Lone Wolf & Cub: Sword of Vengeance Review
The Lone Wolf and Cub series was based on the manga created in 1970 by Kazuo Koike (who would later go on to create Crying Freeman) and Goseki Kojima. Running to 28 volumes and over 7,000 pages the original manga (published in the USA by Dark Horse comics) is one of the greatest works in the medium of comics anywhere in the world. A television series was developed in Japan in the 1970s and 6 movies, also written by the original creators.
As the official executioner to the Shogun, Ogami Itto has earned a lot of enemies though his enforcement of the strict laws of the Shogunate, ending the lives of many noblemen. In a plot to usurp his position, Ogami’s family and household are murdered and he is accused of treason. Ogami with his baby son, Diagoro takes to the road as an assassin for hire, Lone Wolf and Cub, accepting any assignment for 500 gold pieces. A ruthless killer with no fear of death, his vow is to avenge the dishonour brought upon his family by a secret and deadly organisation, the Yagyu.
As the first film in the series, Sword of Vengeance covers the origin of Ogami’s misfortune and the reason why he abandons the role of Samurai to become a ruthless and cold-blooded assassin for hire. He takes on his first assignment, allowing himself to be held by a Yakuza gang who are holding an entire village hostage. Ogami finds himself locked up with other travellers who have had the misfortune to be passing through the village. He is forced to have sex with a prostitute while the gangsters watch in order to protect his identity and save other people from being killed.
The plot of the film, and the subsequent sequels, is lifted in its entirety from the original books. In some scenes the manga is practically a storyboard for the film, but this is not surprising considering the writers of the manga are also the writers of the film. The more salacious elements of this film and its sequel, Babycart at the River Styx, were pieced together in 1983 to create the notorious Shogun Assassin. With its extreme depictions of violence, nudity, rape and murder it was quickly banned and condemned as a video nasty.
The film is very violent. Limbs are hacked off, heads and body parts fly everywhere and open veins spurt fountains of blood, but this is no cheap slasher pic. The swordplay scenes are superbly staged and brilliantly executed with some clever camera flourishes. Occasional flashback sequences may disorient for a while, but they are actually carefully signposted by objects which remind Ogami of past events. The film is extremely well made, well plotted, well paced and visually exciting.
PictureThe picture quality on the DVD unfortunately is not the best. In places it is grainy, scratch marks can be seen and occasionally more serious tramlines. At times it can look quite good with good colours and contrast, but it is actually a very dark print and it is often difficult to make anything out in dark night time scenes and interiors. There are numerous other artefacts – the picture is hazy and tends to blur when there is movement on the screen. The transfer is not anamorphic, which makes watching the 2.35:1 aspect ratio even more difficult. Overall though there is nothing that will really spoil enjoyment of the film.
The image cannot be zoomed to 16:9 without losing the bottom line of the fixed subtitles, which are placed in the black bar at the bottom of the screen. The subtitles however are excellent, using different colours when several people are speaking and even providing footnotes to explain intricacies of translation and background information. This isn’t always easy to follow, but at least they have tried to remain as faithful in translation as possible. This subtitling is identical to the old US laserdiscs of the films, so it looks as if the DVDs are direct ports of those releases.
AudioThe audio is also rather basic Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. Heavy noise reduction has been applied between dialogue so a deep silence falls as if the soundtrack has dropped out. There are no major problems with the soundtrack however and it is adequate for the film.
ExtrasThere are a couple of short clips from the film included in the extras, each about one minute long. I am not sure what their purpose is as they don’t seem to be deleted scenes or outtakes. Trailers are included for all 6 Lone Wolf & Cub films – all of which are highly recommended – and trailers for the Zatoichi - The Blind Swordsman films, which also make up part of Artsmagic’s Warrior series. Artwork for other titles in the Warrior series is also included. You can discover more about this and other releases on the Warrior label from the official Artsmagic website where you can also purchase their titles direct.
ConclusionThis is the first time that the original Sword of Vengeance has been released uncut in the UK and it is a tremendous film. I don’t think they have got the presentation they deserve here, but all the films in the Lone Wolf & Cub series are worthwhile viewing and are some of the best examples of the Martial Arts/Swordplay/Samurai genre.