You’ll always be careful with knives after seeing the outrageous, impossibly gory violence of this brain-warping samurai series from the early 1970s. Tomisaburo Wakabayashi rolls his tiny tot Daigoro through feudal Japan, looking for trouble. There’s simply been nothing like it: breathtakingly beautiful images aestheticize bloodletting as never before or since.
Lone Wolf and Cub
Sword of Vengeance, Baby Cart at the River Styx, Baby Cart to Hades, Baby Cart in Peril, Baby Cart in the Land of Demons, White Heaven in Hell + Shogun Assassin
The Criterion Collection 841
1972-1974 / Color / 2:40 widescreen / 630 + min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date November 8, 2016 / 99.95
Starring Tomisaburo Wakayama, Akihiro Tomikawa.
Written by Kazuo Koike, Goseki Kojima
Produced by Shintaro Katsu, Hisaharu Matsubara, Tomisaburo Wakayama
Directed by Kenji Misumi, Buichi Saito, Yoshiyuki Kuroda
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
In an unexpected move, Criterion has released one of the most influential Japanese film series of the 1970s, one that was decades ahead of what passed for (no pun intended) cutting edge genre work. Everybody has theories about the eclectic nature of Japanese culture, which seems to have been hit hard by the need to incorporate Western trends, and then exaggerate them. From radical horror movies to truth-telling exposés about advertising to a hide-nothing humanist epic about the true nature of war, Japanese genre filmmaking received trends and blasted them back out stronger. American and Italian filmmakers remade Japanese samurai epics as westerns, upping the violence quotient so much that Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, still the last word in the development of the classic genre, had to take a quantum leap forward in stylized bloodletting. As if absorbing the lessons from Rome and Hollywood, the Japanese filmmakers of the Lone Wolf and Cub series pushed the edge of the envelope so far forward that the series had to wait eight years to be imported to the U.S. — even with its graphic-arts inflected stylization, it was just too outrageously gory.
Let me set the scene: in 1974 I had volunteered to round up studio screening prints for various film series running at the UCLA Film School’s beautiful Melnitz Hall, now re-named the James Bridges Theater. I went onto the Columbia (TBS), MGM, and Paramount lots to do this. When Nick Petersen decided to show some Samurai films I also picked up a few prints at the Toho office, a bare storefront across the street from the old Toho La Brea Theater, now long gone. I remember cruising in with a big smile and the title of the feature I needed written out on a piece of notepaper: Baby Cart at the River Styx, aka Lone Wolf and Cub #2. Only one employee looked in my direction, a young woman apparently given the unpleasant job of dealing with Americans not wearing suits and a tie. An executive in a shiny suit pulled the three Goldberg shipping cases out for me. I looked at the all-Japanese labels and had to take their word for it that I had the right feature. I was shown out cautiously, to be careful that I wasn’t stealing anything. I’m sure that they were all probably quite fluent in English — although nobody would so much as make eye contact with me.
That Sunday night at Melnitz this wild, wild Japanese movie ushered me into a new dimension of dynamic screen violence, as if I’d never seen violent action on a screen before. The ‘baby cart’ movie began with a flurry of graphic sword fighting that looked like ritualized dance, with blocking and editing that highlighted the impression of people being sliced, skewered and split in half by swords so sharp that bone and muscle were cleaved as if they were made of butter. Blood didn’t just flow, it shot out in geysers. Nobody got ‘nicked’, either — body parts flew every which way, with arms and legs thudding to the ground. The duels were all to the death, anyway.
I watched Baby Cart at the River Styx with my mouth hanging open. The film was only a couple of years old at the time, yet it seemed to have come from twenty years in the future. In 1974 the range of Japanese cinema readily available to Americans was so narrow that even film students had little notion that, for sensational content, they had been ranging far ahead of us since the late 1950s. This first experience with a Lone Wolf and Cub movie was like mental eyewash: obviously nothing was taboo any more.
The film’s hero is an impossibly dour, unbeatable swordsman named Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama), a rogue Samurai with unkempt hair, who wanders the roads of feudal-era Japan pushing a bamboo baby cart. Inside is his son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa), a wide-eyed toddler. If the father or son smiles in the course of the six films, it slipped by me. The equally fearless Daigoro instead watches as his father does battle. They get separated once or twice and Daigoro is constantly under threat, but the little Ronin turns out to be a handy helper, throwing weapons Itto’s way when things get tough. The baby cart is itself a weapon. Various pieces fold out into spears and sword-holders; and the rim is lined with barrels that fire off like a Gatling gun. Any more complicated, and the baby cart would have to be a Transformer toy.
