Lone Wolf & Cub: the best comic book movie franchise ever?


Like most western viewers, I came to the Lone Wolf & Cub series via Shogun Assassin – a recut/mash-up of the first two movies, trimmed to 90 minutes and dubbed into English by a pair of enterprising Andy Warhol acolytes. It was one of the original ‘video nasties’ in the UK, banned for years, so highly desirable to a kid like me. And it didn’t disappoint. In fact, it was probably the goriest movie on the list.

While it may seem criminal now to butcher a pair of bona fide Japanese classics and completely change their meaning and tone, Shogun Assassin got away with it by being so vibrant and hyperactive. The inappropriate score is a joyful synthesiser meltdown and the spirited dub goes full-pelt, even if what they’re saying is quite different to the original Japanese dialogue. The narrative’s driven by a voiceover from a character who says literally just two words throughout the original six films, but it sounds so rad so you won’t even care. In fact, the introductory monologue has the honour of being the sample that kicks off one of the greatest albums of all time (Liquid Swords by GZA) and you can’t argue with that.

Of course, Shogun Assassin also found its following because it was, for a while, difficult to find the original Lone Wolf & Cub series in the West. This changed with the dawn of DVD, when some so-so quality releases emerged but now, thanks to Criterion UK, British viewers can finally view the entire uncut franchise (with the added bonus of the Shogun Assassin cut) in the truly beautiful 2K Blu-Ray restoration it deserves. The series is not just some of the finest Japanese cinema of the 70s but also possibly the first comic book movie franchise aimed at adults. For my money, it’s still the best one too. The influence of its creator Kazuo Koike on worldwide pop culture can’t be understated either. In addition to Lone Wolf & Cub, Koike created other popular characters like Hanzo the Razor, Lady Snowblood, Crying Freeman and, by extension of this, Quentin Tarantino (but then nobody’s perfect).

Lone Wolf & Cub’s origins lie in manga which, in the early 70s, was in something of a golden age. Koike came up with the idea because he wanted to take the typical story of a ‘superheroic’ samurai but one with a vulnerability – hence the addition of an infant son who travels everywhere with him. The comic was a phenomenal hit and it wasn’t long before Japan’s film industry came knocking on Koike’s door. Quite literally. The imposing figure of Tomisaburo Wakayama – a popular actor of the time, known for his jidaigeki (period dramas) – paid a visit to Koike begging to be allowed to play Lone Wolf, despite being somewhat more heavyset than the character in the comics. He then put on a demonstration of swordplay and acrobatics that convinced Koike that he was indeed the right man for the job, and the rest was history.

Wakayama’s brother Shintarô Katsu (famous for playing Zatoichi, the blind samurai) had recently become jaded with where he felt Japanese cinema was headed. Yakuza plots were popular and he was acting in films that, in his own words, he “wanted to burn” so he set up his own company – Katsu Productions. Initially he used this to make more Zatoichi films but, when Wakayama pitched the Lone Wolf movies, they both knew they were onto a winner.

Sword Of Vengeance

The first film, Sword Of Vengeance, was one of three shot and released in 1972 and I can’t even imagine what it would’ve been like seeing it back then (although the visual impact of the new Blu-Ray discs certainly gives you a taste).

It’s essentially an origin story. Wakayama plays Itto Ogami, the Shogun’s executioner who gets framed as a traitor by the Ura-Yagyu shadow clan, rogue faction of government officials who seek to claim positions of higher power, including Itto’s. They murder his wife and this forces him to abandon his post and – along with his baby son Daigoro – become Lone Wolf & Cub, wanderers “on the Demon Way to Hell” seeking only vengeance on the Yagyu.

This story is told in flashbacks, intercut with scenes of Itto pushing Daigoro a ‘special’ (read: tricked-out) baby cart from village to village, accepting assassination jobs for money. His latest job finds him sent to a hot spring to kill a group of bandits who’ve taken over. Each scene in this ‘hot spring in Hell’ is ultra-tense, as Itto bides his time and waits for the right moment before unleashing the expected avalanche of violence…

And, boy, is this film violent! The death scenes even now are shocking, explicit, gory to the point of being absurdist, mindblowingly brutal, yet strange and beautiful. I still remember the first time I saw the duel scene where Itto decapitates his opponent in front of a sunset and it’s stunning. And that’s what makes Sword Of Vengeance so compelling.

