The Complete Lone Wolf & Cub Boxset Review
Meet Itto Ogami, master of the brutal and devastating Sui-O Horse Slaying technique. Impossible waves of hapless henchmen fall onto his gleaming dotanuki sword, celebrating their visually dazzling demise with immodest arcs of vivid crimson. Ogami’s exploits are particularly impressive given that his young son is in tow, sometimes slung in a vice-like grip under the crook of a strong arm, and at other times housed in a lethally-equipped baby cart.
Such a premise may present an unusual dynamic for a martial arts picture, but this new UK boxset is an eagerly anticipated release for fans of the deadly father and son duo. The Crouching Tigers and Flying Daggers of recent years may well have elevated martial arts choreography and special effects into a new realm for many Western viewers, but given that the first four Lone Wolf and Cub movies in this prolific and underrated series were released back in 1972, there is a very clear imprint in evidence whose reflection can be seen in slices of modern culture. Whether it’s the movie samples on rapper GZA’s Liquid Swords album (GZA of Wu Tang Clan fame, a rap troupe whom have a lifelong affection for the martial art movie genre), or the extended body-count climaxes of Tarantino’s Kill Bill volumes, the series has an appeal that transcends the years elapsed since its release.
Some references in Kill Bill are more direct; the second volume depicts a former assassin and her daughter watching Shogun Assassin on the television, and it’s the Shogun Assassin montage that introduced many Western viewers to Ogami and son. So impressed were Robert Houston and David Weisman with the Lone Wolf and Cub series, that they decided to deliver it to a Western audience by combining scenes cut together from the first (Sword of Vengeance) and second (Baby Cart at the River Styx) of the original Japanese films, with an English narration from “cub” Daigoro, and often amusing dubbed character voices (“that’s just bad taste!” is a particularly typical and enjoyable example). Shogun Assassin is included in this boxset, but for those new to the Lone Wolf and Cub experience, I would suggest leaving it until last.
Perhaps because of its highly stylized and frequent violence, the glorious pumping-artery bloodshed, and Vipco’s provocative presentation, the Shogun Assassin movie found itself swept up in the “Video Nasties” moral panic in the UK, and landed squarely on the banned list. As with many films falling victim to this policy, it seemed to gain greater notoriety as early gorehounds slapped it onto their banned films shopping list, and the net result was that many extreme horror buffs were exposed to a whole new genre that perhaps would have remained in relative obscurity to a wider Western audience.
The BBFC’s supposedly well-intentioned actions were misguided. Whilst the Lone Wolf and Cub series is a relentless tsunami of bloodshed and features a modicum of depressing sexual violence, Shogun Assassin tends to eschew the rawer elements of the original and instead, through the use of some subtle and not-so-subtle plot adjustments and dialogue changes, introduces a supposedly firmer moral compass with the intention of making it more palatable to the targeted Western audience. The result is a colourful and exciting snapshot of the first two films that presents the fantasy comic-book violence of the sword-swinging Ogami. It’s no mistake that the violence is comic book; the series is based upon the phenomenally successful Lone Wolf and Cub manga comic book series by Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima, with many scenes being presented to the viewer as careful reconstructions of the comic book segments. With this in mind, the original BBFC ban seems ridiculous; it’s comic book violence presented in fantastical comic book fashion. Fortunately, the original BBFC ban is now behind us, and Shogun Assassin has long enjoyed an uncut UK release through the loyal Vipco.
For all of its charms, Shogun Assassin has previously served its purpose admirably as an entry point for new viewers, taking a respectful bow to the rest of the series, to which its naïve and often unintentionally humorous nature pales into the Lone Wolf and Cub series’ shadow.
In contrast, the first in the original series of six Lone Wolf and Cub films, Sword of Vengeance, spares us the pleasantries and unashamedly provides a compact preview of the subject matter to come within the first few minutes of viewing. Itto Ogami, in his highly regarded role as the official executioner for the Shogun (he is afforded the rare and mighty honour of wearing the Shogun’s emblem, in a sort of proxy role to represent the Shogun performing the execution), decapitates lords and samurai who have been assigned the duty of performing seppuku; as they plunge their blades into their own stomachs, he relieves their agony by relieving them of their heads. This provides a decent living for Ogami, wife Azami, and baby son Daigoro. Within the first few minutes, Ogami has beheaded a bewildered young child Lord, and the premise is clear; where one has duties, there is no room for emotion. This is not the only segment in the series that features the (admittedly largely obscured) decapitation of children, and it makes for extremely tough viewing.
Whilst in his shrine with Daigoro, paying respects to those he has executed, Ogami hears the murder of Azami, and upon investigation discovers that the entire household has been slaughtered. Ogami makes a pledge to track down those responsible, and shortly afterwards, when Inspector Bizen arrives accusing Ogami of treachery, a death tablet displaying the Shogun’s emblem is discovered in Ogami’s shrine. Unofficially using the Shogun’s emblem is illegal, and Bizen suggests that Ogami has been praying for the Shogun’s death. Ogami soon reveals the entire situation to be a ruse for Bizen, a member of the dark shadow Yagyu clan, to effectively frame Ogami and take the official executioner role for himself. Bizen’s grandfather is Retsudo, the leader of the shadow Yagyu clan, Ogami’s nemesis throughout the series. As an outraged Ogami declares the situation unforgivable, a bloody battle ensues with Bizen and his henchmen that punctuates the beginning of an epic struggle for vengeance, all within the cultural constraints of honour and dignity. It is this combination of bloodshed and honour that produces such an exhilarating journey for Ogami and son Daigoro.
Though the bloodshed is copious and violence plentiful, Director Kenji Misumi knows when to exercise restraint, and one powerful tool in his armoury is silence; when Ogami slaughters Bizen in the flowing river using the Sui-O wave-slashing stroke, for instance, the silence is total, until the lethal blows strike. The impact of the stark silence produces elevated tension, and enables a complete focus on the poetic movements of the carefully choreographed sword swinging.
For all of the earlier-mentioned depressing violence against women featured in the series (and the violation scene in Sword of Vengeance is a prime example), the distaff representatives are conversely granted much respect in other subplots. Instalment number two, Baby Cart at the River Styx presents the introduction of the powerful and arrogant Sayaka of the Yagyu clan of Akashi. She’s arrogant with good reason; her clan of female ninjas easily dismember expert swordsman Junai in precise slices, much to Sayaka’s euphoric amusement. This execution exhibits some of the first signs of the visually stunning acrobatics that characterise the rest of the series, and it is a gory wonder to behold.
Whilst some of the series plot is inventive and intriguing, it mainly serves as a perfunctory vehicle to drive the picture forward from one dazzling set-piece to the next. It’s no coincidence that Fight Choreographer Eiichi Kusumoto is featured early in opening credits, such is the focus on the beauty of the battle. This is perhaps why Baby Cart at the River Styx is the most enjoyable slice of the series; famous scenes in addition to Sayaka’s team’s slaying of Junai include Sayaka rapidly running backwards across fields towards a forest to escape Ogami – a truly bizarre sight indeed, Ogami’s execution of a Ninja hiding in a cupboard in an adjoining room by flinging his lethal blade through a panel and cupboard door, the notoriously audacious moment where Daigoro’s cart sprouts wheel blades and careers towards a group of aggressors (with hilarious results!), the use of Daigoro as a hostage to be dropped into a bottomless well if Ogami doesn’t surrender (which, interestingly, seems to disturb some sort of maternal instinct within Sayaka), and the stunning sequence where the Awa clansmen arise from beneath the sand dunes to confront the Hidari brothers, masters of the Takeuchi Style harness techniques, and affectionately known as the “Gods of Death”. There can surely be seldom films with so many creative and well executed scenes, and certainly in this set, Baby Cart at the River Styx wins.
Ogami demonstrates a level of compassion to the beautiful and seemingly converted Sayaka, and indeed other moments capture his sensitive side; even demons living at the crossroads of hell and making money performing assassinations can have a sensitive side, you know. In Baby Cart to Hades, following a brilliant sequence where Ogami slices trees with his sword to release stealthy ninjas, we see a touching moment at the opening credits where he and Daigoro playfully splash at each other in the river. Alas, shortly after, we have another miserable violation scene, but the outcome sparks an interesting dynamic where an associate of the hired hand perpetrators, Kanbei, partially restores the honour of all concerned. It is his sense of honour that provokes a fascinating mutual respect between he and Ogami, a respect that persists as they share duels as the story unfolds.
Our favourite ronin is also sympathetic to the plight of the abused and fragile Omatsu, and once again shows compassion, in protecting her from an abusive “owner”, and from the demands of pretty Torizo of the Koshio family – another powerful female figure – who wants to take Omatsu back for the “adult entertainment” industry the family work in.
Ogami doesn’t show the same compassion to the entire army of warriors he battles in a stunning finale, slicing and dicing his way through opponent after opponent. Yet this is perhaps the weakest of the set on balance; the introduction of spaghetti western-style firearms seems to undermine the honesty of the blade, and the overuse of flashbacks to drive the story forward spoils continuity. Weakness is relative, though, and Baby Cart to Hades is still an impressive martial arts picture with plenty to enjoy.
Flashbacks also play a pivotal role in instalment four, Baby Cart in Peril, yet this is a much more enjoyable yarn. The straightforward tale features another strong female lead, the troubled Oyuki, a bizarrely bare-breasted and tattooed assassin whom owns incredible sword-swinging skills. Though Ogami accepts the regulation commission of 500 gold pieces to hunt down and kill Oyuki, as he learns her story he sympathises with the motives underpinning her actions. As ever, Ogami finds an honourable solution to the problem, as he recognises a vengeance-fuelled quest in Oyuki that he can easily relate to.
Though fairly one-dimensional in plot terms, Baby Cart in Peril sees Daigoro’s character developed a little. Whether it’s his strength of character upon temporarily losing his father, the tense moment he comes face-to-face with a samurai out for vengeance, or the carefully calculated self-burial he engineers to escape the ravages of a field fire, the little boy shows signs of growing up to match the lofty pedigree of his infamous father.
What’s noticeable in Baby Cart in Peril is a small but perceptible hike in quality, and though the first three instalments are undeniably outstanding achievements that owe much to the consistency of the crew involved (including the substantial pedigree of Tomisaburo Wakayama’s brother Shintaro Katsu, he of Zatoichi fame, in the role of producer), some personnel and role changes occurred at the inception of filming the fourth picture, including Wakayama (Ogami) taking the mantle as producer, and different directors taking the reins in episodes four and six. The camera work, for instance, seems more assured and thoughtful; take the scene in Baby Cart in Peril where Retsudo cruelly punishes Gunbei for losing the battle for the position of Official Executioner to Ogami. Master of disguise Goroza’s bloody and graphic decapitation as proxy punishment for Gunbei’s devastating failure is filmed in vivid, unflinching, scarlet glory; yet as Gunbei absorbs his shame and loss of honour, the camera proceeds to retreat gingerly to a position partially obscured by a distant post in the large room, as if too embarrassed to closely witness a man’s disgrace. Brutal decapitation? Bring it on. Shameful loss of honour? No, please; I simply can’t watch.
Shortly afterwards, the most stunning section of the film explodes into view in a Buddhist temple, showcasing some incredible acrobatics and mind-blowing gravity-defying ninja elevation. Wakayama is especially acrobatic in this picture, with a deftness of movement that belies his imposing physical presence, and his continued antics are a joy. Other dazzling set-pieces, such as those featuring Enki Kozuka’s magical yet sinister burning blade, or the epic battle in the desert tunnels, culminating in Ogami finally getting his mitts on a surprisingly agile Retsudo in a major climatic showdown, are equally thrilling.
Baby Cart in the Land of Demons chronicles the continuing journey of Ogami and Daigoro, with an intriguing introduction demonstrating the lengths desperate folk now take to secure the specialist services of the Lone Wolf and Cub assassin. The elevation in quality is once again evident, with further creative camera work; the duel beside the water-wheel, for example, is partially filmed through the rotating wheel; a nice touch. The set-pieces also maintain the established high standards, whether it’s the burning messenger who continues to explain Ogami’s grim tasks to him as he perishes in the hungry flames, or the capture of boat-ridden Abbot Jikei on the river; all are handled with the aplomb we have come to expect from this series.
The other notable moments featured in Baby Cart in the Land of Demons surround pretty pickpocket “Quick Change Oyo”, so called for her ability to alter her appearance in a short timescale for the advancement of her criminal occupation; her character development following an interaction with Daigoro makes for tense viewing. And the completion of the grim task assigned to Ogami, whilst accurately fulfilling the honour of his contract, is both genuinely shocking, and very sad.
Even by the high standards set during the earlier instalments in the series, the final picture in the Lone Wolf and Cub bonanza is an unexpected gem. The opening sequence of White Heaven in Hell, whilst eschewing any depiction of graphic bloodletting, is imaginative and expertly executed, as Lone Wolf and Cub slide down the serene snow-capped mountains, surveying the landscape for potential signs of those with evil intentions. The film adopts a decidedly more mystical bent than its predecessors, with the ever-present Retsudo tracking down his disowned illegitimate son Hyoei to assist with his relentless quest to eliminate the powerful Ogami, after an initial challenge from his remaining legitimate child, Lady Kaori (who utilises the “Falling Blade” technique), fails in typically bloody fashion. The problem is, Hyoei has long harboured abandonment issues, having been given up in shame at the tender age of five by Retsudo as a child of his concubine, and now lurks in a mountain lair with his dubious pseudo-satanic supernatural henchmen. He proclaims his “parents” to now be the “Spider Demons of the Kiso-Ontake Mountains”, and demonstrates his mastery of the dark arts of the Spider Demon clan.
Before long, in an almost Fulci-esque cadaver resurrection scene, Hyoei has called up the buried corpses of three warriors, to pursue Ogami in a pledge to usurp the Yagyu clan. Cue an avalanche of crazy supernatural antics, including a chilling levitation in a shrouded, dark forest that lays a blueprint for Lone Wolf and Cub’s successors to emulate. As Ogami battles to resist the emotional attrition of the Five Wheels technique, it’s clear that more risks were taken with the final film in this boxset, yet they pay generous dividends, and rather than the series fading with each successive episode, the climax to the set is as enjoyable and inventive as any of the earlier instalments (with the exception, perhaps, of Baby Cart at the River Styx), with yet another body-count-busting epic battle that is all the more astonishing for its snowy backdrop and ski-equipped swordsmen!
With his samurai-shaped features and penetrating stare, Wakayama carves out the character of a brutal yet honourable hero whose comic-box-exaggerated abilities are electrifying and never cease to inspire awe; for a man built with an imposing frame, his precisely placed blows are executed with all the grace of a ballet dancer. Don’t expect a fussy plot to interfere with Ogami’s visual exploits; the stories tend to be fairly straightforward (though not lacking in invention) – but you wouldn’t want it any other way when his expert movements provide such a visually enriching feast. The Lone Wolf and Cub series documents a phenomenal journey of epic proportions for a man of few words and his son, and for experienced viewers or new viewers alike, the opportunity to grasp the series in carefully re-mastered form will be taken in the flash of a gleaming, dazzling, and lethal blade.
UK fans were last given the opportunity to own this groundbreaking series in one glorious hit via the ArtsMagic Lone Wolf and Cub “Wolf Pack” boxset. Whilst the set was beautifully packaged and presented, the quality was apparently fairly poor.
Officially licensed from the Japanese film company Toho, this freshly re-mastered and subtitled release from Eureka Entertainment is an impressive achievement. Presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the anamorphic widescreen produces a respectful representation of the series, with remarkably clear images given the age of the films, and an unobtrusive level of flecks and damage. This allows us to enjoy the journey chronicled across the six instalments in newly vivid and accurate fashion, and quite rightly so; Chishi Makiura’s cinematography is simply stunning, as the canvas of the outstandingly beautiful Japanese landscape provides an epic scale for this violent tale. Colours are strong, and the reds that spurt from severed arteries are presented in a dazzlingly rich format. That said, there are some very occasional scenes where film damage appears to have faded the film to a degree that goes beyond practical repair. Take, for instance, the opening scene, where the young lord is paraded across his devastated followers towards the executioner’s platform; the definition across much of the lower right side of the screen is lost in a hazy cloud. Such sections are few and far between though, and the overall visual quality of the films throughout the boxset is so strong that it’s sometimes easy to forget you are watching Japanese movies made in the early seventies.
Subtitles are clear and unobtrusive, and the translations work well.
Audio is delivered in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (Japanese); did you expect any different? The exciting, galloping scores are clear enough, though occasionally sound a little harsh with trace distortion, and dialogue always appears clear and defined (though it is admittedly a little more difficult to judge when one doesn’t speak Japanese!).
What’s particularly interesting is to hear the development of the scores as the series progresses. There is some consistency that runs through the episodes, but where Sword of Vengeance has the oriental quality you might expect from the era, the final instalment, White Heaven in Hell, has an ultra-cool Shaft-esque theme that is somewhat incongruous to the snow-capped Japanese mountains and snugly-dressed wolf and cub! Despite this strange stylistic choice, it still works well, and the sound reproduction is decent enough to be in keeping with the presentation as a whole.
Listen out for Mark Lindsay’s synth-tastic soundtrack that operates as a backdrop to Shogun Assassin. It’s both bizarre and oddly fitting, thoroughly enjoyable too, although it ultimately lacks the authenticity of the earlier Lone Wolf and Cub pieces.
Where the gushing of blood that pumps from the arteries opened by Itto Ogami’s dazzling blade is copious in volume, the same cannot, unfortunately, be said for the extras included in this boxset. There’s liner notes from Japanese film expert Tom Mes (author of the acclaimed Miike Agitator book), and an original trailer for each of the films, which are fascinating simply for the fact that they demonstrate what an incredible job has been done with the re-mastering. The lo-fi rough-edged trailers do have a certain charm, however. If you enjoy such imperfect gems, as I do, then it’s worth knowing that all six original trailers can be accessed from the Shogun Assassin disc. There doesn’t appear to be a Shogun Assassin trailer; if you own any Vipco DVDs you may find one nestled in one of those.
The lack of any other extras, whilst understandable given the age of the movies, is a deep disappointment.
There is much to cherish in this freshly re-mastered collection of the often underrated Lone Wolf and Cub series. The gleaming swipes of Ogami’s lethal blade as he slices through armies of aggressors on his journey to the crossroads of hell with son Daigoro are presented in newly dazzling glory, and the rivers of blood that richly flow are vivid and colourful. The inclusion of Shogun Assassin may be enough to convert a new audience to the full chronicles of Ogami’s exploits, given that the spliced and dubbed Western World-friendly film was a hit with many. Had there been more extras included to supplement the stunning epic, this boxset would have been virtually immaculate. Even so, The Complete Lone Wolf and Cub Boxset is a very highly recommended and eagerly anticipated collection that fans of Ogami and plucky son Daigoro will be delighted to own.