Lone Wolf and Cub
Director - Various
Cast - Tomisaburo Wakayama, Fumio Watanabe
Country of Origin - Japan
Discs - 2/3
Distributor - Animeigo/Criterion
Reviewer - Scott MacDonald
The Films (4.5/5)
Lone Wolf and Cub have long been my favorite series of samurai films. I first heard of the series through film geek word of mouth, I had recently been going nuts over the ultra violent Japanese cinema of Takashi Miike, and it was suggested that I might dig Lone Wolf and Cub. I looked it up and decided to blind buy the DVD box, unfortunately, that took quite a bit of time due to being broke, and the restricting price of the set. However, upon receiving my package after months of saving, I was not disappointed.
Lone Wolf and Cub had everything I could want in a samurai film, well choreographed action, and violence, a fantastic story with fantastic acting, and all of it backed up with a great deal of strong thematic heft. I watched each film in the series expecting the quality to diminish, but ended up loving them all.
Lone Wolf and Cub is based off a manga series that began in 1970, and was compromised of 28 volumes with a page count nearing 9000 total pages. The series of manga, like the films themselves were immensely popular due to their frank depiction of samurai violence, and a great story, combined with very detailed attention to the history of the period in which the stories were set.
Lone Wolf and Cub sold close to 8,000,000 copies of the manga just in Japan throughout the 70's, so needless to say there were going to be spinoffs, including the films we have here Lone Wolf and Cub also spawned a TV series that continued the adventures of Ogami Itto and Daigoro on the small screen (albeit with a different cast).
Sword of Vengeance
The Lone Wolf and Cub series starts here with what is essentially the origin story of Ogami Itto and his son Daigaro, and how the pair would become the assassins Lone Wolf and Cub. As the series begins Ogami is the Shogun's Second, basically the official decapitator for the purpose of seppuku executions. He is committed to his position, and to the Shogun. Unfortunately, for Ogami Itto, the Yagyu Shadow Clan want to attain his position for the purpose of gaining more power over the land. They do this by killing his wife, and the members of his household staff, and placing a monument that shows his allegiance to some other force other than the Shogun.
This is a great sign of disrespect, and he is forced to go to trial, which will lead him to commit seppuku. Ogami's son Daigoro survived the assault on the house, and Ogami gives him the option to choose either a toy ball, and join his Mother in the afterlife, or Ogami's own shining sword, and join him on the path to Hell to seek his revenge against the Yagyu. The boy in a seriously beautiful moment crawls over to the sword, bringing Father and son together as demons on the Road to Hell. The film then follows Ogami Itto as he seeks his revenge, and also offers his sword for hire to anyone who will pay him the required 500 gold pieces he charges for his services.
Baby Cart at the River Styx
When Roger Corman was shown the first 2 Lone Wolf and Cub films for possible distribution in the early 70's he took only a few origin-related moments from the first film, and the bulk of this to create the violent pulp samurai classic Shogun Assassin. Baby Cart at the River Styx is what a good sequel in a violent genre franchise is supposed to do, ups the action, and the violence and in the end creates something truly outstanding for fans of the genre.
The film picks up a good little bit after the denouement of the first film. The assassins Lone Wolf and Cub now have a reputation across the land, Ogami Itto's skill with his blade has attained nearly legendary status. He is hired by a fief to assassinate a traitor to their rank. This fief is in the fabric business, and has the recipe for a very specific type of violet dye that makes them quite a nice sum of money every year. During a revolt by company workers, a high-level employee runs away for fear that he will be killed much like the workers who are rebelling. In exchange for protection, he offers the Shogun the secret to the dye. To ensure the successful delivery of the formula the Shogun sends the "Gods of Death," the 3 Bentari Brothers each who have a specific skill to guard the man on his journey. Ogami Itto is given the task to kill the traitor before he can spill their secrets, and ruin their industry.
While this is happening the Yagyu Shadow Clan, enter the territory with Akashi-Yagyu a group of female ninja warriors. They task them with tracking down Ogami Itto, and separating him from his life once and for all. Lone Wolf and Cub must take on both the Akashi-Yagyu's and the Gods of Death and the Shogun's warriors in an epic climax to complete his task, and continue down the road to Hell.
