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DVD/BLU RAY

Lone Wolf and Cub (1972-1974) Blu Ray (The Criterion Collection)

The Lone Wolf and Cub series consists of six films based on a popular Japanese manga. It is set during the Shogunate era of Japanese history and chronicles the adventures of Ogami Itto (Tomisaburô Wakayama), a former Shogun’s executioner who wanders the land with his young child Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa), eking out a living by taking on various assassination contracts. He is also involved in an ongoing feud with the Yagyu clan, who set him up and murdered his wife.

Sword of Vengeance (1972)

Sword of Vengeance (1972) - the chosen path

The first film in the series features Ogami Itto, the Shogun’s Executioner, taking revenge after the scheming Yagyu clan seeks to usurp his position by framing him, murdering his wife Azami (Keiko Fujita) in the process. After killing several members of the clan along with some of the Shogun’s own men he gets banished from the region and is forced to wander the land as a Ronin (masterless Samurai). He subsequently takes up a contract to assassinate a bandit who has taken over a hot spring resort.

The Lone Wolf and Cub series became notorious within the Japanese Samurai movie/Chambara genre for upping the ante in terms of blood and dismemberment shown on screen. While earlier examples of the cycle featured gory moments (such as the Zatoichi series), this one pushed things that bit further in terms of the amount of limb-chopping, blood hosed from open wounds and suchlike. At the same time there’s a meditative lyricism noticeable in the many quieter stretches, with numerous arty images and vignettes depicting both the natural beauty and typically man-made ugliness of the period backdrop. Seen in this superb Criterion print it’s easy to fully appreciate the audio-visual skill here, with the effective use made of sound, framing and composite images.

Tomisaburô Wakayama is a compellingly simmering pot of rage tempered with a tough yet touching love of his innocent yet loyal young son. The second half of Sword of Vengeance is a little on the slow side, but culminates in a truly satisfying finale.

Runtime: 83 mins

Dir: Kenji Misumi

Script: Kazuo Koike, Goseki Kojima

Starring: Tomisaburô Wakayama, Akihiro Tomikawa, Tomoko Mayama, Shigeru Tsuyuguchi, Asao Uchida, Taketoshi Naitô, Yoshi Katô, Keiko Fujita

Watch a trailer:


Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972)

Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972) - BenTenRai

This sequel features Ogami Itto and son being hired by the government of Awa province as their prosperous indigo dye industry is under threat when their chief manufacturer defects to a neighbouring province, potentially spilling the beans about their trade secrets. A trio of mercenaries wearing huge straw hats, collectively known as BenTenRai (played by Minoru Ôki, Shin Kishida and Shôgen Nitta), have been despatched to escort him back to the Shogun. Ogami has been tasked with dealing with the trio and assassinating the defector. Meanwhile, Ozunu, a representative of his old adversaries the Yagyu clan, persuades a group of female ninjas led by Sayaka (Kayo Matsuo) to hunt down the Lone Wolf and his cub.

The first entry feels like a warm-up act in comparison to this second one. There is at least twice the amount of action here, and the gore is even more outrageously excessive - as witnessed right from an early scene where the female ninjas comprehensively dismember one of their male counterparts with all of the brutal glee of a child pulling apart a cranefly. The body count is huge and the methods of despatch endlessly inventive with razor-brimmed hats, clawed gauntlets and retractable blades hidden in the titular baby cart being put to effective use.

At the same time, the film doesn’t forget the meditative and somewhat dreamlike interludes between the geysers of bright red blood. It also retains the poignancy of the relationship between Ogami and Daigoro, and in one particularly touching moment temporarily (using a quite unexpected character) recreates the nuclear family dynamic that was so brutally curtailed in the first film. It’s a fabulous example of the Chambara genre. The BenTenRai trio, incidentally, were the inspiration behind the Three Storms in Big Trouble in Little China.

