Plot: What’s it about?
The Lone Wolf and Cub films are films based upon a popular manga series by the legendary writer Kasuo Koike (also known for creating Lady Snowblood.) Criterion has recently released an extensive box set featuring all six of the films in the series, and the English language dubbed amalgamation of the first four films called Shogun Assassin. Plots will be summarized below with an overall impression of the box set left for the final paragraph.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance
The first film, Lone Wolf and a Cub: Sword of Vengeance, begins the story of Ogami Itto, the Shogunnate Executioner and his infant son Daigoro. The executioner is set up by the extremely ambitious and treacherous Yagyu clan to be framed for harboring plans to overthrow the shogun. In their attempt to set up Ogami, they murder his wife. Swearing vengeance upon them, Ogami pledges to seek out and kill all of the Yagyu clan. Unfortunately, he is now a single father. He gives his child a choice: the ball or the sword. If the infant chooses the ball, Ogami will send him to meet his mother in the netherworld. If he chooses the sword, the child will live the assassin’s life with his father. The boy chooses the sword and they leave behind everything they own to exact revenge as assassins and mercenaries.
The first adventure finds the lone wolf and cub hired to assassinate four men whom have taken over a small town located on a hot spring in order to earn 500 ryo. Along the way they befriend a prostitute and run afoul of several unsavory characters including a knife thrower and a rapist. The final battle in the middle of the town is nothing short of epic.
The first film is an excellent introduction to the series. Having read some of the manga, I was struck by how close the film stuck to the material, but this should come as no surprise because the creator of the manga, Kazuo Koike, wrote the screenplay for the film. The acting is top-notch, if sometimes a bit campy. The actor who plays Ogami, Tomosaburo Wakaysma, is absolutely great for the role, mixing stoicism with fast rage. The film delivers the goods on atmosphere and pacing, not letting up until the logical end of the episode. The film is incredibly stylized with lots of arterial sprays during battles and the occasional drop in sound or slow motion for important scenes. The film does a great job of establishing the Lone Wolf as slow and methodical until speed is necessary. Overwhelmingly, the film is just really cool and interesting, in no small part due to the direction of Kenji Misumi, already famous for his work on the Zatoichi film series. The film should leave you hungry for more of their adventures.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx
The second film, Lone World and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx picks up after the actions in the first film, and finds Lone Wolf and Cub continuing on their “Demon Path In Hell.” They are enlisted to assassinate a dye manufacturer that knows the secrets of a town’s dye production. He is guarded by three men known collectively as BenTenRai that are taking him to the Shogun. If the dye manufacturer arrives safely to the Shogun, the town will fall into squalor as its secret manufacturing principles will become common knowledge. The BenTenRai are formidable opponents, one with a claw, one with a mace, and one with a sword. Along the way, Lone Wolf and Cub will need to navigate their way past the female Yunya assassins that line their path. This all leads to a fantastic showdown in a dessert.
This is a great example of a sequel that completely lives up to the promise of the first film. Due to the episodic nature of the manga itself, the story continues naturally into this episode and conveniently blends into the next episode in the series. I personally think in many ways that the sequel is even more refined in its techniques visually and even more fun than the first film. Once again, the screenplay is written by Kazuo Koike himself. Also returning is director Kenji Misumi, who really brings the thunder for the second film. Fans of the first film should be ecstatic with the second.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades
The third film, Lone World and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades picks up after the actions in the second film, and finds Lone Wolf and Cub continuing on their “Demon Way To Hell.” In this adventure they are continuing their journey on a small ship when Daigoro gently befriends a young girl that has been sold into prostitution. Upon arrival to the shore her pimp attempts to rape her and she bites off his tongue causing his unexpected death. She flees to Daigoro’s and Ogami’s room and they protect her from those who want to put her back into prostitution. Then a beautiful woman who runs the brothels arrives with a gang and explains that they will not be satisfied unless Ogami receives torture in place of her to pay her debt. After the torture, the brothel runner asks Ogami to assassinate a governor in the area to keep news of the pimp’s death a secret. Ogami accepts along with his normal 500 ryo.
The third film is an excellent continuation of the series with an outrageously violent finish involving the most people that have been fought onscreen at one time by the Lone Wolf. There is a lot to like here, but I still prefer the first two films to this third entry. Don’t get me wrong, it still left me thirsty for more, I just felt that it was not quite as exciting as the previous two chapters. Once again, Kenji Misumi and Kazuo Koike collaborated to create this entry, so the tone has largely remained the same as the previous films, albeit a bit slower. Fans will enjoy this middle of the road chapter in the saga.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril
The fourth film in the series is the first film to not be helmed by director Kenji Misumi, with Buichi Saito taking the reigns. This shift towards another director is actually welcome to give a different feel for the series. This film is much more musical and feels more of its time and place (the seventies.) Luckily it is still screen written by Kazuo Koike which helps to keep the writing consistent.
In this episode, Ogami has been hired to assassinate Yuki, a beautiful sword wielder with tattooed breasts. Along the way, he must fend off Yunya assassins (in one of the best disguises yet) and must also battle against a man he had defeated to become the Shogun’s executioner. The film also tells us the origin of Yuki and her quest for revenge against the sorcerer Kozuka Enki.
I really loved this episode. The casting of the gorgeous Michigan Azusa as Yuki helps to elevate this film. She is absolutely beautiful. The fight sequences are absolutely fantastic, even by the already high standards set in the previous films. For my money, this is probably the most beautifully filmed of the series. It’s a great thing when the fourth film reaches a new landmark for the series. Even the soundtrack took a different direction with a much more frenetic pacing. This movie shakes it up and leaves you ready for the next one.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons
For the fifth film, Kenji Misumi returned to direct his final installment of the series. This was also the last film in the series that had a screenplay by Kazuo Koike. This film’s tone is closer to the earlier films in pacing after the more frenetic pace of the fourth installment.
In this adventure, Ogami is approached by a swordsman and the swordsman upon his defeat offers Ogami a 100 ryo downpayment. There will be five more people to test his swordsmanship, each revealing what the job will be and the secrets necessary for the Lone Wolf to accept the job. With each fight the plot becomes revealed. Essentially, one province has a lord who has disguised a girl as his prince, even though his actual son is hidden elsewhere. He wrote this all in a letter that he gave to a priest for safe-keeping. That priest was actually part of the Yunya clan and is on his way to deliver the letter to the Shogun. The Lone Wolf must stop the letter from arriving at its destination.this film also continues the battle between Ogami and Retsudo, the white-haired Yunya leader blinded in an eye in the previous episode.
This episode is solidly written and features some of the best scenes from the entire series.Like the others it is relentlessly brutal, with Ogami killing any and all who think to raise a sword against him. The scene in the marketplace where his child stands up for a thief is one of the best scenes of the series. The fighting scene that finishes off the episode is arguably the finest of the entire series as far as choreography and sheer bloodletting. This is a great send off for the notable director and screenwriter. Just two years later Kenji Misumi would no longer be amongst us living unfortunately.
Lone Wolf and Cub: White a Heaven in Hell
The sixth and final film in the series is the first to be written without the assistance of creator Kazuo Koike. The director for the final film was Yoshiyuki Kuroda and the screenplay was written by Tsutomo Nakamura who had helped with the fifth film’s screenplay.
The sixth film has Retsudo send out his daughter Kaori, dagger juggler and the last of the Ura-Yunya left living, to kill Ogami. When this attempt fails, Retsudo turns to Hyoe, a secret son hidden in the mountains. Hyoe had been abandoned in the mountains by his father because he was son of his mistress. Hyoe accepts the responsibility to kill Ogami for his own enrichment and to steal the thunder of the Yagyu. Hyoe summons his three best men of his spider clan whom have lived underground, buried, for 40 days. These men begin to taunt Ogami and Daigoro by killing any innocent people that the Lone Wolf and Cub should encounter.
The good news about the final film is that it is probably the most nerve wracking and strangest of the six films. Also, it is probably the most visually striking of the films, even if it is not the most stylish. A sword fight at a lake house in particular looked absolutely stunning and so are all the scenes shot in winter. The only real negative is that the film does feel pretty removed in some ways from the previous films, mainly due to some of the stranger elements in this film that are pretty removed from the other films. It still totally works and serves as a solid if imperfect ending to the series. The final showdown is fittingly epic, but it looks a little goofy to me (I won’t spoil it but you will know it when you see it.) That said, it does not quite fully wrap up the story, leaving room for further adventures, which is also a bit unsatisfying. This means that this movie, while good, is not the best in the series.
These films are really fantastic. As a whole, they represent one of the finest a Japanese film series ever created. The films are not for everybody due to their violent nature and also because five out of six films have a rape featured prominently in the film. That said, these films took Japanese exploitation cinema and made a piece of art within its confines. There is some fantastic storytelling on display along with some absolutely astounding sword fighting sequences. The films hold nothing back with blood spattering frame after frame. The direction is for the most part incredibly strong with only minor missteps here or there. For me personally, the fourth film Baby Cart in Peril is probably my favorite of the six, but that is totally my opinion. I hope that with Criterion’s rerelease of these classic films, hopefully a new generation will discover these and continue to tell their friends that they need to check them out. They hold up. If you haven’t ever seen these, there is no better time than now.