Sword of Vengeance was a great movie with a great atmosphere, and while it had some killer action set-pieces, the Lone Wolf and Cub series proper really comes together in this entry. It ups the amount of action, and bloodshed, and combines it into a multi-narrative story that successfully combines Ogami Itto’s mission with the story present here. This would become the template for future entries.
The Bentari Brothers could probably be considered the series most famous villains. They were so influential that John Carpenter went so far as pay homage to them in Big Trouble in Little China with the Storm Lords.
Baby Cart at the River Hades
Baby Cart to Hades follows our duo as they take a boat ride to their next location. Ogami is told that the baby cart is not allowed on board, and ties it to the back of the boat with Daigoro inside for the journey. While crossing he notices the duo are being followed. Upon arrival on the other side of the water (lake, river?) Lone Wolf and Cub meet up with a prostitute who happens to be staying in the same inn they are.
Soon after arrival the prostitute, Omatsu, kills her pimp after an attempted rape. This gets her into hot water with the clan that she works for, and they would like to torture her for what she's done. Rather, then allow her to suffer Ogami steps up in her place, and gets tortured for her. After putting up with that, the clan offers Ogami a job, he is hired at his usual fee of 500 gold pieces to assassinate an official named Genba. The problem is that Genba has a legion of samurai at his defense.
Baby Cart in the River Hades was released in the U.S. as Lightning Swords of Death (such an irresistible title). It tends to follow the template set by the prior entry, having an excellent main story while continuing Ogami Itto’s mission against the Yagyu. However, this entry more than any other tends to deal with Ogami’s personal ethics and code of honor. This comes out most specifically how he deals with the prostitute at the beginning.
Baby Cart in Peril
This entry has always been my favorite in the series. It involves a young woman Oyuki, who was trained from childhood to be a violent killing machine. Oyuki, after being raped by her tutor Enki escapes the clan, gets a badass back tattoo, and goes about seeking revenge by any means necessary. The film continues following Lone Wolf and Cub on their journey to destroy the Yagyu Clan.
While separated in a town, Ogami Itto is forced to flee leaving Daigoro to search for Ogami throughout the Japanese Countryside, in the process he finds the man originally slated to be the Shogun's Second before Ogami was chosen for the job, he is a disgraced member of the Yagyu Clan after having pointed his sword at the shogun during the trials for the position, and wants a rematch against Itto to prove his worth.
Lone Wolf and Cub then continue their journey to assassinate the tattooed assassin, finally meeting her at a hot spring after watching her decimate another group of would be killers. After that plot line is resolved, the film concludes with another epic samurai battle, as Lone Wolf and Cub take on another army of assassins and Itto ends up in a one on one battle with Retsudo Yagyu.
While the series is called Lone Wolf and Cub, sometimes it can be forgotten that the story is about 2 characters Father and Son, and their personal journey. Baby Cart in Peril, really shows the effects of the Path to Hell on young Daigoro. During the segments where he is alone, and he is forced to survive alone, we see exactly the type of boy he is developing into, and his own code of conduct.
Baby Cart in the Land of Demons
I worked in a bookstore for 5 years during the time I originally saw the Lone Wolf and Cub film series. As soon as I had finished the series, I wanted more, so being an employee I had the ability to check out books from the store, and promptly checked out the first few volumes of the Lone Wolf and Cub manga. I was quite surprised to find out that the story of the fifth movie Baby Cart in the Land of Demons was the story that opens up the manga series.
Baby Cart in the Land of Demons opens up with Ogami Itto being attacked by an assassin in an illustrated veil. While the assassin is bleeding out his last, he tells Ogami Itto that he has 100 gold pieces of the 500 that makes up his fee, and that 4 more similarly veiled assassins will attack him. If he defeats them all, he will have his fee, and understand his mission. That mission is to assassinate a monk that has discovered that a local Lord's son, is actually a daughter who has been put into drag to give the impression of manhood. In order to keep the secret from getting out, the monk must be killed. The monk is also connected to the Yagyu clan, which assist Ogami Itto on his own personal mission.
