Directors: Kenji Misumi, Buichi Saitô (Baby Cart in Peril), Yoshiyuki Kuroda (White Heaven in Hell)
Screenplays: Kazuo Koike, Tsutomu Nakamura (Baby Cart in the Land of Demons and White Heaven in Hell)
Based on a Manga Series by: Kazuo Koike, Goseki Kojima
Starring: Tomisaburo Wakayama, Akihiro Tomikawa, Minoru Ôki, Tatsuo Endô, Tokio Oki, Keiko Fujita
Running Time: 83, 81, 89, 81, 89, 83 min
BBFC Certificate: 18
Being a lover of Japanese cinema, particularly period samurai movies, as well as being a lover of genre films in general, the Lone Wolf and Cub series is one I'm very familiar with. Saying that, I'd previously only seen the first two instalments before now. So there was never any doubt in my mind about taking the Criterion Collection up on their offer of a set of screeners to review their lavish set of all 6 films. These are as follows; Sword Of Vengeance, Baby Cart At The River Styx, Baby Cart To Hades, Baby Cart In Peril, Baby Cart In The Land Of Demons and White Heaven In Hell. Also included is Shogun Assassin, a 1980 film made up of all the sex and violence from the first two films with dodgy dubbing and a voiceover to tie them together into something suitable for the midnight movie crowd.
Now, when reviewing box sets I tend to review each title separately, but here I've decided to do one long write-up for the whole collection. Maybe I'm just being lazy, but I feel the films are so consistent in terms of cast and crew, as well as quality, there isn't a great need to separate each film from one another. I also think I'd find it hard to differentiate all of the films after chain watching all six over a couple of weeks. Without wanting to kick off my review with a criticism when I love the set so much, the stories do get a little 'samey'.
Speaking of stories, the first film, Sword Of Vengeance, sets everything up for the rest of the series through a series of flashbacks. Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is the Shogun Executioner during turbulent times in Japan. He is ordered to execute countless lords for the sake of the Shogunate. In the opening scene we even see him decapitating a young child lord. Despite his disturbing profession, Itto is a good, honest man though, with a wife, Azami (Keiko Fujita), and child, Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa). One night, after Azami confesses that she worries Itto's work has cursed him and their family, she is murdered by members of the Yagyu clan, led by Retsudo, who also tries to frame Itto for treason as he is hell bent on the Yagyu taking the role of Shogun Executioner. Itto manages to escape death, but is forced to exile, roaming Japan as an assassin for hire, on the “demon road to hell” on a path of vengeance. He is not alone though. Before he leaves, he gives his toddler son a choice. He lays out a sword and a ball for him to crawl towards. The sword symbolises joining him on this journey to a life of murder and vengeance and the ball represents a journey to heaven to be with his mother. Of course, Daigoro chooses the sword and the two set off to wander the lands.
For the rest of the first film then, and all the subsequent sequels, we follow the father and son team as they take on assassin-for-hire jobs, which are usually linked with the Yagyu clan. Itto is determined to retain his sense of honour, so only accepts jobs when he's satisfied the reasons those have for hiring him are justified. As such, he finds himself stopping corruption and removing despots from power across the land. Along the way, he also brings up his son to follow in his honourable, if blood-soaked footsteps.
The films are all exceptional examples of genre movie-making. They are famous, or rather infamous, for their on-screen blood-letting and yes, the red stuff is liberally splashed and literally sprayed across the screen. Without wanting to sound pretentious, it's quite artfully done though. There's often a strange beauty to the violence on screen. Yes, some shots when bad guys are split in two might be a bit much for your casual viewer, but with Itto's poise and skill (despite having a 'robust' frame), alongside some expertly choreographed action sequences and carefully framed blood splatters, there's a level of class to the violence that isn't always seen in your day-to-day splatter fests. That said, some of the later entries to the series get a bit too silly at times when it comes to action and more artistically complacent. This gives them more of a sense of fun though and the fight scenes are endlessly inventive and thrilling, so I'm not complaining.
