Lone Wolf and Cub: a long-read guide to samurai cinema’s tender, bloodthirsty duo
We take an in-depth look at Lone Wolf and Cub. An epic journey through all six movies, featuring samurai cinema’s most hyper-violent and touchingly depicted father and son duo.
There’s an episode of Bob’s Burgers that I dearly love, perhaps a tiny bit more than all the others. ‘Hawk and Chick’ features Bob and his rabbit-hatted daughter Louise working together to reconcile an ageing Japanese actor with his own long-lost daughter. The hopeful duo finally succeed by holding a screening of a 70s martial arts film (the ‘Hawk and Chick’ of the metatextual title), which stars the estranged father and daughter as a pair of nomadic samurai tied together by a familial bond of vengeance.
It’s a perfect episode; full of warmth and pathos, and through Bob and Louise’s shared love of these old samurai movies, we explore the deepening relationship between the pair. The episode is also a loving homage to the Lone Wolf and Cub series of films, which also centre on the journey of a sword-wielding father and child during the Edo period of Japan – something I was completely unaware of until Lone Wolf and Cub was announced for a lavish re-issue by Criterion this month. They’ve now become my new obsession.
Based on the long-running manga series of the same name, the six classic Lone Wolf and Cub films were shot between 1972 – 1974 and feature Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) an executioner for the Shogun, who is betrayed by his own clan and framed for treason. After his wife is murdered by ninjas, Ogami is forced to wander the countryside as an assassin-for-hire while seeking vengeance against those who betrayed him. Thankfully he’s not alone following the ‘Demon Way in Hell’. Accompanying Ogami is his three-year old son Daigoro, who he pushes around in an impressively weaponised pram, tooled up with an infinite supply of knives, swords and the other deadly surprises.
Lone Wolf and Cub contains the most extraordinary mixture of period samurai drama (“Chanbara”), exploitation thrills and gob-smacking levels of bloodshed. There’s also a surprisingly touching father and son relationship at its centre, which offsets all the lopped-off heads and limbs, and makes the whole experience hugely affecting.
Chanbara (チャンバラ) literally translates to “sword fight” and has come to denote Japanese samurai cinema, which is itself a sub-genre of Jidaigeki (or “period drama” – usually set during the Edo period of Japanese history between 1603 – 1868). Chanbara is onomatopoeia for the sound of blades striking together.
Although to be fair, I have just become a father AND I’m a huge fan of old Akira Kurosawa samurai films, so I’m basically the exact target audience. In the first weeks of her birth, I would get up to feed our baby at 3am and together we’d watch Seven Samurai, Yojimbo or Hidden Fortress. Mainly because they were subtitled and I wouldn’t wake my wife, but also because it felt appropriate to go back and rediscover the films that first made me appreciate world cinema as a younger film nerd. My daughter, obviously, had no idea what was going on, but I will be sure to frequently remind her of this time when she’s much older.
It’s in this spirit that I begin a journey with my mercifully unaware four-month-old daughter along the ‘Demon Way in Hell’, and binge-watch all six Lone Wolf and Cub movies. Will we bond in a similar way as Bob and Louise? Or will I quickly realise these films are definitely not suitable viewing for a minor, whether they can focus beyond the tip of their own nose or not?
I feel that by the third sentence of the next paragraph, my question will be answered emphatically.
Lone Wolf And Cub: Sword of Vengeance [1972 Dir: Kenji Misumi]
The origin of Itto Ogami and Daigoro is a fascinating example of schlocky exploitation cinema, elevated to more expressive heights. It’s breathtakingly violent, often absurdly gory. The fountains of red blood that spring out of every wound are comically extreme. There’s salacious nudity, sex and plenty of other lurid moments that leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth. But it’s also thrilling, thanks to some exceptional cinematography, kinetic editing and artfully crafted violence.
And again, at its core, is the sweet-natured relationship between father and child, which never becomes saccharine. Very little dialogue is shared between the pair, save for Daigoro’s shout of “papa” in the few moments of separation – but their inextricable bond is unwavering.