It’s a familiar revenge narrative for the most part but visually it’s forever contrasting things, creating tension in every nook and cranny. It plays eerily with shadows, shifting the eye’s focus from light to dark in the same way its characters flit between good and evil. For every scene of base ugliness (the rape scene is particularly vile), there’s something breathtakingly beautiful around the corner. For all the noise and fury, there are moments of captivating tranquillity. Director Kenji Misumi had studied under the master Teinosuke Kinugasa (who won the 1953 Palme D’or with Gate Of Hell) and was by no means the kind of exploitation hack you might associate with the subject matter. He brings a classical grace to the material that’s distinctly Japanese.

Baby Cart At The River Styx

Despite some behind-the-scenes issues with contracts and distribution, the sequel was rushed into production almost instantly. In all the chaos, Misumi, Katsu and Wakayama didn’t know if the franchise would survive, so they flung as much excitement and action into this one as they could. Kazuo Koike, who was writing the screenplays concurrently with the manga, was deemed ‘too slow’ on delivering the script so had to literally phone in huge sections from Tokyo to the location shoot in Kyoto. Misumi would take notes and the crew would improvise from there. The result is a highly kinetic picture that’s probably the craziest of the whole series.

We pick up where Sword Of Vengeance left off, although Itto’s ‘mission’ this time is a bit of a naff one. It involves a village where they make a much-coveted indigo dye. As a result of some nefarious plotting, the head indigo artisan goes on the lam and the village elders hire Itto to track him down and kill him to retain order. To be honest, it’s hard to give a flying one about the indigo dye B plot until we find that the dudes guarding the runaway artisan are THE MONKS OF DEATH! These are three guys in huge hats with astonishing weaponry, who slash up anyone who goes near them. To make things even harder for Itto, the Yagyu have sent a ninja clan after him AND a group of sword mistresses led by the furious Sayaka (Kayo Matsuo).

The introduction of the sword mistresses is cinematic gold. A ninja is challenged to leave the room and enter the garden, which he thinks will be easy. I mean, he’s a ninja after all, right? But as soon as he leaps into the air, the quiet, unassuming girls around him break out of their meditation poses and are on him like wild beasts. In unsettling silence and shadow, they methodically hack him to pieces. His ears, his nose, his fingers, his arms and legs all get lopped off one by one in gruelling, splattery detail, leaving him just a stumpy flank and head twitching on the floor, ready for the death blow. It’s a ferociously grim scene and yet, again, has a sense of almost noble serenity. The way it’s shot is a far cry from your usual chop-em-up chanbara.

The climactic fight scene on the sand dunes is another winner – a wonderful scene that lets little Daigoro show off the new additions to his iconic baby cart, including all kinds of switch-operated blades that pop out to deal carnage. Misumi and his team capture the comic book aesthetic perfectly. So many shots here look like perfect panels and this intricate, colourful approach is way ahead of its time. As well as planting the seeds for later comic book movies, this goes deep into its source material, bringing to life the nostalgic adoration of nature that permeates Kazuo Koike’s vision and Goseki Kojima’s illustrations. It’s easy to feel humbled by the vastness and the beauty of the Japanese countryside (and its many weather conditions) as it becomes a character in itself.

Don’t get me wrong though. Baby Cart At The River Styx is no shrinking violet of a picture and subtlety is not its jam. The elemental themes of fire and water reach their logical peak in a dramatic scene on a boat that’s on fire in the ocean (!) and so many heads get chopped in half down the middle of the face, you’ll almost stop going “OOOUUUCH!” by the end. Almost.

Baby Cart To Hades

The third part of the story – again, shot in 1972, a testament to that famous Japanese prolificacy – finds Itto and Daigoro wandering deeper into the wilderness of violence to which they’re condemned. Again, multiple plots run concurrently. First of all is the obligatory ‘job’ that Itto takes which comes via a woman he befriends on a boat, who’s being trafficked and taken to a whorehouse. After she bites the pimp’s tongue off and kills him, she seeks refuge with Itto, who then finds himself in debt to the whorehouse’s yakuza madame (a perfectly cast Yûko Hama, whose unusual striking looks make her appear like she’s just stepped out of a manga panel). She tortures him to repay the debt and then, realising what a badass he is, employs him to assassinate the official responsible for the fall of her clan…

Within this narrative, events twist to fit with the ongoing story of the Yagyu’s attempts to destroy Lone Wolf and Cub. We also get a dark, fascinating subplot involving Kanbei (Go Kato) a ronin in search of what it means to be a true samurai (the answer is a grimly existential one that reinforces the theme that, in part at least, masculinity = madness).