By seeing other chapters at the Los Angeles Kokusai Theater, I got the basic plot elements worked out, even if the details escaped me. The chances are that when new characters were being introduced, I was still recovering from the latest explosion of bloodletting. It eventually became clear that star/co-producer Wakayama, original manga writer and screenwriter Kazuo Koike and primary director Kenji Misumi had built this hybrid Samurai epic by including more elements from fanciful Spaghetti westerns. The jazzy music makes no attempt to conjure a period flavor. Ogami Itto’s James Bond-ish baby cart is a flagrant fantasy, possibly conceived as an extension of ‘Colonel Mortimer’s’ saddle-borne arsenal in Leone’s second Dollars film. The action editing reaches a new benchmark in dynamic clarity, and the directing style continually discovers visually stunning compositions. The Tohoscope vistas of sand dunes and silhouetted figures can be compared to those of Sergio Leone, but the sense of scenic beauty is altogether Japanese.
We eventually learned that the films were a feverish adaptation of Kazuo Koike’s insanely popular graphic novels, which eventually grew to over 100 titles. Through the 1980s, as bootleg VHS tapes circulated, the six Lone Wolf and Cub series became known by other names: the “Sword of Vengeance” Series, the “Baby Cart” series. The basic Japanese title is Kozure Okami. Then English-dubbed and re-edited American versions of the first few films appeared: Shogun Assassin and Lightning Swords of Death. A long-running, much tamer Japanese TV show version had begun before the feature series was even completed. It would seem obvious that the original six films must have been completed in just a few months, if only because the tot playing little Daigoro wouldn’t stay tiny very long.
Here’s my breakdown of the six original films:
1. Sword of Vengeance (Kozure Okami: Ko wo kashi ude kashi tsukamatsuru) Directed by Kenji Misumi
2. Baby Cart at the River Styx (Kozure Okami: Sanzu no kawa no ubaguruma) Directed by Kenji Misumi
3. Baby Cart to Hades (Kozure Okami: Shinikazeni mukau ubaguruma) Directed by Kenji Misumi
4. Baby Cart in Peril (Kozure Okami: Oya no kokoro ko no kokoro) Directed by Buichi Saito
5. Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (Kozure Okami: Meifumado) Directed by Kenji Misumi
6. White Heaven in Hell (Kozure Okami: Jigoku e ikuzo! Daigoro) Directed by Yoshiyuki Kuroda
The setup in a nutshell: the first episode begins with Ogami Itto serving as the official Shogunate executioner, a respected position. Living with his wife and baby son Daigoro in the Shogun’s castle, Itto beheads those that offend the Shogun, and also finishes off those committing ritual suicide, with a coup de grace decapitation. In one shocking scene Itto must execute a very small boy. The jealous Yagyu clan frames Ogami Itto, and sends assassins to murder his wife. Unjustly expelled from his position, Itto become a wandering Ronin, knowing that the Yagyus will continue to try to finish him off. Dedicated to a life of killing and vengeance on a ‘road to Hell,’ Ogami solves the question of what to do with the baby Daigoro by placing him on a mat with a colorful ball and a shiny knife. If the boy reaches for the ball, he’ll kill him. If Daigoro reaches for the knife Itto will take him along into the bloody future.
The features that follow see Ogami Itto and Daigoro challenged by countless swordsmen, treacherous women, groups of assassins and an entire army or two. The primary bad guy is the fierce white haired Yagyu chieftain, who delivers hateful threats and dispatches a seemingly endless line of swordsmen to ambush the hero. Eventually the entire Yagyu lineage is so depleted that he must resort to recruiting illegitimate offspring to continue the fight. When they’re gone, the Yagyu boss has several of his best warriors revived from the dead, as zombie swordsmen. What’s amazing is how the directors keep the formula fresh. The first four movies never seem to repeat a setup or situation. They have pace and feeling, and frequently dazzle us with textured visuals filmed in the wind, or among fallen leaves.
If Ogami Itto were any more emotionally rigid he would resemble The Golem. He takes other jobs along the way, finding that some relate back to his personal tragedy. He takes no lovers, yet each show provides at least one sexy encounter. In one delirious sequence, artful superimpositions show a tattoo artist covering a beautiful female assassin with elaborate designs. Curious little Diagoro proves sort of a sexual surrogate for audiences seeking skin. In one hot springs scene he swims over to a beautiful woman for comfort, and proceeds to play with her breasts! Talk about content that would get a filmmaker arrested here in America — in a censor’s view, ‘violence porn’ plus a baby surely equals ‘kiddie porn.’