Ogami is played by the hugely prolific Tomisaburo Wakayama, an already established martial arts star who – despite his age and weight – is an impressive swordsman and, as we’re reminded constantly throughout the six films, a pretty good somersaulter. Although Wakayama’s performance is the very definition of stoic, he truly comes alive when his sword is unsheathed. Akihiro Tomikawa, who wouldn’t appear in any other film outside this series, plays Ogami’s three-year old son, Daigoro. His performance in each Lone Wolf and Cub chapter is indelible. Daigoro is just as measured as his father, with a stern centeredness beyond his years, but it’s hard to avoid the fact that he’s also heartbreakingly adorable. Ogami is almost indestructible, undefeatable – but Daigoro provides the much needed danger and vulnerability.
Lone Wolf and Cub (子連れ狼) is based on a manga series created by writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima, first published in 1970. The story spans 28 volumes, with more than 300 pages in each book. Lone Wolf and Cub is one of the most highly regarded manga, selling more than 8 million copies in Japan.
Sword of Vengeance begins darkly; with Ogami in his role as Shogunate Executioner asked to ceremonially behead an infant lord at the behest of the Shogun. It gets darker too, as Ogami’s wife is callously murdered by the Shadow Yagyu clan, on the orders of wild eye-browed nemesis Retsudo, setting Ogami and his young son on the road to vengeance. There’s lots of delicate cutting between the past and present, all triggered by minor details along their journey, making this the series’ most narratively interesting chapter.
It also contains some of Lone Wolf and Cub’s most iconic scenes. In a flashback, Ogami allows his toddler son to choose between the life of an assassin or a ‘reunion with his mother’. Daigoro has to crawl towards an object to make his decision – the sword (Daigoro lives, but his life will be full of murder) or the bright colourful ball (counter-intuitively, death at the blade of his own father). It seems a cruel trick, but thankfully Daigoro is attracted to shiny metal objects and he gets to accompany his father along the assassin’s path.
In Lone Wolf and Cub (子連れ狼), our duo walks the path of “meifumadō” (冥府魔道) which translates as ”The Road to Hell,” symbolised by the twin demons of the bull and the horse. The term meifumadō was actually invented by</a> Lone Wolf and Cub’s author Kazuo Koike. “Meifu” (冥府) refers to the underworld – or hell “Jigoku” (地獄) – and ‘Madou’ (魔道) refers to a heretical way of life.
It’s during an early scene – where father and baby are sentenced to a noble death of seppuku – that you realise this isn’t going to be some typical, bloodless Chanbara. Ogami fights his way out of the court, baby in one arm, sword in the other, and the ensuing carnage is astonishing. Blood splatters on tatami mats, fountains of patent-red blood douse the walls – the soundtrack is sparse, save for the swish of blades (although eagle eyes will spot the young baby screaming his head off in silence).
In this world, swords are called ‘horse slayer’ and men are cut down at the knee, leaving feet and ankles standing upright, spurting geysers of blood while the rest of the body falls to the ground. The escape sequence leads to a one-on-one duel, which ends in the most luxuriously photographed beheading ever committed to film. You can see why Quentin Tarantino and John Woo hold Lone Wolf and Cub in such high esteem.
Seppuku (切腹) means “cutting abdomen/belly” and is often less formerly known as hara-kiri (腹切) It’s a ritual suicide by disembowelment with a sword, formerly practiced in Japan by samurai as an honourable alternative to disgrace or execution. In his role as Shogunate Executioner, Itto Ogami would be the ‘second’ (“kaishakunin” 介錯人), somebody appointed to behead the condemned samurai at the point of disembowelling.
The first half of Sword of Vengeance is a master-class in over-the-top action, exquisitely choreographed bloodshed and mythology setting. However the second half contains the series’ sleazier moments. The rape and casual murder of a prostitute in broad daylight is unnecessary, as is a lengthy and glamorously shot scene of forced public sex. It’s an uncomfortable mixture, especially when you add in the tender scenes where Ogami bathes Daigoro in a hot spring. Sword of Vengeance also contains one of the few scenes of breastfeeding I’ve ever seen in a film – I would say it’s refreshing but sadly it just feels blatantly exploitative. Female characters will be dealt a fairer hand in later, stronger chapters in the series. But for now, this is an eye-opening, if unsavoury first introduction to the world of Lone Wolf and Cub.
