Based on the best-selling manga series, the six intensely kinetic Lone Wolf and Cub films elevated chanbara to bloody new heights. The shogun’s executioner, Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama), takes to wandering the countryside as an assassin—along with his infant son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) and an infinitely weaponized perambulator—helping those he encounters while seeking vengeance for his murdered wife. Delivering stylish thrills and a body count that defies belief, Lone Wolf and Cub is beloved for its brilliantly choreographed action sequences as well as for its tender depiction of the bonds between parent and child.
Lone Wolf and Cub is a world-renowned magna created by writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima. Running from September 1970 to April 1976, the series tells the story of Ogami Itto, formerly an executioner for the Tokugawa Shogunate until he was framed as a traitor by the power-seeking Yagyu clan, led by Retsudo. Itto and his young son Daigoro are forced to flee, becoming ronin who seek vengeance and making a name for themselves as assassins known as Lone Wolf and Cub.
Six 'Lone Wolf and Cub' films starring Tomisaburo Wakayama as Itto and Akihiro Tomikawa as Daigoro were produced between 1972 and 1974, and they are all in this set from Criterion along with 'Shogun Assassin'. Released in 1980 to English-speaking markets, 'Shogun Assassin' was predominantly an edited and dubbed version of the second film, 'Baby Cart at the River Styx', with a bit of the first, 'Sword of Vengeance', to help flesh out the backstory.
'Sword of Vengeance' finds Itto and his three-year-old son Daigoro on the road with a "Son for Hire/Sword for Hire" sign. A flashback to two years prior reveals Itto's fall from stature and the death of his family at the hands of the villainous Retsudo (played here by Yunosuke Ito and, similar to James Bond's frequent film nemesis Blofeld, played by two other actors in the character's three other appearances) and the Yagyu clan, establishing their long-standing feud, which runs throughout the series.
Itto is a master swordsman, able to handle overwhelming numbers of attackers. He leaves behind many dismembered bodies, quite a few that gush blood at an unbelievable velocity in impossible amounts. The lack of realism in the effects limits the goriness. Although a ruthless assassin, Itto is a noble, principled man. For example, he is willing to humiliate himself to save the life of a prostitute from ruthless thugs.
The addition of Daigoro makes the character of Itto unique in the samurai film genre, and the kid isn't a typical toddler. When he chooses to join his father on the Demon Way by picking out a shiny sword over a colored ball, or when he passively helps Itto during a duel, it's not clear in the moment how aware the one-year-old is, but as the stories unfold, he appears much more cognizant than given credit and is very helpful to his father.
In 'Baby Cart at the River Styx', Itto takes on the assignment of killing a man who is underming a clan's indigo dye trade. The difficulty is the man is protected by a trio of fighters, the Monks of Death, whose appearance suggest an influence on John Carpenter's 'Big Trouble in Little China.' In addition, the series mythology expands. The Yagyu clan contact Lady Sayaka and her female sword mistresses to kill Itto in order to live by the letter of their agreement though not the spirit. They are also working with the Kurokawa clan, though the increase in combantants doesn't improve the odds.
'Baby Cart to Hades' is different stylisticly from the previous two. Director Kenji Misumi and cinematographer Chishi Makiura worked together on the two previous films, but this one has a stronger Spaghetti Western influnce. The films feature two main stories but here they are distinct rather than blended together. Protecting a young woman sold into prostitution leads Itto to meet a man from his past who seeks revenge for his clan. The other story is about Itto coming across a group of men raping and killing the members of a travelling party. Their leader is Kenbei, a talented swordsman, who wants to kill Itto to silence him. After some fight sequences from the other storyline reach cartoonish levels of outlandishness, the two men get serious and philosophical as they discuss questions of honor and purpose.
Itto is sent after O-Yuki, a tattooed female assassin who is causing all sorts of trouble in 'Baby Cart in Peril'; not only killing the men sent after her but also desecrating their bodies. Even though her motivations are understandable, he must honor his contract. Daigoro ventures out on his own and encounters Gunbei, who competed against Itto for the executioner's job and now wants revenge. A flashback provides a great bit of character history about Itto and reveals he not the flawless warrior he appears. When the story seems to be over, Retsudo appears, causing mistrust in the man who hired Itto. This leads to a climatic fight sequence where Itto takes so much serious punishment that if there weren't two more films in the set, the viewer would question if he survives.
'Baby Cart in the Land of Demons' has an odd set up, as five different messengers are tasked with providing Itto his next assignment, but rather than just speak to him, they fight him to the death before giving up the information to test him. This plan makes absolutely no practical sense, as the Lone Wolf's reputation as an assassin is well known or they wouldn't be seeking his services in the first place, and is just an excuse for fight scenes, which is what fans want in the long run anyway.
Eventually, Itto learns of a conspiracy within the Kuroda clan. Five-year-old Princess Hamachiyo, the illegitimate daughter of Lord Naritaka and his mistress, is being presented as Prince Matsumaru, Naritaka's son by his wife and the legitimate heir, who has been hidden away. A letter revealing this information is en route to the Shogun and needs to be recovered.
Daigoro has another solo adventure, getting involved with the female pickpocket O-yo, who is working a summer festival. She hands him a stolen wallet while evading authorities and makes him promise not say anything. It's a commitment he takes very seriously, even when she no longer holds him to the promise. It's clear that though a young boy he learns from his father, even indirectly as no conversation between them about this subject takes place.