Baby Cart To Hades tones down the splattery gore a little from the first two films but the irrepressible presence of violence has maybe increased. From the horrendous rape scene that opens the film to the climactic massacre, it makes it clear that even if there’s not anything violent happening, it’s likely to erupt at any moment. This is maybe the first film in the series that starts to feel other-worldly, as the Japanese landscapes that shaped the first two evaporate before your eyes, becoming bleak, misty vistas that could pass for the Hades in the title. The fact that Itto and Daigoro seem to walk endlessly through the fog, occasionally being set upon by deadly ninjas, etc, further backs up the feeling that the ‘Demon Way to Hell’ they’ve bought into may now be literal.

And that’s part of what keeps this series so watchable. Itto is not a likeable protagonist at all (he’s a mass murderer) but he does have a strict code of honour and is incomparably fatalistic; to the point of nihilism. He wanders into fights where the odds are stacked against him not out of arrogance but out of a belief that he will die when fate has decided he will die, whenever that may be. Having established that he and his son have chosen the path “through the six Hells and four lives”, he just doesn’t give a fuck about ANYTHING and that makes for some jawdropping moments as he finds himself in awful, irrational situations. There’s something very dangerous about someone who’s stopped caring and Itto Ogami is the epitome of this danger.

The final scene here, visibly influenced by Spaghetti Westerns, has an epic magnitude that looks phenomenal on Blu-Ray. When the final bright red arterial spray showers the screen, bloodshed has never looked more majestic. And, although producer Katsu hated it and wanted it removed, we even get a catchy Django style theme song (“Lone Wolf and Cub, they’re coming!”) to play us out. Classic.

Interestingly, with the films being a huge hit by this stage, Katsu Productions were placing very few limitation on budgets While there was pressure to pump out more as quickly as possible, the Lone Wolf team were allowed to spend pretty much whatever they wanted, which results in some innovative and reckless techniques being employed. For example, there’s a decapitation in this movie where we see the head cut off and flung through the air from the head’s POV. To achieve the effect, they simply hurled the camera through the air onto the ground. It (obviously!) broke the camera, which had to be replaced at extra cost, but they got the shot and that was what counted…

Baby Cart In Peril

In the fourth part of the saga, director Misuni took a break, allowing Buichi Saitô (a protégé of Yasujirō Ozu , probably the greatest Japanese filmmaker of all time) to take the chair. Saitô brought with him Kazuo Miyagawa, the cinematographer who shot Kurosawa classics like Rashomon and Yojimbo. Fear not though. Any worry that this artful pedigree may tone down the films’ devotion to sex and violence is allayed in the first scene, as we meet Itto’s latest target: a girl named Yuki who has deserted her lord. She’s covered in elaborate tattoos and fights bare-breasted, as we see before the credits have even rolled while she chops up a horde of ninjas. Obviously, immediately, we all love Yuki so it makes the stakes quite real for this one. We know Itto has a 100% success rate with assassinations and yet (for perhaps the first time?) we really don’t want him to kill her.

There’s a subplot too which gives baby Daigoro something to do, as he wanders off and finds himself in a field of fire, being observed by a mysterious samurai obsessed with ‘Death Life Eyes’ (the look that a man has in his eyes when he’s killed hundreds of men and a look that the samurai sees in Daigoro’s eyes, much to his astonishment)… what could it all mean?

Well, everything ties together, along with a whole new strain of inter-clan intrigues told in flashback. What’s great about this one is that we also get some interesting exploration of gender roles within Edo society at the time, particularly the idea of women being viewed as property rather than people. The emblematic Yuki is far more than just a girl who chops up ninjas with her top off, and her story is one of the best, most provocative arcs in the series.

