Spank The Monkey doesn’t usually enjoy movies about children, but he’ll make an exception for Lone Wolf and Cub
Lone Wolf and Cub – a series of six films made in Japan between 1972 and 1974, and released by Criterion UK on Blu-ray today – is partly about the code of honour of the samurai, and how that code breaks down when a samurai is no longer trusted by his master. It’s also partly about the bond between a father and a son, and the trials of being a single parent when you’re on the run. But to the casual viewer, it might appear that the series is mostly about one thing in particular: what’s it like to live in a world where anyone who’s cut with a sword goes off like a two litre bottle of Coke that’s been thrown down a flight of stairs?
Inevitably, it all starts with a manga. In 1970, the first volume of the Lone Wolf and Cub comic was published, written by Kazuo Koike and drawn by Goseki Kojima. It swiftly became a huge hit, so a film adaptation was the next obvious step. The actor Shintaro Katsu – no stranger to the samurai genre himself, as he’d starred in a couple of dozen Zatoichi flicks by then – acquired the film rights, and by 1972 a movie version of the comic’s origin story was in cinemas, with Katsu’s brother Tomisaburo Wakayama in the lead role. Kazuo Koike was brought in to write the script, and uses a smart flashback structure to throw us straight into the action while introducing the main characters of the franchise.
The hero of Sword Of Vengeance – and its five sequels – is Itto Ogami (Wakayama), the Shogun’s official executioner. He performs this task with speed and dignity, and is well regarded by all – except for the Yagyu clan, who are looking to get one of their own to take over the role. They plot to discredit him in the eyes of the Shogun, and succeed, killing Itto’s wife along the way. It’s assumed that the shame will lead Itto to commit hara-kiri, but he’s too enraged for that: instead, he becomes a fugitive, wandering from town to town offering his services as an assassin for hire. He’s accompanied by his infant son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa), who rides along in a pram tricked out with all manner of secret weapons. Meanwhile, the Yagyu clan, led by Lord Retsudo, won’t rest until they’ve killed Itto.
Director Kenji Misumi, who would go on to direct three more films in the series, is presumably responsible for the main visual motif associated with the series: the extreme gore. Sure, Goseki Kojima’s art on the original manga didn’t stint on the blood spurts, but that was in black and white. Misumi is working in glorious colour, and shows gigantic open wounds, heads flying off, and gallons of bright red arterial spray gushing like Monty Python’s Salad Days never happened. With all this going on, there’s a risk that viewers might miss some of the quieter, more emotionally powerful moments. The most edge-of-the-seat scene in this film is when Itto presents young Daigoro with two objects and tells him to choose one (“I know you don’t understand, but you have to choose”). If he picks the ball, he’ll join his mother in the afterworld: if he picks the sword, he’ll join his father walking the Demon Way in Hell (it’s sort of a catchphrase). As this is a flashback, we already know Daigoro’s choice, but it’s an incredibly tense scene regardless.
The followup film, Babycart At The River Styx, is widely regarded as the best in the series, because it takes the backstory as read and just goes for broke for its entire running time. Everything is cranked up compared with the first film – especially the violence – but it feels like a delightful headrush, rather than a tired attempt at repeating an earlier success. There’s an almost psychedelic feel to some of the scenes, and a sense of otherworldliness that the subsequent films never quite recapture. Itto’s increasing paranoia as he begins to imagine enemies everywhere is wonderfully captured, especially in a sequence where Itto and Daigoro are sharing a small Japanese bathtub and suddenly hear a suspicious noise. The camera does a slow 360 degree pan from inside the bathtub, trying to locate the sound: your head realises that the shot is geometrically impossible, but your spine is choosing to ignore that.
(At this point, we need to duck out of the timeline and address the elephant in the room: the real reason why the Lone Wolf series is so well known in the West. Shogun Assassin, released in 1980, is a cut-and-shut re-edit of the first two films, imaginatively dubbed into English and with a none-more-eighties synth score on top. Stripped down for minimum character development and maximum carnage, it was especially popular in the UK, where it pushed all the buttons of your typical VHS early adopter until the moral panic over video nasties took it out of circulation for over a decade. Criterion have included the film as a bonus feature, and comparing it against the originals is a masterclass in movie marketing. By giving a voice-over narration to the normally mute character of Daigoro, the American producers could rewrite the story as much as they liked – and the biggest change they made was to rename the character of Lord Retsudo as the Shogun. With the Shogun becoming the main antagonist, they could justify calling the film Shogun Assassin, and getting it into cinemas in literally the same week that the miniseries adaptation of James Clavell’s Shogun started on TV. Exploitation filmmakers love brand recognition, especially if it’s somebody else’s brand.)