LONE WOLF AND CUB: Baby Cart at the River Styx [1972 DIR: KENJI MISUMI]
The blood is even thicker and redder (it’s now house-paint consistency), the editing choppier, the cinematography is artier; Baby Cart at the River Styx is the strongest chapter in the Lone Wolf and Cub series, and it’s certainly the reason why it forms the bulk of Shogun Assassin – the American version of Lone Wolf and Cub, edited together from the first two films and redubbed with a cloying English language voiceover.
Shogun Assassin was compiled from the first two films in the Lone Wolf and Cub series, using 12 minutes of Sword of Vengeance and most of Baby Cart at the River Styx. It was released in 1980, eight years after the originals and found itself embroiled in the UK’s video nasty panic. Shogun Assassin was later sampled by GZA on the Liquid Swords album and is watched by the Bride and her daughter in Kill Bill: Volume II.
Here Ogami and Daigoro must fend off enemies from all sides, including Sayaka and her clan of female assassins, the Akari Yagyū, and the three Hidari brothers. Who with their over-size straw hats and unique weapons (the iron claw, the flying mace and a pair of armoured gloves) are a clear inspiration for Big Trouble in Little China’s ludicrous The Three Storms.
Baby Cart at the River Styx is the most relentlessly action-packed chapter, Ogami and Daigoro can barely step one foot without coming under attack. This reaches its nadir during a scene where the pair trudges along a river and are continuously attacked by groups of assassins – first by razor sharp straw hats, then by razor sharp radishes. The editing is more playful too. A scene where the assassins hypnotise Ogami with their somersaulting is all crosscut patterns of colour and crash zooms before they unleash their final attack.
You begin to see the toll of violence on our previously indestructible hero, as Wakayama’s Itto Ogami finally succumbs to blood-loss and exhaustion. Obviously he’ll be fine, there are four more of these films, but his weakened state leads to some heroic moments for Daigoro, who must tend to his unconscious papa. The film also contains the first (and only) time in the series where Daigoro is kidnapped and placed in direct peril. Literally – he’s suspended over a well. As the captor taunts Ogami for showing weakness in caring for his son, Ogami replies, “I shall do my best and then wait for destiny.” It’s a touching, transcendental reply that speaks to a particularly zen parenting style. At the end of the scene, Daigoro drops his shoe down the well to secretly indicate the depth to his father and how much time he’ll have when eventually dropped. It’s a subtle moment and proves how deep connections can be insinuated through mere gestures.
Tomisaburo Wakayama’s brother, Shintaro Katsu, is also a major part of Japanese samurai cinema history. As well as producing Lone Wolf and Cub for his brother, Katsu starred in the even longer running film series, Zatoichi. He played the titular blind masseur 25 times between 1962 and 1973, and during four seasons of a spin-off television series.
This chapter also contains Lone Wolf and Cub’s most memorable moments – mainly down to their pure strangeness; you never know quite what to think or expect. A cruel dissection of a ninja at the hands of the Akari Yagyū – first his ears are sliced off, then his nose, then the rest of his limbs – would be Monty Python-esque if it weren’t so terrifyingly grotesque.
Then there’s the scene directly following Ogami, Daigoro and the avenging Sayaka’s underwater escape from a boat fire. On dry land, Ogami strips all three of them down, so they can huddle together for warmth. Sayaka attempts to reach for a sword, but the small boy’s brushing of her breast makes her abandon the plan. Is it touching or is it just weird? I guess it can be both. The same can be said about the final scene, where a slain Hidari brother lies in a sand dune, contemplating the fatal blow he’s just received. Blood sprays out of his neck like a fine mist. “It sounds like wailing,” he says as he begins to fade away. “The Whistle of the Fallen Tiger – I’ve always wished to kill someone, just once, and create such a fine cut.” The subsequent geyser of blood erupting into the sand is a fitting enough image to sum up this chapter.