'White Heaven in Hell' finds the Yagyu clan upset that Itto is still alive and embarrassing the honor of the clan. Retsudo trains his daughter Kaori for the challenge since his sons have failed in previous films. He then seeks out his son, Hyoe, who was abandoned in the mountains because his was mother was Retsudo's mistress. Hyoe was adopted by the Tsuchigumo clan, which practices black magic. Three men were buried for 42 days and a death rite was performed so they are basically zombies “alive but not alive...dead but not dead.” They are very creepy villains and tough opponents for Itto because they move through the earth and promise to kill all the innocent people Itto and his son encounter.
As if dealing with the zombies weren't enough, Itto's final battle against Retsudo's forces occurs among snow-covered mountains in what might be the most spectacular fight sequence of the entire series. The pristine setting quickly becomes a scene of carnage as the ground becomes littered with bodies and blood.
While one should be grateful to have had so many enjoyable adventures starring Wakayama and Tomikawa, 'White Heaven in Hell' ends in an unsatisfactory manner because not only is this the last one, but there's no resolution between Itto and Retsudo, as the latter runs away. Now, the magna was still two years from concluding and who knows what going on with the business of the franchise, but it's slightly disappointing to have invested so much time with characters only to have their story ended abruptly, especially nowadays as many TV series have ending to their stories.
With that said, 'White Heaven in Hell' is still an entertaining movie, and because of the quality of the stories, acting, and action, 'Lone Wolf and Cub' is now my second favorite Japanese film franchise behind 'Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman', whose star Shintaro Katsu coincidentally was the younger brother of Wakayama and was a producer on the first three films.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Lone Wolf and Cub' (#841) comes on a three 50GB Region A Blu-ray discs come packaged in a foldout digipak housed in a cardboard slipcover. The disc boots up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. The booklet contains an essay and film synopses Patrick Macias
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 2.40:1. The liner notes state "these new digital transfers were created in 2K resolution on a Scanity film scanner from the 35mm original camera negatives. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices and warps were manually removed using MTI's DRS, while Digital Vision's Phoenix was used for jitter, flicker, small dirt, grain, and noise management".
The new transfers for these forty-something look very good for the most part, with strong colors, deep blacks, and objects that are usually clear and distinct, but issues creep up on occasion. They are very clean looking, and exhibit almost no signs of wear or age.
In 'Sword of Vengeance', there's a bit of light bleed in the lower right portion of the frame two minutes in as men are bowing. Colors are vibrant hues as seen in rich greens of foliage and the red, purple, and yellow of Daigoro's ball. A strong contrast can be seen in a scene where orange fire fills one side pf the frame, a blue filter over rushing water the other and in between is a bright white path that Itto walks wearing dark clothing. Fine texture detail can be seen in the costumes and also reveals bald caps and other hair appliances.
In 'Baby Cart at the River Styx', great depth appears in an early tracking shot as Lone Wolf and Cub sit around a fire in the wilderness. The ladies who first attack Itto wear vibrant, colorful costumes. There are a few out-of-focus shots, likely a source issue and the scenes underwater are dark and very grainy.
'Baby Cart in Peril' suffers from a lot out-of-focus shots, as seen in a fight that occurs in a field. In 'Baby Cart in the Land of Demons', the focus and depth seem slightly better. There are lush greens, deep red beads, and a light purple tint used during flashbacks. There is very good texture detail, seen in the costumes and the scars created from make-up. There are light bleeds from windows during the final battle, which throws off the clarity and contrast.
'White Heaven in Hell' might have the best image in the set. The white snow seen in opening shots is bright and accurate, but the grain gets too dense during a close up of Itto before the opening credits. Sunshine beating down in the graveyard contributes to great depth and clarity in the scene, and texture of walls the ninja hid in comes through very well.
Also from the liner notes, "The monoaural soundtracks were remastered from the 35 mm optical soundtrack negatives. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD and iZotope RX." The tracks sound free of damage from age or wear, but are slightly limited in what the mono captured and allowed.
The soundtracks do a better job capturing the quieter sounds than they do the louder ones. In 'Sword of Vengeance', the dialogue is a touch too loud when shouting occurs and the vocals distort. Swords whipping through the air and rain pouring prove how strong the softer sounds are in the track's dynamic range.
In 'Baby Cart at the River Styx', bells clanging loudly in a hotel and the sound distorts from loudness. Wind can heard blowing through tree branches. In 'Baby Cart to Hades', the gunfire effects are flat, and the film ends with a song, but the music distorts and blends into noise. In 'Baby Cart in Peril', the music is an issue once again, distorting if it gets too loud. In 'Baby Cart in the Land of Demons', a fire cracks loudly while a body is burning.
'White Heaven in Hell' seems to have a better dynamic range. The soft flute score that plays as Retsudo tells his daughter of her mission sounds doesn't distort as it hits loud, high notes. The gentle rushing sounds of water sound clear even when mixed with the other sound elements. The main weakness is the guns on the baby cart which have a flat sounds, making them come across unrealistic.
Criterion's 'Lone Wolf and Cub' is not just a great set of movies, but also my discovery of the year. I am so thankful to have been introduced to this series and I enjoyed the films and the hard work that clearly went into them. The new digital transfers have allowed for an impressive high-def video presentation and the audio is about as good as to be expected considering the source. The extras provide good insight into the franchise's creation. The set is a must-own for action fans.