Lone Wolf and Cub
Hitherto with their UK run, the criterion collection hasn’t released many of their more challenging titles instead opting for classics and cult titles whether that comes from screwball comedies or classic noir. That broader avenue sees Criterion occupy the same arena as Eureka’s Masters of Cinema, unlike that brand the American titan also takes some bold risks. The two major titles in that unpredictable formula have deep roots in midnight movies with John Waters’ Multiple Maniacs and the topic of today in Lone Wolf and Cub. Best known for Shogun Assassin – an edit of the first 2 movies, which features in the extras. Further extras in this gorgeously packaged release come in the shape of a wonderful interview with the legendary mangaka Kazuo Koike, a demonstration of the real Suio-ryu sword techniques, Lame d’un Pere, l’ame d’un sabre (a 2005 documentary about the making of the series) and a silent documentary from 1937 about the making of samurai swords. While, this may not be a typical release for the award winning studio, it has certainly been given a typically award winning treatment.
The six films in this Tomisaburō Wakayama fronted franchise are Sword of Vengeance, Baby Cart at the River Styx, Baby Cart to Hades, Baby Cart in Peril, Baby Cart in the Land of Demons and White Heaven in Hell. Wakayama features as Itto Ogami, executioner to the shogunate, unbeknownst to him the branch family to the Yagyu Clan (the Ura-Yagyu) have a plan to turn him against the shogun placing one of their many swordsman on the vacant executioner seat. A seat that acknowledges the swordsman as one of the best and most respected in Japan. Retsudo Yagyu (Minoru Ôki) is the mastermind behind this ploy, killing Ogami’s wife and ensuring the former shogunate executioner is banished to wander the lands with his young son, Diagoro (Akihiro Tomikawa). As any fan of martial arts cinema will agree, the historical politics used to establish this story run thick, but once that millstone has been passed the story is a lot simpler. With its episodic storytelling methodology, lone wolf and cub tells of Father Itto and Son Diagoro walking the lands seeking vengeance whilst making their living as feared assassins.
Shogun Assassin is a re-dubbed edit of Sword of Vengeance and Baby Cart at the River Styx by Robert Houston featuring a synth score – a film that focuses heavily on the legendary violence. Before getting drenched in fountains of claret, Wakayama himself cuts an impressive figure. Despite his portly frame, his skill with a sword and his agility are undeniable – a trait that runs in the family with his younger brother, Shintaro Katsu, playing Zatoichi (the blind swordsman) in over 20 movies. Wakayama’s prowess isn’t achieved through selective and clever editing either, on the contrary, series mainstay director Kenji Misumi employs the same tactic that saw Chinese martial arts cinema endure for decades – the long take. In that, the psychical ability of Suio-ryu master swordsman Itto Ogami commands centre stage and this is buoyed by the choreography, together they paint a powerful picture of the former shogun’s executioner’s strength. The one against hundred scene that closes out Baby Cart to Hades is the perfect culmination.
For many skills, choreography and editing will play second fiddle to the bloodshed. The kill count by the end of White Heaven in Hell must number in the hundreds and with these deaths we are graced by a spray of arterial blood, some is minimal and others appear as if they have cut a pipe in the water mains. A particular favourite sees the eldest of three assassins perfectly sliced in his neck producing a fine mist of blood and as this happens he starts reciting poetry about his fate. Another member of the trio has his head split in half like a coconut, and that is the mere surface of the blood and gore these films hold – everyone involved is clearly enjoying themselves bringing the source comic to life bringing forth its hyper-violent potential. The martial arts themselves are performed by consummate and experienced performers keeping it within touching distance of the real, now, the blood that is as far away from any notion of real as cinema could offer creating a fun and pure hybridization of comic & film.
The violence brought about by director’s Kenji Misumi, Buichi Saito (Baby Cart in Peril) and Yoshiyuki Kuroda (White Heaven in Hell) is about as iconic an image as Japanese cinema has, a legend that went on to inspire legions of fans (Quentin Tarantino included with Kill Bill). To focus solely on that, however, would be doing everyone involved a massive disservice – there is an impressive stillness and contemplation to the Ogami clan’s ronin. Each film offers something different to the next, and more on that later, but at its very core is the steadfast honour and respect etched into every word Wakayama utters and his body language is the archetype by which all other cinema samurai should be measured. That is but one aspect of his character, he is also a Father. So determined is the titular lone wolf that he presents his son with a ball and a sword, if Diagoro picks the ball he would kill the boy there and then saving him from “the demon way in hell”. After that scene in the first film (sword of vengeance), he is the perfect father – considering the circumstances – with him treating his child with absolute respect while providing him with everything a young child could possibly want. It might seem odd to the western sensibility, but as original author Koike states in his interview – not one parental group complained about this role as a Father, on the contrary, it was respected as a series strength.
The franchise moniker is lone wolf and cub, hence Itto Ogami is but one half of that duo with Diagoro being every bit as salient. He can’t be any older than 5 by the time the series finishes, yet Diagoro (Tomikawa) has many opportunities to shine. His character arc starts as a mere spectator and McGuffin for his dad to transport his arsenal of weapons with, but again, with each passing film he become more and more of a character and more of a reflection of his father’s actions. In Baby Cart at the River Styx, Diagoro tries to help his wounded dad by collecting water from a nearby pond only for it to slip through his fingers time and time again. This one scene humanises both more than any fatal blow of the sword, spear or machine gun hidden within the cart. Move on a little further and the young boy grows to possess a warrior spirit, in one scene he scares a hardened samurai with his eyes of death another key example sees him whipped in front of a town without saying a word (a similar thing happens to his Dad in an earlier film) to maintain his and his word’s honour. While many will overlook this on the mere premise of the franchises status as an icon of exploitation, Akihiro Tomikawa as Diagoro Ogami counts among the great child performances.
As mentioned earlier, each film has something different to say about the nature of man in feudal japan, and it’s that very quality that keeps the hack and slash nature fresh. Sword of Vengeance tells of the stature and infamy the shogunate executioner possesses. Within its surrealist flourishes, Baby Cart on the River Styx shows that even if a warrior is feared across the country he is still a mere man, susceptible to all manner of stimulus’s and corruption. Baby Cart to Hades tells of the inter-connectivity of the feudal prefectures and how someone who held the seat of Shogunate Executioner has the power to not only act as a second in harakiri rituals but also destroy centuries of a clan’s family history on the whims and words of absolute power. Baby Cart in Peril reveals the inherent and unquestioning sexism of feudal Japanese society. Baby Cart in the Land of Demons, among other things, shows the notion of the sanctity of life meant little when measured against the samurai code with 5 messenger sending themselves to pointless deaths merely to test the mettle of the lone wolf assassin. And in the final film, White Heaven in Hell, director Kuroda depicts the unending and unceasing cycle of death and violence, an idea that is equally satisfying and dissatisfying. That disappointment comes in the form of this wonderful, visually inventive saga of heroic bloodshed being without a conclusion, instead that came in a 12 episode mini-series that isn’t included in this criterion box-set. A great advert to read the manga, perhaps?
Japanese cinema fans have been served phenomenally well with these mammoth boxsets over the past 12 months, last year Arrow Video brought one of the year’s finest releases in Female Prisoner Scorpion and now in 2017 Criterion have picked up that baton and noticeable upped the game. Is it too early to call this the best home video release of 2017? Not likely.