We also start to finally grow a deeper understanding of Itto’s philosophies and codes as he develops from nihilistic anti-hero into, actually, a kind of hero. The idea that death is unimportant but the way of death – and the honour in that – means everything is really hammered home here and Wakayama’s performance is better than ever under Saitô’s hand. He conveys tremendous pain and is utterly fearsome. It’s not just the fact that, four films in, he’s racked up a triple-figure body count either (which is not bad for a dude who, at first, just seems like a middle-aged fat bloke with a weird kid). It’s in the nuance of how he plays it. Look in his eyes, man. He’s mad.

Baby Cart In Peril also has the bonus of some batshit violence including a guy who has a literal flaming sword, ninjas with primitive rocket launchers, and a dude called The Facemaker who can turn his face into anyone else’s at will. If you’re not already convinced that this is a truly special series then there’s no hope.

Baby Cart In The Land Of Demons

That said, if there’s a weak link in the series, it’s maybe Misumi’s return and his final crack at the franchise, Baby Cart In The Land Of Demons. It’s as expertly assembled as the rest on a technical level but suffers from a meandering and disjointed story in which Itto takes on a really convoluted assassination job. For a start, it take fives suicidal guys to tell him – one at a time – each piece of the story before he can even accept the job and, when he does, it’s a pretty tedious clan conspiracy, tied into the rest of the mythos by the fact that super-evil Lord Retsudo (the arch-nemesis of the whole thing) has been assigned to protect one of the targets.

The highlight is maybe the Daigoro subplot as he goes missing (again!) at a fair and gets mixed up with Quick-Change O-Yo (Tomomi Sato), a cute pickpocket being pursued by an Edo cross between Sherlock Holmes and Dirty Harry called Senzo the True Heart… but when this enjoyable but moralistic B story is the most exciting part of the film, you know the franchise has wandered from the (demon) path a little.

Still, it’s not that there’s nothing to like here. The photography’s gorgeous as ever, the acting is fantastic and there’s plenty of good spurty gore but ultimately Land Of Demons feels like a holding card, the first time the series has ever delivered filler. It’s fine, but it’s not quite Lone Wolf and Cub fine.

White Heaven In Hell

Still, the saga concludes in a suitably dramatic fashion as Itto and Daigoro prepare to meet their fate: a final showdown with the evil Lord Retsudo. There’s not really a B plot in here like the usual assassination mission so – perhaps appropriately to the characters’ development – everything feels minimalist and pared down. From the sparse snowy landscapes that frame much of the action to the way that the story reduces to just the conflict between the two men, shit gets real. While he may have been a younger and less experienced director, Yoshiyuki Kuroda (best known for his Yokai Monsters series) took the reins and wheeled the baby cart off towards a brutal, brilliant conclusion.

I think it’d be easy, as a result of not much actually happening, to accuse White Heaven In Hell of being slow but the atmosphere carries it along between ferocious battle scenes. Retsudo sends his knife-wielding daughter after Itto and, when that doesn’t work, tries to enlist the help of an estranged son who’s been left for dead in the mountains and has grown up… a little odd. Some genuine supernatural elements are introduced too, which reinforce the abstract thread running through the film that none of it’s even real. It’s literal Hell.

All of these skirmishes lead to the climactic confrontation, which takes place on a snowy mountain and is a series highlight; a sequence that took a month to film, with hundreds of specialist extras (ninjas on skis!) and a real snowbound location. Wakayama nearly died doing one of the stunts, Akihiro Tomikawa (who plays Daigoro) gave up entirely (he’s replaced by a doll!) and everybody got so cold in the snow, they wanted to stop too but they didn’t and there’s no denying how great all that arterial spray looks on the white background… It was all worth it.

One thing of note is that the film doesn’t end in the same way Koike planned for the manga to end and it wasn’t intended to be the last instalment either. It was only stopped because a watered-down TV series went into production and Wakayama lost his temper, demanding that it be shut down because he was the only true Lone Wolf. He refused to play the role if someone else was also doing it and that was that. It’s a shame that the two couldn’t run concurrently because, honestly, this movie series could’ve probably gone on forever without losing steam whereas no one really remembers the TV show that killed it.

I think, as a result of this, some people may find the ultimate conclusion of White Heaven In Hell a little unsatisfying or inconclusive but, in its own weird way, it works. Maybe the fact that it doesn’t have an ‘ending’ is the only true ending a story like this could have. An endless loop of perpetual violence as Itto and Daigoro walk The Demon Way In Hell forever.

Lone Wolf & Cub: The Criterion Collection is out now on Blu-ray in the UK.



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