(If you are looking for more in depth reviews and second opinions, Fusion 3600 has reviewed several of these movies in their previous DVD form.)
Video: How’s it look?
All the films are presented in an aspect ratio of 2.40:1, encoded with MPEG-4 AVC and granted 1080p transfers. The results are for the most part fantastic. In the spectrum of Criterion releases that fit the bill, this is more impressive than their work on the Samurai Trilogy, more impressive than Tokyo Drifter, and pretty much on par with the Lady Snowblood collection. Occasionally the picture can be a bit soft, but this is more representative of how the film was shot (similar to Lady Snowblood, in this respect.) I was lucky enough to own the Animeigo release of the Blu-rays and the Criterion versions of the films are much more detailed and natural looking. Overall, I was very pleased and occasionally blown away, but adjust your expectations according to what you know of the films. It will never be a perfect 10 visually, but that doesn’t stop it from being effective.
Audio: How’s it sound?
The audio on this release is of fairly high quality. The scores for all the films are solid, my favorite being the score for the fourth film. Overall fidelity is good, but the actual sound design of the film will probably rub some people the wrong way due to certain instances where there is no sound at all when there is action occurring (no rain noise during a storm for example.) Obviously, surrounds are non-existent and this is a center speaker affair with a Japanese LPCM Mono track, but it still can sound pretty good at times. At the end of the day, this is likely to be the best that these films will ever sound. Solid work by Criterion, and another example of why they are leading the charge in film preservation.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- Trailers – trailers are provided for each of the films, including Shogun Assassin
- Shogun Assassin – one of the best special features is the standalone film made in 1980 that cobbled together scenes from the first two films. This is dubbed in English, and the set would not be complete without it. The original English dub was used for samples in one of my favorite rap albums ever, GZA/Genius’s Liquid Swords. Here the film is presented in beautiful HD. (1080p, 1 hour 25 min)
- Kazuo Koike – in this brand new video interview, writer Kazuo Koike explains the genesis of Lone Wolf and Cub as a manga and a film. This was filmed in 2015 when he gave his interview regarding Lady Snowblood. This is well worth your time, with some really touching memories of his collaborators. That said, if you do not know the ending to the manga series, that is given away in this feature. In Japanese, with optional English subtitles. (11 min, 1080p).
- Kenji Misumi – in this brand new video interview, Misumi biographer Kazuma Nozawa discusses the work and life of the director and how he came to direct four of the Lone Wolf films. Misumi had a very hard upbringing that seems ripe for a solid biography. Good stuff. The interview was conducted exclusively for Criterion in 2015. In Japanese, with optional English subtitles. (12 min, 1080p).
- On Suio-Ryu- A short piece about the sword fighting style used by the man character in the films. Recorded for Criterion in 2016. (13 min, 1080p)
- Sword of the Samurai – a silent 1939 documentary detailing the making of a traditional samurai sword. It is presented with an optional ambient score that weirded me out. (30 min, 1080p)
- L’ame D’un Pere, L’ame D’un Sabre – (Blade of a father, Soul of a Sword)- made by Wild aside films in France in 2005. This documentary delves into the production of the films with interviews with Buicho Saito, Kazuo Koike, Kazuma Nozawa, and others. Probably the best feature on the disk aside from Shogun Assassin. (52 mins, SD)
The Bottom Line
I was actually lucky enough to own the incredibly rare Animego Blu-ray set so I was familiar with the films. I sold that set as soon as I got an inkling that Criterion would be releasing a box set of the films and then purchased the Criterion box set within two days of its release. Lone Wolf and Cub is an extraordinary delivery on a promise that had been whispered for a long time and became a real possibility when Criterion released Lady Snowblood. I am going to be the first to say that this box set completely delivers on what you would hope would happen. All six films and Shogun Asssassin have been given the full Criterion treatment with great looking and sounding transfers. These movies represent some of the very finest in Japanese exploitation filmmaking and in adaptation of a comic book. That said, they can be an acquired taste, with almost relentless brutality on display throughout the entire course of the films along with five out of six films featuring a rape. For me, this is easily one of the best box sets you can purchase this or any year. This box set allows you to get it all at one time along with some fantastic extras.