Criterion Prediction #22: Lone Wolf and Cub 1-6, by Alexander Miller
Title: Lone Wolf and Cub 1-6
Director: Kenji Misumi, Takeichi Saito, Kuroda Yoshiyuki, and Robert Houston
Cast: Wakayama Tomisaburo, Fumio Watanabe, Akihiro Tomikawa, Kayo Matsuo, Akira Yamauchi, Junko Hitomi, and Goro Mutsumi
Synopsis: Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo) formally retained the distinguished title as the Shogun’s executioner. After discovering that his family is brutally slain (except his infant son Daigoro) by the retainers of an abolished clan whose leader Itto executed, it’s revealed that this is a double cross led by the dubious and scheming Yagyu Clan hoping to destabilize the Shogunate by framing Itto as a traitor. Banned from his title, and branded a traitor Itto gives his son a choice; follow his mother in the land of the dead, or join his father on the road to vengeance. Trucking his son around in a tricked out baby cart with spears, hidden daggers, and bulletproof shields Ogami Itto and his son Daigoro become traveling assassins; “live as demons, between the gates of heaven and hell”. Taking contracts along the way while occasionally fending off attacks from the ever watchful eye of the Yagyu clan, Ogami Itto and Daigoro are the Lone Wolf and Cub. This Manga went on to inspire eleven films (five in the Shogun Assassin series) a television series, and a TV show.
Critique: The original six films in The Lone Wolf and Cub series are some of the most well executed (ha ha) and definitive Jidaigeki films ever made. In my opinion, Kenji Misumi might be the unsung hero of Japanese cinema. While he’s directed some of the foremost samurai films of all time, including the best of this and the Zatoichi series (among a few others), he’s largely overlooked in North America. While the Shogun Assassin films are well-known cult items (especially in the wake of Kill Bill Volumes 1&2), they don’t even rank in the same category as the originals. Kenji Misumi brought opulent violence to a new level of distinction with bright red geysers of blood, buttressed with taught, stylish direction. Kenji Misumi employs impressionistic sound editing, lighting and staging: the implication of artifice is juxtaposed with beautifully choreographed violence. Wakayama Tomisaburo has a terrific and imposing presence, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing the famed Ogami Itto, he may be large, but he’s also quick with a sword. There’s this great “all in the family” aspect of these films as well as the Zatoichi series. Wakayama Tomisaburo, brother of Shintaro Katsu (who starred as Zatoichi), not only produced the later era of the Zatoichi films but this series as well. The best of The Lone Wolf and Cub, and Zatoichi films were directed by Kenji Misumi (not to mention the first Hanzo the Razor movie, also starring Katsu) so there’s an obvious camaraderie here that, over the years, has yielded some great work. As the Zatoichi series was winding down the Lone Wolf and Cub films began, marking a fruitful collaboration in the history of Japanese cinema. The first movie is fine on its own merits while it sets up the rest of the series, that’s not to say there’s any shortage of action. The second in the series, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx is, in my opinion, the best of the six films. Wonderfully directed, astounding action, bloody as hell but never gratuitous and always visually rewarding, just wait until the finale in the desert. The third in the series (Baby Cart to Hades) is comparable, offering a more intricate plot (involving Yakuza as well as the Yagyu clan) that is just as involving as any of the other films, not to mention the insight into the cultural customs of the Hagakure or samurai code. Unfortunately, the fourth entry is the weakest in the series. Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril zigs and zags a few times too many. Director Takeichi Saito is no Kenji Misumi and you can see that in the final product. The fifth entry Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart and the Land of Demons is easily the grimmest but on par with some of the best as Itto is instructed to kill a lord, his concubine, and their five-year-old daughter after being tested by five assassins who sacrifice themselves to Itto giving him partial instructions for his mission. The fifth film is unforgiving, violent, and terrific. In the final film, Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven and Hell, Ogami Itto and Yagyu Retsudo finally duke it out, a satisfying cap to the series despite not being directed by Misumi. But Yoshiyuki Kuroda helms the final entry and follows the mission statement fairly well.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Criterion has a lot of strong sellers but the various samurai films are at the forefront of their catalog. With a variety of classics from directors such as Kurosawa, Inagaki and Kobayashi, along with the more recent inclusion of the Zatoichi and Lady Snowblood series, the door is now widened for further expansion of the genre with the substantial evidence that there is a market for people to take samurai/manga adaptations seriously. You could argue that the Lone Wolf and Cub hexalogy is relegated to “exploitation” fare but that’s an unjustified assessment, thanks in part to years of poor distribution in North America. In their restored form, with the original language track and aspect ratio, fans of wuxia, kung-fu and, in this case, samurai films no longer have to be apologists as people can now view these types of movies as important, culturally significant and artistically relevant.
Now if you have a comprehensive collection of the Lone Wolf and Cub movies, you have to show some love for the Shogun Assassin series as well, despite my previous argument that these films are damaging to the genre. Seeing as Criterion provides the English edit of The Leopard, and the three different cuts of Gilliam’s Brazil, they have no qualms giving people optional versions of international titles, so the bonus features would serve as an appropriate home. The Shogun Assassin films are fun, but not exactly spine number worthy. Since they belong to the same distributor (AnimEigo) as the original films, acquiring the rights shouldn’t be an issue. These are available on Blu-Ray. However, there have been some complaints regarding the noise reduction and transfers. Since Criterion managed to get the rights to the later Zatoichi movies (Volumes 16-25 also by AnimEigo) the prospective Lone Wolf and Cub/Shogun Assassin collective shouldn’t be out of reach. This would be a terrific and coveted Criterion set; we can only imagine what the box art and layout would look like if this comes to fruition. This series has been a personal favorite of mine for years now, seeing it get a spine number and a restoration would be remarkable.