’s life. The chatty, likeable Kazuo Koike appears in a new 12-minute interview, reflecting on Lone Wolf and Cub now almost all the major players have died.

Sensei Yoshimitsu Katsuse demonstrates the real Suiō-ryū sword style in a 14-minute interview. Another nice addition is a 1939 documentary depicting the production of samurai swords, playable either silently as it was shot or with an ambient Ryan Francis score.

Trailers for each movie round out the supplements.

Commentaries for each movie would have been welcomed additions as there is so much history to run through with this series. Tomisaburô Wakayama passed away in 1992, but it is a shame there is nothing from Akihiro Tomikawa. The actor seems to have done nothing other than these six films, and was last in the news in 2005 when he receieved a three-year jail sentence for gun smuggling. That’s an interview we’d like to see!

But, Criterion have done another first rate job with this important pop-culture series. The packaging is a work of art, the label once again proving why digital download can never entirely replace the thrill of having your favourite movies boxed so splendidly.

Rob Daniel
Twitter: rob_a_Daniel

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