Runtime: 81 mins

Dir: Kenji Misumi

Script: Kazuo Koike, Goseki Kojima

Starring: Tomisaburô Wakayama, Akihiro Tomikawa, Kayo Matsuo, Akiji Kobayashi, Minoru Ôki, Shin Kishida, Shôgen Nitta

Watch a trailer:


Baby Cart to Hades (1972)

Baby Cart to Hades (1972) - action-packed finale

In this third entry Ogami Itto and his son decide to rescue a prostitute who is in trouble for murdering her brutal pimp. They are apprehended by Torizo (Yûko Hama) a female Yakuza who controls all of the brothels in the area. She insists that the whore must pay for her crime, either via money or torture. However, Ogami offers to be tortured in her place - something that Torizo agrees to. When the latter notices how much pain this Ronin can endure she takes him to her master Tatewaki (Jun Hamamura), who knows of Ogami’s identity due to a rather brutal experience from the past. They decide to hire him to kill a governor named Sawatari Genba (Isao Yamagata) who betrayed them.

Baby Cart at the River Styx was a hard act to follow, and unfortunately this one doesn’t quite succeed. Whereas its predecessor managed an almost perfect balance of action, plot elements and arty inflections, Hades gets bogged down in an overly cluttered story for the first hour. The violence during this section tends to be of the more unpleasant kind (rape and torture) rather than of the more entertaining kind (over-the-top sword fights with geysers of blood). Still, there is some redemption to be found in moments of pure, meditative beauty here. The scenes between Daigoro, Ogami and the prostitute are touching and humanistic.

The last half hour makes up the shortfall on the action front, with the centrepiece being an insane showdown between Ogami and hundreds of hired fighters. Expect enough gunfire to rival a spaghetti western, along with the sight of explosions sending body parts flying through the air. There’s also a decapitation scene that even surpasses the one in Aguirre, Wrath of God (from the same year) in terms of sheer creepy strangeness.

Runtime: 89 mins

Dir: Kenji Misumi

Script: Kazuo Koike, Goseki Kojima

Starring: Tomisaburô Wakayama, Akihiro Tomikawa, Gô Katô, Yûko Hama, Isao Yamagata, Michitarô Mizushima, Jun Hamamura

Watch a trailer:


Baby Cart in Peril (1972)

Baby Cart in Peril (1972) - strong female character

Ogami Itto is paid his usual 500 ryo by the Owara clan to hunt down Yuki (Michi Azuma), a beautiful but fierce tattooed sword fighter who has deserted them. While he is on the trail his son Daigoro becomes lost while wandering in a town they visit. He is found by Yagyu Gunbei (Yoichi Hayashi) who discovers that he is the son of his clan’s old enemy, and follows him to confront Ogami in a duel.

Baby Cart in Peril is the first entry not to be directed by Kenji Misumi (Buichi Saitô took the reins here). His style is slightly less naturalistic (he makes more extensive use of studio sets) but still visually beautiful and, in many ways, more fluent and operatic in feel. The film is undeniably better than the slightly uneven Baby Cart to Hades, and gives Baby Cart at the River Styx a definite run for its money. The early moments following Daigoro as he attempts to relocate his father are atmospheric and intimate. There’s a flashback to Gunbei’s past that provides more insight into the grudge that the Yagyu clan hold against Ogami. Yuki is a stronger and move vividly developed female character than those in previous entries.

The film also delivers some classic setpieces, including an amazing limb-severing fight with some ninjas who disguise themselves as temple statues, a trippy confrontation with a sorcerer who uses a flaming sword to dazzle their opponent, and a frantic finale set amongst a maze of ravines. It's one of the finest Chambara movies of all time.

Runtime: 81 mins

Dir: Buichi Saitô

Script: Kazuo Koike, Goseki Kojima

Starring: Tomisaburô Wakayama, Akihiro Tomikawa, Yoichi Hayashi, Michi Azuma, Asao Koike

Watch a trailer:


Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973)

Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973) - epic bloodshed

The Lone Wolf and Cub continue on their endless journey and are approached by five warriors in quick succession. As each one is defeated they each give up 100 of his 500 ryo fee, and spill some more details of the mission they wish him to undertake. They are representatives of the Kuroda Clan, who reveal to him that the boy prince who has inherited the leadership of the clan is being imprisoned, and has been replaced by a 5 year old princess. However, the Shogun believes the boy is still in charge, and would abolish the clan if he finds out that he has been misinformed. Moreover a letter revealing this detail has been put into the hands of an abbot named Jikei (Hideji Ôtaki) who has been discovered to be the head of a group of ninjas working for the Yagyu clan. Jikei must be assassinated before the information is passed on.

