Friday, September 9, 2011

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972)

Directed by: Kenji Misumi

An iconic anti-hero hellbent on grisly revenge. Fantastical fight scenes. Slow-mo mayhem. Arterial blood geysers. Cool weapons galore. Awesome film adaptation of a revered comic series told in a non-linear narrative. This enticing cocktail probably sounds like something you might see in cinemas today. However, the film I'm actually describing was released nearly forty years ago. If you've seen Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance, you've already witnessed these seemingly mismatched elements come together to form this groundbreaking samurai film.

In this first entry of a six film series, official Shogunate executioner Ogami Itto's wife, and mother of his young son Daigoro, is murdered in an attempt to drive him to seppuku (suicide) in a conspiracy orchestrated by the mysterious Yagyu Shadow clan to takeover his coveted position. The Yagyu Shadow also frame Ogami for treason to further force him toward seppuku as a means of retaining his honor. The plan backfires when Ogami renounces his humanity and proclaims himself as a demon walking the land, unbound by laws or codes of honor, and sets out on a path of vengeance against the Yagyu Shadow in which he pushes his son along the way in a baby cart.

Father and son wander the land as Ronin (masterless samurai) killing anyone for 500 gold pieces and establishing their deadly reputation as Lone Wolf and Cub. The first job we see Ogami accept is offered by a chamberlain, who requests the assassination of a rival and his henchmen that plot to kill the chamberlain's lord. Ogami and Daigoro travel to the remote mountain village where their targets dwell only to discover that the rival's henchmen, known as The Oyamada Three, have taken the town hostage, raping and pillaging at will. Caught off guard, they apprehend Ogami and he and his son are taken captive. Now, Ogami must carefully devise a plan of attack to safeguard himself, his son, a sympathetic prostitute and other townsfolk hostages while overcoming the Oyamada Three and the chamberlain lord's rival.

If this story sounds familiar yet you do not recall seeing Lone Wolf & Cub: Sword of Vengeance, there's a strong possibility you did see the film albeit re-edited to include material from the sequel Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx and dubbed for release to American audiences under the title Shogun Assassin. It's a genuine testament to the source material that it made such a profound impact on Eastern and Western filmgoers alike despite existing in vastly disparate forms. No doubt this lasting impression is attributed to filmmaking that was decades ahead of its time.

Kenji Misumi directed a film that perseveres over time through challenging genre conventions with insane action, forward-thinking camera techniques and kinetic energy unlike any other film of its ilk at the time. Misumi deserves credit, as I understand it, for closely following the manga source material. I could easily see another filmmaker stripping away the comic origins as opposed to embracing them to manufacture a risk-averse Kurosawa imitation. Instead, we see heads hacked-off and legs cut-in-half, leaving red-spurting severed ankles behind. The blood sprays exemplify sensationalism at its finest as bright red crimson arcs several feet in the air, maximizing entertainment value and also offering something of a bombastic cathartic release amid the general dread interwoven throughout the duration. You practically have to be dead inside to not enjoy a baby cart turned weapons chest and the array of carnage-inflicting instruments such as pole-arm blades, chains, sickles, swords, etc.

If the stylistic action preserves the film's relevance then it is the characters that allow Lone Wolf and Cub to endure decades later. It is admirable that a narrative tightly bound to passing judgment shies away from leading the viewer to make a specific judgment on the characters. A constant duality surfaces in which one moment contrasts another scene to keep any strict persuasions at bay. Ogami might sacrifice his own pride to save a whore's life then in turn threaten her life when she persistently attempts to join him and his son on their journey. Likewise, there's a quick beat where we observe a crazed woman who has lost her child look to Daigoro to briefly fill the void by breast feeding him. After reluctantly obliging, it is clear that Cub has zilch interest in this woman or her bosom, creating the two-sided sentiment that this a mother who needs a child but not a child who needs a mother.

The overriding dichotomy is visualized in the colorful screen cards where Lone Wolf and Cub are captured traveling on a bright white path, not unlike the flat of a sword, that divides a fiery, orange-red half of the screen from the vibrant, crackling blue side of the shot, which presumably represents the crossroads of Hell and Heaven. The filmmakers favor devising empathy over force-fed sympathy. It'd be easy to pander for tears through Daigoro and further utilize him to redeem Ogami's past (especially one horrible moment at the film's onset), but rather the film appeals to your understanding of their vengeful needs.

Enough can't be said about the choice to anchor Lone Wolf and Cub on a father-son relationship and making that relationship unique. In terms of genre films, I find that fathers and sons get the short shrift in comparison to the overabundance of mother-daughter explorations, which is likely attributed to the ease in extrapolating pregnancy subtext. Considering the release date, the emphasis on a father-son pairing is especially new-fangled and fresh. The story construction resists framing Ogami and Daigoro's relationship as decidedly masculine or radicially averse from maternal. Instead, the pair simply exist within their situation, living through their journey with callousness certainly driven by vengeance yet sub-textually redolent of a motherless upbringing. This also resonates more fully when juxtaposed against earlier scenes prior to the murder of Ogami's wife where the most emotional and nurturing moments, though fleeting, reside.

All this aside, the film would never reach same heights without the couplet of Tomisaburo Wakayama playing Ogami and Akihiro Tomikawa as Daigoro. Together they imbue their roles with a palpable screen presence. Wakayama isn't the type of lead I would've envisioned. He's something of the anti-Mifune; haggard, seemingly chubby and aged. These physical traits convey the immense weight of his plight, loss and perhaps struggle in living with his past deeds and continued defiance. For Tomikawa, it's impressive enough given his age that he's able to steer clear of joining the ranks of incredibly annoying child actors in genre movies. More than that, the kid delivers a fantastic performance through inaction and remaining unaffected. He's like a little resolute stonewall.

Make or Break - I'm not gonna be cute here and go with something unexpected. The scene that makes this film is where Lone Wolf offers little Cub, who is obviously too young to understand, a very hair-raising choice. He explains that his son must choose between his toy ball or the sword stuck in the floor. If Daigoro opts for his toy ball, it means that he wants to join his mother in Heaven and his father would then kill him. However, if Daigoro chooses the sword, it means that he wishes to remain with his father and Ogami would take him along on this bloody path of revenge. Despite obviously knowing the outcome, the tension welled-up within me as Daigoro crawled toward both the toy ball and the sword. Additionally, I appreciated the inherent underlying commentary about nature vs. nurture as Daigoro arrived at his choice.

MVT - There's a few good options to go with, but I'm going to honor the original creators of the Lone Wolf and Cub manga and screenwriters of the film adaptations, Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima. While I've not yet read the comic series, all the research indicates the films are very faithful to the manga in all aspects, including story, shot compositions, the bloodshed, maniacal combat scenes and overall stylistic choices. If not for the platform they established, it seems as though the on-screen product would not have congealed in the same manner.

Score - 8.5/10


  1. Chad, another marvelous review, sir. I think your observation about the film's lack of judgment towards the characters and the dichotomy of contrasting actions is very interesting. I hadn't thought of that aspect before. Well-done.

  2. Thanks for the comments. Glad I could add's a tough one to review from the standpoint of finding fresh takes.

  3. Good stuff, Chad. I just watched the LONE WOLF films for the first time last month, and I already envy you for going into them fresh. I agree with your review for the most part, although, in my opinion, Tomisaburo Wakayama is the MVT of this film and perhaps the entire series. Looking forward to your future samurai reviews!

  4. You know, I've never watched the Lone Wolf and Cub movies. I was a huge fan of the books, and after reading this, I think I will check them out.

  5. Aaron - I don't disagree with that...I figured I'd honor the creators with the first film since I assume Misumi and Wakayama will get their share of MVTs in the subsequent films.

    Hoaks - I was in the same boat as you before last week, which why I'm forcing myself to do nothing but Samurai films this month to fill in that blindspot a bit. LWC lived up to the hype for me, and I can't wait to see the rest.

    Thanks for the thoughts and checking this out.