Wakayama Tomisaburo and Tomikawa Akihiro

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

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.

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.

RATING 10 / 10