The fifth and penultimate entry features the return of director Kenji Misumi. It shows the series at its most epic and Shakespearean, with a heavy emphasis on power games and machinations. There’s also a memorable episode involving a female pickpocket named Quick Change Oyô (Tomomi Satô) who strikes up an uncannily loyal friendship with Daigoro.

The action is less outrageously over-the-top than in previous instalments but is still intense stuff, and it comes thick and fast during the second half. As usual, Misumi intercuts the film with plenty of visually stunning shots. It’s another excellent entry.

Runtime: 89 mins

Dir: Kenji Misumi

Script: Kazuo Koike, Tsutomu Nakamura

Starring: Tomisaburô Wakayama, Akihiro Tomikawa, Michiyo Ohkusu, Shingo Yamashiro, Tomomi Satô, Akira Yamauchi, Hideji Ôtaki

Watch a trailer:


White Heaven in Hell (1974)

White Heaven in Hell (1974) - snow-bound finale

The final entry in the movie series starts with Yagyu Clan chief Retsudo (Minoru Ôki) threatened with disgrace in the eyes of the Shogun as three of his sons have perished in battle against Ogami. He resorts to sending his daughter Kaori (Junko Hitomi), who uses a formidable two knife technique, to finish off the Lone Wolf and Cub once and for all. When she, too, succumbs to his sword mastery, a desperate Retsudo turns to Hyoe (Isao Kimura) a son whom he disowned after he had him with a mistress. He was raised by a mountain clan called the Tsuchigumo, and despite his resentment of his father’s treatment of him he agrees to raise a trio of undead warriors to take him on.

White Heaven in Hell is best known for its spectacular climactic battle on skis. It is indeed a jaw-dropping sequence, involving hundreds of extras, plentiful red blood drenching the pure white snow, and dozens of skiers being mowed down by the baby cart’s concealed machine guns. Unfortunately the rest of the film is comparatively lacklustre as the story is rather thin and most the action sequences lack impetus under director Yoshiyuki Kuroda. Would-be thrilling setpieces tend to move forward too slowly or are filmed in a manner that breaks viewer involvement (by, for example, cutting away at ill-timed moments). Kunihiko Murai’s score sounds a bit cheesy at times as it incorporates some blaxploitation-style “wah-wah” sounds and rather blatant homages to the James Bond theme.

While not without entertainment value, White Heaven in Hell is definitely the weakest of the series.

Runtime: 83 mins

Dir: Yoshiyuki Kuroda

Script: Kazuo Koike, Goseki Kojima, Tsutomu Nakamura

Starring: Tomisaburô Wakayama, Akihiro Tomikawa, Junko Hitomi, Minoru Ôki, Isao Kimura

Watch a trailer:


Video:

For the most part the 2K restorations of these six films look superb, with some incredibly rich colours (check out those geisha costumes) and clear detail. There are occasional blurry or faded shots here and there, but they are few and far between. Having seen some mediocre (or worse) prints of these films in the past it’s a genuine revelation to see them restored to their full glory here. It really does make a radical difference to the overall viewing experience.

Audio:

Those swishing swords are so pin-sharp they almost cut through the ears. The music sounds dramatic and bold. Very good indeed.

Extras:

The box includes a booklet written by Patrick Macias featuring an essay chronicling the series as a whole, along with sections reviewing each of the films individually. He discusses the production challenges the series faced, as well as touching on the backdrop of political turmoil that was present in Japan during the early 1970s.