It has to be said that after that opening one-two punch, the Lone Wolf franchise got into a bit of a rut, falling back on the sort of three-plot structure you typically find in American sitcoms. The A plot is generally the assassination that Itto’s been hired to perform, after he’s been paid 500 ryu and demanded from the client “tell me all the secrets and reasons”. The B plot involves Retsudo’s ongoing attempts to kill Itto, throwing more and more of his family members at the task but to no avail. (Quite frankly, Retsudo’s arc is the only plot element that requires you to watch these films in order.) And the C plot is where Daigoro gets some screen time to himself: Kazuo Koike has gleefully admitted that having a vulnerable child in tow is what makes Itto more interesting than your average invincible swordsman, and he keeps finding new ways for the kid to wander off and have dangerous little adventures of his own.
Having said that, each of the later films adds the odd twist to the formula. Babycart in Hades features a female Yakuza boss who threatens Itto with a pistol. In classical swordplay films, having a gun is a signifier of someone with no respect for the traditions of the martial world: but this isn’t a classical swordplay film, and by the end all God’s chillun got guns, with the final battle containing as many exit wounds as stab wounds. Babycart In The Land Of Demons takes the by now traditional scene of Itto being hired – a sequence that occupies precisely one shot in the preceding film – and stretches it out over the first half hour, as five separate minions demand to fight Itto to the death before revealing their portion of the secrets and reasons. (Logic doesn’t appear to be their strong point.) And the final film, White Heaven In Hell, throws in everything including supernatural elements and a snowbound battle in an attempt to pump up a climax that isn’t really there, but does make for some of the series’ most spectacular imagery.
For all the visual artistry on display here – and the restoration by Criterion makes these films look sensational, apart from some irritating graininess in the nighttime scenes – they’re still really just exploitation movies. If you couldn’t work that out from the gore, then you certainly could from the treatment of women. In most cases, female characters are introduced solely so they can be stripped naked, raped or killed, or sometimes all three. Most of these films have what could be described as a strong female character – for example in the fourth film, Babycart In Peril, it’s the magnificent swordswoman Oyuki (Michie Azuma). Unfortunately, the way she chooses to demonstrate that strength is by fighting topless, using her terrifyingly tattooed tits as a way of distracting men just before she hacks them to pieces. No matter how self-assured these women are, by the end of the film they all have to be physically restrained from running off after Itto and throwing themselves under him.
Put that problematicity aside, and these are still fine exploitation movies (particularly when you realise that the first four of them were made within a single year). Tomisaburo Wakayama makes for an unlikely hero – as mentioned in a couple of the bonus feature interviews, he was a fat bloke who could somersault and do a bit of swordfighting – but his swordplay is what makes these films come alive, even when it doesn’t end in a gigantic burst of claret. Taking a previously reviewed Criterion boxset as an example, when Toshiro Mifune takes on dozens of attackers in The Samurai Trilogy, all too often it looks like he’s randomly thrashing his sword around waiting for them to fall over. This doesn’t apply to the fights in Lone Wolf: every single stroke is considered, precise, and merciless. At the same time, Wakayama is utterly convincing in the moments when he’s quietly expressing his affection for Daigoro. He took on the task of portraying Itto Ogami because he suspected it’d be the role of a lifetime: he was right.
Criterion has done these films proud, not just in terms of their restoration, but also the supporting features. Aside from the inclusion of Shogun Assassin, there’s an informative making-of documentary from 2005 which is backed up with more recent interviews with Kazuo Koike and the biographer of Kenji Misumi. More tangentially, there’s a hypnotic silent documentary from 1939 showing the painstaking process by which Japanese swords are forged: and a new interview with a real-life swordmaster, whose dedication to his art is so total that you almost regret that they’ve had to ask him about how it’s represented in these films. It all adds up to the perfect package for anyone looking to spend nine hours or more walking the Demon Way in Hell.
Lone Wolf and Cub is out now on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion.