Kenji Misumi and Buichi Saito (director)
Criterion Collection (studio)
554min approx (length)
27 March 2017 (released)
04 April 2017
This incredible set contains 6 feature-length movies based on the hugely successful LONE WOLF AND CUB Manga series, catapulting the so-called Chanbara sword-fight movies to new and blood-drenched heights. The six movies, filmed between 1972 and 1974, tell of the Shogun executioner Itto Ogami, who is framed for treason and thus turns ‘assassin for hire’. Together with his infant son Daigoro and a baby cart which can best be described as a mini-arsenal on wheels, he wanders the countryside on the demon way to hell.
The first film, titled Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance, tells how Itto Ogami’s (Tomisaburo Wakayama) life changes when his position as a Shogun executioner ends after he executes a boy daimyo (feudal lord) and is set up by Inspector Bizen and the so-called Yagyu Clan for treason… who want to take over the post. In flashbacks we see how, months earlier, Ogami’s wife Asami is killed by three ninjas – seemingly a reprisal deed for his execution of the boy daimyo. However, there is much more to the complex plot than meets the eye and henceforth Ogami, together with his infant son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa), whom he pushes through the countryside in a baby cart equipped with all sorts of weaponry, not only has to constantly ward off potential assassins in order to protect his and his son’s life but in order to make a living he is now an assassin for hire. The stunts are beyond belief while the violence is often so extreme that it borders on the darkly humorous, what with severed limbs flying off in all sorts of directions and blood fountains shooting out of wounded bodies. Even rape and nudity are depicted in a rather graphic manner, then again, we are talking Manga!
Over the next five movies, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons, and Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell, our hero (though little Daigoro seems just as much on the ball!) finds himself in impossible situations when he has to fight off a deadly trio of brothers armed with iron claws, a flying mace and armored gloves, and women with bladed straw hats! As the attacks become ever more outlandish (as do the characters) we see just how effective the seemingly simple baby cart is, for not only does it contain a bullet-proof shield but also retrievable daggers, spears, and mini machine guns! We have dancing geishas who turn out to be cunning female assassins, ninjas performing balancing acts in mid-air while mercilessly slicing through humans and objects with swords, and just about everything in between! Icing on the cake is the sixth instalment White Heaven in Hell with a finale that puts James Bond to shame, for our Lone Wolf Itto Ogami fights off an entire army of evil assassins on sleds, on skies, on ice… it has to be seen to be believed and even then it’s hard to believe – trust me!
However, the movies don’t just contain breath-taking fight sequences and stunts but also increasingly complex plots and a multitude of characters which seem to re-appear as the films go on, albeit in different guises. The sheer complexity of Japanese etiquette, social order, the Shogun lifestyle and culture per se (the time frame of the story is never mentioned but it is set during the Edo period) will leave many confused but it still leaves us mortal Westerners with enough stuff to enjoy!
Tomisaburo Wakayama, a highly respected actor with a strong theatrical background (who died in 1992 at the age of 62) is the perfect embodiment as Lone Wolf Ogami Itto, the scowling Ronin assassin. His incredible performance is further heightened by the fact that despite his seemingly unfit physique, Wakayama was an expertise sword fighter and perhaps the most respected on-screen one in Japan’s entire movie history. Akihiro Tomikawa as little Daigoro makes for equally perfect casting and although he only ever utters the words ‘Papa’ and ‘No’ he is a quick learner when it comes to survival tactics!
Particular praise has to go to Toshio Taniguchi’s inspired editing skills which lend the perfectly choreographed fight sequences even more terror and allure!
The set furthermore offers an array of interesting Special Features including the movie SHOGUN ASSASSIN, the 1980 English-dubbed re-edit of the first two Lone Wolf films (the six feature films are in Japanese with English subtitles).