Shogun Assassin

Shogun Assassin poster

This English language version produced by Robert Houston and David Weisman is culled from footage of the first two films in the series (only 12 minutes from the first, plus most of the second). It’s notable in that its UK release was banned for a time as a “Video Nasty” during the early 1980s. While I loved this many years ago (I watched the VHS tape again and again), after seeing the original Japanese release it just comes across as rather cheesy. It feels like going back to the theatrical version of Blade Runner after the Final Cut, only some magnitude worse. Nonetheless it is a worthwhile extra, if only for curiosity value.

The storyline has been simplified to remove any mention of the Yagyu clan and base it around the idea that the Shogun has gone crazy, and has become afraid enough of his executioner to want him dead. The plot points revolving around a province's indigo dye industry being under threat have also been jettisoned. An inappropriate electronic score by W. Michael Lewis and Mark Lindsay has been added, as has a rather inane voiceover from the point of view of Daigoro/Cub. Amongst the vocal talents involved here are Lamont Johnson and Sandra Bernhard.

The visual quality of this restoration is noticeably inferior to that on the six Japanese versions here. It is grainy with some artefacts visible.

Lame d’un père, L’âme d’un sabre

A 2005 French-made documentary about the movie series, with several surviving participants including Baby Cart in Peril director Buichi Saitô and writer Kazuo Koike being interviewed. Its title means “Blade of a father, Soul of a sword”. It’s a worthy if slightly dry doc that talks about actor Tomisaburô Wakayama, a former kabuki actor who was the elder brother of Shintarô Katsu (Zatoichi star and boss of Katsu Productions). They also talk about the filming of key sequences; a POV shot from a decapitated head was achieved by simply throwing the camera, causing it to break in the process. The documentary also takes a look at director Kenji Misumi, who made four of the Lone Wolf and Cub films and worked extensively with both brothers through the years.

Kazuo Koike

A new Criterion Collection documentary featuring an interview with the writer who created the original manga and the films. We learn that he created Daigoro as Ogami Itto’s main “vulnerability” - a son who could far more easily die in combat than his father, thus giving someone for the audience to become concerned about. Koike also reveals that he eventually killed Ogami as he ultimately deserved to lose his life after taking so many up to that point. However, the creators of the TV series that came after the films weren’t happy with this as it meant they couldn’t keep it going.

Kenji Misumi

Another newly-created Criterion doc featuring Kenji Misumi biographer Kazuma Nozawa discussing the director’s work. He discusses how his early life informed the extensive depictions of sex and violence in his films; he was an illegitimate child born to a geisha, and during WWII has was imprisoned in Siberia where he witnessed the worst side of human nature. Kazuma also tells us that Kenji functioned as a “journeyman” as he was allocated films on a rotational basis rather than being allowed to choose, but he did bring elements of a distinctive style to his work. A decent tribute.

On Suio-Ryu

Sensei Yoshimitsu Katuse discusses the weapon-based martial art of Suio-Ryu. His views are somewhat eye-opening; he’s against training with warm-ups (as attacks happen out of the blue in real-life), and believes in self-teaching. He also briefly discusses the sword techniques seen in the Lone Wolf films, revealing (unsurprisingly) that they are aimed more at entertaining the audience than evoking reality.

Sword of the Samurai

A 30-minute silent 1939 documentary about the making of a traditional samurai sword. Includes an optional ambient score by Ryan Francis of the Metropolis Ensemble. While the ceremonial and historical aspects are somewhat interesting, the footage of the detailed crafting process is rather dull for non-buffs.

Overall:

This gruesome Japanese Chambara series remains entertaining throughout and, on two or three occasions, displays the genre at its finest. The audio/visual rendering of each film is stunning and the extras are generally worthwhile.

Sword of Vengeance: ☆☆☆☆

Baby Cart at the River Styx: ☆☆☆☆☆

Baby Cart to Hades: ☆☆☆1/2

Baby Cart in Peril: ☆☆☆☆☆

Baby Cart in the Land of Demons: ☆☆☆☆1/2

White Heaven in Hell: ☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆☆1/2

Audio: ☆☆☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆☆

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