Away from the violence, the films do have heart though. It's not all cold, savage blood-spilling. The relationship between Itto and Daigoro is surprisingly touching and always handled subtly. For example, when the two are reunited after Daigoro is kidnapped at one point, we don't get a teary embrace along with a sentimental string soundtrack, we simply get a “Pappa” and a brief close up of Itto taking the boy's hand. That's more than enough to get the message across without veering into melodrama. I also liked how Daigoro develops gradually throughout the films. Not just physically, but mentally too. He grows more independent and learns the values of honour his father has instilled. An extreme example of this is when Daigoro takes a public flogging rather than give the name of a woman who forced him to help her evade the police, even though she tells him it's OK and gives herself up. He does this simply because she originally told him to promise not to tell anyone.
The films aren't plot or substance heavy though, beyond the occasionally complex but skimmed over reasons behind execution orders and the themes of honour and responsibility. These are exploitation films first and foremost, so are propelled by sex and violence. The former provides some scenes I wasn't entirely comfortable with, when rape rears its ugly head here and there. The instigator is always punished by Itto though at least.
The films are beautifully shot. Scenes are carefully framed and make great use of their surroundings. Each episode tends to be set in a different area of the country, providing desert, forest, farmland, ocean and snow bound chapters. This helps differentiate the films and prevents them from getting too visually repetitive.
They can be very stylish too, if a little of their time. Some quirky editing techniques provide visual interest and sound is used in unusual yet effective fashions at times too. Action scenes are often kept very quiet, with only the slash of swords and cutting of flesh heard when the final blows are laid. This develops tension and highlights the swift and thrilling nature of the violence. The music is a nice mix of funky 70s rock-influenced themes, subtler orchestral cues and occasionally quite experimental synth flourishes.
It's a shame the final episode doesn't tie everything together. Wakayama fell out with the studio when it was announced they were working on a TV series, so no more films were made after White Heaven In Hell, despite it being fairly successful. It's the most bonkers and over the top film in the saga though, with an epic climax, so it caps the set off nicely, even if it's far sillier than the first two films.
Overall it's a wonderful set of films though. With the level of violence on display it won't be for everyone, but if you like your exploitation films to be extreme yet stylish, exciting and with a solid (if subtle) emotional core, you're in for a treat. It's the best live action adaptation of a manga to the screen I've seen too (aided by the fact that the manga author Kazuo Koike was involved in most of the screenplays), so if you're a fan of Japanese comic books (the violent ones at least) you'll have a lot of respect for the Lone Wolf and Cub films.
Lone Wolf and Cub is out on 27th March in a 3 Blu-Ray set in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The picture and sound quality on most films is fantastic. The second film, Baby Cart at the River Styx, had a bit of a grainy flicker at times, but still looked decent for its age.
You get plenty of special features too. Here's the full list:
- New 2K digital restorations of all six films, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks
- High-definition presentation of Shogun Assassin, the 1980 English-dubbed re-edit of the first two Lone Wolf and Cub films
- New interview with Kazuo Koike, writer of the Lone Wolf and Cub manga series and screenwriter on five of the films
- Lame d'un Pere, l'ame d'un sabre, a 2005 documentary about the making of the series
- New interview in which Sensei Yoshimitsu Katsuse discusses and demonstrates the real Suio-ryu sword techniques that inspired those in the manga and films
- New interview with biographer Kazuma Nozawa about filmmaker Kenji Misumi, director of four of the six Lone Wolf and Cub films
- Silent documentary from 1937 about the making of samurai swords, with an optional new ambient score by Ryan Francis
- New English subtitle translations
- PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay and film synopses by Japanese pop culture writer Patrick Macias
No commentaries then, but the interviews are lengthy enough to provide all the behind the scenes information and anecdotes you'd require and the documentary is particularly strong. At close to an hour in length, it offers a substantial look at the development, production and reception of the series.
Shogun Assassin is a welcome addition too. I must admit I haven't had time to watch it yet, but I plan to. I had a skim through and it looks to be a far less classy take on the series, but should be fun to see how they've chopped up and cobbled the first two films together.
So all together it's a stunning set that's a must-buy for fans of Japanese genre films.