Film

Criterion's 'Lone Wolf and Cub' Includes the Original Six Films in the Series

Wakayama Tomisaburo and Tomikawa Akihiro

This series of films about a masterless samurai bent on revenge while protectively raising his son features moments of pastoral silent beauty juxtaposed with quick stylized violence.


Shogun Assassin

Distributor: Criterion Collection
Cast: Wakayama Tomisaburo, Tomikawa Akihiro, Matsuo Kayo
DVD Release date: 2016-11-08

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.

10

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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