Lone Wolf and Cub
Wakayama Tomisaburo, Tomikawa Akihiro, Matsuo Kayo
DVD Release date: 8 Nov 2016
Raising a child as a single parent is rough, without a partner you are always on deck. It’s even more challenging when you work as a freelancer; inevitably there will be that time when you have to bring your son to work with you and hope that he doesn’t get into trouble. The world is a dangerous place and keeping your child safe is paramount. When your work is assassination for hire and you’ve committed yourself to “the demon path in hell”, situations become complicated quickly.
This is the challenge for Ogami Itto, the masterless samurai who seeks revenge for the death of his wife while he protects his son Daigoro from ninjas and other assassins sent by the Yagyu clan. Telling a samurai revenge story using a father who cares for his son while destroying his enemies, writer Kazuo Koike and illustrator Goseki Kojima created a highly popular and dramatic manga that went on to influence later manga and comic book artists. Running from 1970 to 1976, the dynamically drawn, violent, sexually explicit tale Kozure Okami caught the eye of Wakayama Tomisaburo, the brother of producer and actor Katsu Shintaro, who starred in the Zatoichi series.
Wakayama was such a fan that he went to the manga’s writer Kazuo Koike’s office dressed as the titular character to demonstrate that, while not quite the same body type as the illustrated character, he could do a somersault in the air. The brothers set up a production studio and went on to create what became a cult hit in Japan and other countries, as well as an important landmark in chanbara, genre movies and exploitation cinema.
The Criterion Collection release of Lone Wolf and Cub includes the original six films in the series, featuring new transfers of the original films, older and newer interviews with various filmmakers involved in the films, along with documentaries on the martial arts and weapons featured in the films. These extra features are not quickie talking heads pieces recycling scenes from the movies, but in-depth interviews with key filmmakers discussing production histories and methods of achieving the various in-camera effects that the filmmakers used to achieve the aesthetic of the films.
In addition to showing the progression of the films from bloody and tense sword standoffs and battles won with a weaponized baby cart to battles with zombies and lethal sleigh rides, the set also shows how the series was used to create new films in different markets. In the late ‘70s, Robert Houston and David Weisman, members of Andy Warhol’s art film scene, secured the rights to the first two films from Toho, and with Houston editing and the both of them writing, the partners created a related, but new story. Whereas the original movies told their stories through characters interacting and flashbacks, Shogun Assassin includes a voiceover from Daigoro’s perspective. Anyone who has heard GZA’s album Liquid Swords will immediately recognize many of the audio sequences from the English language version, which has been restored and is included in the set.
The entire series builds upon and develops themes and narrative strategies from older samurai films such as Kill, Samurai Rebellion, and Sanjuro, not to mention the Zatoichi series on which director Kenji Misumi had worked. Many of the filmmakers involved in the Lone Wolf series either had key jobs on these earlier films or worked on similar films with the directors who made them. Of the six films, four of them stood out. The first two are excellent as a pair, almost a three-hour complete feature split in two that introduces the characters and the storyline, utilizing narrative features such as moving back and forward in time and juxtaposing moments of pastoral silent beauty with quick, focused violence that results in massive sprays of red.
The first, Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance, tells the story of the samurai Ogami Itto, the Shogun’s executioner who is targeted by the rival Yaguya Clan who wishes to hold the Imperial Executioner’s post. During an attack on his family’s compound, the assassins kill the Itto’s wife, but he and his son Daigo survive the initial violence because they are worshipping in the family temple. After the attack, and the attempt by the Shogun to frame him for murder and for dishonoring the shogun, Ogami renounces all official loyalties and obligations and chooses the “demon path in hell” vowing to end the Yaguya clan.
A scene in the family temple when officials attempt to arrest him and his son for allegedly placing the Ogami family crest above the shogun’s is staged with nervous restraint and then explodes with violence. The tension is only increased because Ogami holds Daigo in his arms as swords and blood flash around him in an excellent example of the storytelling strengths of the series. The second film, Baby Cart at the River Styx matches the sex and amps up the violence of the first, featuring several memorably creative death sequences and a lethal band of women ninjas led by the charismatic Kayo Matsuo.
The fourth and sixth films keep the basic storyline of Ogami Itto accepting jobs and defending himself against assassins sent by Yaguya, set out in the original two, but add kabuki actors and supernatural horror, making the stories seem fresh. The fourth entry, Baby Cart in Peril, features a topless tattooed killer, a troupe of street performers and a vengeful disgraced samurai, while the final installment, White Heaven in Hell, pulls out all the stops with resurrected killers and an epic final snow battle.
The series offers plenty of thrills but it’s always Ogami Itto’s commitment to his son, his stoic athleticism and his odd ethics that ground the narratives, making what could be gory genre exercises into compelling films. This fatherly commitment was central to Itto’s character in the story from the manga, according to one of Patrick Macias’ insightful essays in the set’s booklet, Koike Kazuo wanted to create a positive parent-child relationship in a samurai revenge story. Wakayama Tomisaburo’s intense and restrained portrayal of Ogami is also enhanced by the interview with Sensei Katsuse Yoshimitstu explaining the basic principles of Bushido, helping to explain his commitment to death once he has accepted the job, even when his targets are compelling characters.
The new presentation of all the films in this series alone make for highly satisfying viewing experiences which are complemented by Criterion’s presentation and the context provided by the abundant extras. For those in English-speaking markets who frequented grindhouse and independent movie theaters in the ‘80s and independent video stores in the ‘90s, this set is a chance to see a beautiful digitization of Shogun Assassin. But the real strength of the set is to demonstrate the range of thought and level of care which was put into visualizing the original films’ story of an initially unsympathetic yet principled father, thrust into violent circumstances, who, by following a code, insures his son’s survival through chaos.