Baby Cart in the Land of Demons is a fairly interesting entry in the series, with an engaging plot with multiple twist, excellent continued character development, and the intense action the series has become known for.
White Heaven in Hell
The final film in the Lone Wolf and Cub series has Ogami Itto having decimated almost the entirety of the Yagyu clan must now face off against the final heir of Retsudo Yagyu, his daughter Kaori. She has been raised since birth to be the ultimate killer, and is Retsudo's last chance at killing the assassins Lone Wolf and Cub.
It turns out that Retsudo has an illegitimate child, who has sent away to live with a tribe who also taught him to be a formidable fighter. As he has always been the black sheep of the Yagyu clan, he sees this is his opportunity to prove his worth to his Father, and take control of the Yagyu clan (what's left of it) for himself.
I have read over the years that most fans of the series consider this a weak denoument to the series. I have loved it since I first saw it. I find that the lost son of Retsudo trying to prove his worth ties into the family themes of the series as a whole, and the action even when it hits the slopes is still quite thrilling. And while the series doesn't have as definitive an ending (my opinion) as the manga series did, it really is a fitting end to a spectacular series of samurai films.
Overall Thoughts on Series
I came to Lone Wolf and Cub for the action and violence that the series became notorious for. It didn't take long all those years ago to be sucked in by the story, the acting, the atmosphere, and the overarching themes of honor and loyalty carried through out the series. This is a series that could still have been amazing should they have just chosen to get increasingly more violent with time, but instead of going that slasher movie with a samurai route, they have chosen to tell a legitimate story with characters that fully flesh out throughout the 6 films. Also, even with the sameness of the scenarios (each film Ogami gets a mission, each films ends with an epic battle), the films never seem to feel boring, and feel like some great interconnected piece of some great epic story. This is 70's samurai cinema at it's best.
Audio/Video (3/5 - Animeigo, 4.5/5 - Criterion)
Animeigo, the masters of samurai cinema on DVD have brought the Lone Wolf and Cub series to Blu-ray with a series of a 2:35:1 1080p AVC encoded transfer. OK, so I'll start out with the good, because it does get bad and ugly pretty quick. This is definitely a step up from the DVD editions which were amazing for their time, and quite possibly the best non-Criterion Samurai films release of the DVD era. The colors are very bright and vibrant, black levels are solid, and there is definitely some increased detail throughout.
Unfortunately, that ugly little beast known as DNR has reared it's head here, and in a pretty big way. At first I had a bit of a hard time noticing, but the transfers on the first 2 films were significantly less grainy than the elements used in the Shogun Assassin single disc Blu-ray, and then when you get to the close-up (which are numerous), you begin to notice that skin throughout has a very waxy unreal tone that eliminates a lot of facial detail.
All 6 films are presented with nice solid LPCM mono tracks in Japanese with Optional English subtitles.. The dialogue is completely clear throughout the tracks, and music sounds nice and loud as do the numerous sound effects.
It is now 4 years later, and we have a new box set release from Criterion. Criterion presents the films in a series of 7 2:40:1 1080p AVC encoded transfers (the 7th film is Shogun Assassin). All the major issues from the prior Animeigo set have been corrected by Criterion for this version here. We have excellent fine detail throughout, nice deep inky blacks, and stable natural colors. There are no traces of DNR present anywhere in the transfer.
Audio is presented with a series of LPCM 1.0 tracks in Japanese. The tracks are quite suitable, and fit the films well. Dialogue and score come through nicely, and I found nothing to complain about.
Extras (1/5 - Animeigo, 4/5 - Criterion)
The Animeigo release only has program notes. The Criterion release is loaded up with extras. Fans are given documentary pieces about the production history of the films, interviews about the history of the manga, documentaries about the creation of samurai swords, and that is just scratching the surface. There are trailers for all the films in HD, and also an HD restored version of Shogun Assasin. There is also a booklet of liner notes.
Lone Wolf and Cub is my absolute favorite series of samurai films ever created. The Blu-ray from Animeigo filled in the gap for the material earlier in the Blu-ray era, but the new release from Criterion is an absolute essential release for fans of the films. The Animeigo was Recommended at the time of it’s release, but the Criterion is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, and is certainly ESSENTIAL.