Some of the Lone Wolf action sequences challenge the best Italian westerns in sheer style. In #2 we get perhaps the most dynamic build-up to a battle ever. An enemy column sees the tiny Daigoro standing atop a sand dune, pointing away to the right — and a blast of guitar music heralds the reveal of Ogami Itto, challenging the entire group to fight. Three sadistic super-killers detect an ambush of soldiers buried beneath the dunes. One of them thrusts his steel-clawed glove into the sand, and blood wells up from below. The ambusher is dragged out, a claw buried in his head!
Elsewhere director Misumi surprises us with his pacing of action scenes, which can erupt at any time, from any direction. Using longer focal length lenses helps with the illusion of danger, and a slight film speed adjustment may be employed as well. But it really looks as if someone could get seriously hurt amid the whirling blades. We can see for ourselves that at least some of the sword edges are razor sharp. For the early 1970s the action cutting is incredibly fast. After the first couple of surprise moves it becomes apparent that the action does make sense, and that the angles are chosen for clarity as well as coolness. One maneuver that repeatedly won applause in theaters saw Ogami dodge forward past a lunging foe, reverse his sword in his hands and stab backwards — practically under his own armpit — to nail his opponent right through the kidney. It’s the equivalent of Burt Lancaster shooting a foe with a backwards circus-trick quick draw in the old Vera Cruz.
We also get our fair share of competing styles of sword fighting, where Samurai attempt to intimidate opponents with talk of their “butterfly stork” style, etc. One style uses hypnotism and in another the sword sprouts flames. The tattooed lady Ronin bares her breasts suddenly during a fight, to gain an advantage. Don’t expect Ogami Itto to be fooled by any of these tactics.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Lone Wolf and Cub series features new 2K digital restorations of all six films, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks. For clarity and color it bests AnimEigo’s fine Blu-ray set from four years ago, and collectors will certainly want to get a look at the fine extras assembled and created by disc producer Curtis Tsui.
As with the AnimEigo discs, the six films are encoded on just two discs, with a third disc set aside for the Shogun Assassin import version and the extras.
Producer Tsui first nabs a very smart 2005 Wild Side documentary that tells the entire story of the creation of the series, starting with the Manga. Actor and eventual producer Tomisaburo Wakayama is the brother of the even bigger producer-star Shintaru Katsu, whose blind swordsman Zatoichi series was in its twelfth year of popularity.
The extras continue with in-depth interviews with the series’ originator Kazuo Koike, and critic Kazuma Nozawa, who puts forward director Kenji Misumi as a stylist worthy of praise. Another interview is a somewhat odd visit with Yoshimitsu Katsuse, a genuine sword master who proceeds to talk about the cult of swordsmanship in a somewhat formal context. His talk is accompanied by a B&W, silent half-hour docu about solemn sword makers that treat their creations as holy instruments. Trailers for all of the films are included.
Helping newbies embrace the cult of Lone Wolf and Cub is an insert booklet with an essay and individual film assessments by Patrick Macias. He has a good handle on their shock value (which certainly threw me in college) and their significance to the evolution of the genre and violent fantasy in general. He opens with a description of how actor Tomisaburo Wakayama convinced manga author Koike that only he could play Ogami Itto, despite not having the physique of an athlete — by performing somersaults and fancy samurai moves right at the author’s house. The colorful bloodletting in the series is shocking, absurd, outrageous and even funny, but it’s presented in such an aestheticized way that the films never verge on self-parody. What can you say, when one’s first reaction is how beautiful everything looks? Back in the day, Toho’s gleaming color prints were positively dazzling on the big screen.
When writing about the Lone Wolf series I always return to the marvelous, absurd situation at the conclusion of #2, Baby Cart at the River Styx, that convinced me I was seeing a slice (or sixty slices) of pure genius. One of Ogami Itto’s cocky opponents is dying slowly on a sand dune, his throat sliced neatly open. Even in this near-death state of agony he musters the wherewithal to recite a dreamy self-eulogy: “That was… beautiful…. I always wanted to cut somebody that way. (Pause) But for it to happen to me….. IT’S RIDICULOUS!” Then he pitches face down in the sand.
It’s priceless. Ogami Itto lays ’em out like that all through the series.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Lone Wolf and Cub Blu-ray
Supplements: High-definition presentation of Shogun Assassin, a 1980 English-dubbed reedit of the first two Lone Wolf and Cub films; New interviews with Kazuo Koike, original manga writer and screenwriter on five of the films, with sword master sensei Yoshimitsu Katsuse, with biographer Kazuma Nozawa about Kenji Misumi, director of four of the six films; Lame d’un père, l’àme d’un sabre, a 2005 French documentary about the making of the series; Silent 1939 documentary about the making of samurai swords; trailers; insert booklet essay and individual film coverage by Patrick Macias.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 6, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson