”You would have been happier if you’d chosen to join your mother in her world.”
They hardly make movies as badass as this anymore.
Based on a popular manga series by Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima, the six-film Lone Wolf and Cub saga is a brilliant slow-burn descent into hell disguised as a bloody, brilliant bunch of action movies that, while repetitive, are infinitely entertaining and rewatchable. If you’re a fan of the work of Quentin Tarantino — in particular Kill Bill, the movie that’s perhaps most indebted to the Lone Wolf and Cub series (it even name checks Shogun Assassin, the American re-edit of the first two entries) — you’re sure to love every blood-soaked, revenge-minded minute of this, one of the greatest series in all of movie history.
Tomisaburo Wakayama, one of the least likely badasses in movie history, plays Ogami Ittō, who begins Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance as the shogun’s executioner before he is set up and betrayed by another member of the shogun’s inner circle. As a result, his wife is murdered and Ittō gives his three-year old son Daigoro a choice: he can be killed and join his mother in heaven or join his father on a roaring rampage of revenge, condemning himself to damnation in the process. The rest of the series follows Ittō as he pulls Daigoro along in a cart, vanquishing his enemies and taking on jobs of both the security and assassination variety along the way. In Baby Cart at the River Styx, Ittō agrees to kill a traitor while being pursued by three female assassins. Baby Cart to Hades finds Ittō still being hunted by the Yagu clan, culminating in a battle in which he and his son must take on an army of 200 men as well as Kanbei (Go Kato), a rival assassin whose goal is to fight and defeat the great Ogami Ittō. Baby Cart in Peril, the fourth in the series and one of only two entries not directed by Kenji Misumi (directing duties go to Buichi Saito), finds Ittō hired to kill a tattooed female assassin and a separation between father and son when Daigoro wanders off and becomes lost. Kenji Misumi returns as director for 1973’s Baby Cart in the Land of Demons, which tests Ittō with his most difficult challenge to date — fighting and defeating five messengers of death as well as possibly having to assassinate a child — while he and Daigoro are once again separated for a time. Finally, there is 1974’s Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell, released in 1974 and directed by Yoshiyuki Kuroda. As the closing chapter in the six-film saga, White Heaven introduces more supernatural elements as Ittō and Daigoro face a sect of their enemies, the Yagyu clan, who are able to harness the powers of black magic. Once again, the former shogun executioner must face off against an entire army. They don’t know what they’re in for.
There’s something completely thrilling about the way that the Lone Wolf and Cub films fly in the face of what audiences might expect from a six-film saga that takes place in feudal Japan and is being released by the prestigious Criterion Collection. So many of those descriptors come with baggage — that the movies will be slow or stuffy or “artistically important” but not enjoyable. Literally nothing could be further from the truth, as this series is endlessly entertaining from start to finish. It has the polish and scope of a Kurosawa film but the insane bloodshed of Italian horror. It is comic and horrifying and even touching at times, as the connection between Ittō and his son is deeply felt even when it’s totally dark and messed up. As a fan of exploitation and genre films, these movies offer everything I could possibly want out of a movie; the fact that there are six of them is simply a case of too much of a good thing.
Yes, there are ebbs and flows to the series — certain sequels are most consistently entertaining or move along more quickly than others — but none of the films in the Lone Wolf and Cub series fall flat. If anything, the biggest hurdle they have to face is a sense of repetition; because the stories are very similar, the movies take on a kind of sameness that’s exacerbated when you marathon all six of them like I did. It starts to feel a little like watching a season of the Lone Wolf and Cub TV series, but like a TV series from the 1970s in which the stories don’t build upon themselves (the way they do now on serialized television) so much as repeat from week to week. None of this is meant as a complaint, of course, since I’m on board for every minute of every film. Like the Lady Snowblood films, which were released by Criterion a few years ago and of which there are only two entries, the Lone Wolf and Cub series works best when it’s focusing on the larger story of its damned protagonists; when it’s more of a “hired gun” tale, it starts to feel a little more villain-of-the-week and gets away from Ittō’s larger mission of bloody revenge.
All of the movies in the series have been given a new 2K restoration by Criterion and are all presented in full 1080p HD in their original 2.40:1 widescreen aspect ratio. While the films will always have a quick-and-dirty feel to them, the new HD restoration has been cleaned up quite nicely to remove scratches, debris and signs of aging while presenting a color palette that is vibrant but still natural. Each film has its original mono audio track presented in Japanese with English subtitles; while it’s clear that effort has been made to present the audio as clearly and cleanly as possible, some of that reliable hiss and distortion does sometimes rear its head but never in a way that’s at all distracting.
As if the six films in the Lone Wolf and Cub series aren’t enough, Criterion has included a seventh film as a bonus feature: 1980’s Shogun Assassin, the American re-edit of the first two Lone Wolf movies and one of the most famous exploitation movies ever made. While it ditches a good deal of the story in favor of wall-to-wall fight scenes, adds in some voiceover narration from Daigorō and a new synthesizer score by Mark Lindsay, Shogun Assassin is probably my favorite movie in the series and its inclusion is a genuine treat. I know this is blasphemy for the purists out there, but I love the way that Shogun Assassin boils the Lone Wolf story down to its most base elements and adds a sheen of early ‘80s cool; it lacks the thematic richness of the first two Misumi films, but in its place offers the pleasures of pure cinema. It is included in this collection in full 1080p HD. There are also two documentaries found within the special features: the first, a French doc called Lame d’un père, l’âme d’un sabre, is a 2005 effort that covers the making of the series, while the second is a silent 1937 piece about how samurai swords are made. Also included are interviews with Kazuo Koike, who wrote the original manga series and the screenplays for the first five films, as well as samurai sword expert Sensei Yoshimitsu Katsuse and Misumi biographer Kazuma Nozawa. Trailers for the movies are also here, as is Criterion’s usual collectible booklet containing an informative essay by critic Patrick Macias.
Criterion’s Lone Wolf and Cub collection is one of the very best Blu-ray releases of the year, elevating a series of bloody exploitation movies to the level of high art and hopefully exposing a brand new audience to the greatness of Ogami Ittō. The A/V presentation is excellent, and while the bonus features aren’t quite comprehensive I love that they’ve seen fit to include Shogun Assassin, too, because it’s the version I return to most often and is a very different viewing experience from the original Lone Wolf and Cub series. I’m happy to have both. No fan of violent action cinema should ever be without this set.