LONE WOLF AND CUB: Baby Cart to Hades [1972 DIR: KENJI MISUMI]
Ogami and Daigoro continue their long and violent journey across the countryside, encountering scumbag swordsmen, yakuza and a dishonoured former samurai – culminating in one of the biggest spectacles in Lone Wolf and Cub so far.
Sadly, Baby Cart to Hades is also one of the hardest to watch, mainly because rape seems to be its only plot device. An early scene featuring the rape and murder of a mother and daughter is particularly harrowing. Later, Ogami and Daigoro come to the aid of a prostitute, who bit the tongue off from her rapist pimp – this one dwells luridly in the brutalisation of women.
There are some highlights to be found in the sleaze. Daigoro takes a more active role in aiding his father, by helping him trick a gun-toting villain with an unfair advantage. Ogami also shows more defensive restraint and impassiveness than in previous films – deals are struck, pistols are disarmed; life is treated slightly more preciously. That is until the final third, when Ogami single-handedly takes on an army of 200 assorted baddies. He successfully fends of archers, cannons, spears and samurai on horseback. It’s an incredible display, and the final moment of philosophical debate is an interesting cap. A disgraced samurai enquires of Ogami, “What is a true samurai?” Ogami comfortingly replies, “The way of the warrior is to live by death” before spilling his guts on the floor.
With Ogami at his most outlandishly indestructible, the baby cart’s ridiculous hidden weaponry, the dreadful treatment of women and the Matt Monro-esque song at the end (with lyrics that are far too on the nose), I get the increasing sensation I’m watching the samurai equivalent of a James Bond film.
LONE WOLF AND CUB: Baby Cart in Peril [1972 DIR: Buichi Saito]
You know how I said the previous chapter of Lone Wolf and Cub dealt too much in the brutalisation of women? Well to make up for it, Baby Cart in Peril begins with a tattooed female assassin butchering a group of male samurai and lopping off their top-knots in brisk fashion. Although, this being a true 70s exploitation film, O-Yuki is topless throughout the battle. In fact the film opens with an extreme close-up of her left nipple, surrounded by a tattoo of baby Kintaro – born of the “Mountain Hag Devil.” The purpose of the tattoos are to cause a “grotesque” surprise; to “knock wind out of people” before they attack. You can understand why the Criterion Collection (who recently restored all six films for blu-ray) describes this chapter as being “distinctly lowbrow”. But at least the nudity here has some narrative point, and the complex characterisation of O-Yuki is a step forward from previous female characters, who often find themselves disarmed purely through their affection for Ogami and Daigoro.
Baby Cart in Peril’s strongest moments occur during the extended period of time where Ogami and Daigoro are separated through the child’s youthful curiosity. These are the most heartrending images of the series – Daigoro’s lonesome padding his way through the rain, and later being caught in a fiery rice field is the closest he’ll ever come to a real threat – sadly this doesn’t last for long, and ushers in some unnecessary voiceover from an unknown narrator that comes out of nowhere.
This chapter also contains some of the best fight choreography of the series, soundtracked with free-jazz and funk versions of the already awesome theme tune.
LONE WOLF AND CUB: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons [1973 DIR: KENJI MISUMI]
This fifth chapter stands out markedly from the others, purely for the unique way in which our pair of assassin anti-heroes are hired for this particular job. Typically, Ogami asks for 500 Ryō per assassination, with the proviso that the client reveals all of their “secrets and reasons” for the hit. In Baby Cart in the Land of Demons, five separate samurai who wish to hire him confront Ogami. Each must be defeated before they give up their part-payment of 100 Ryō and a small part of their overall motive. This leads to many unintentionally hilarious scenes where a slain samurai gushes blood from a wound while giving a lengthy expository back-story.
Violence against children is one the film’s most daring themes. Ogami must murder an infant princess and her parents. Law officers publicly flog Daigoro, purely because he stoically refuses to reveal the identity of a pick-pocketer. The kid is on the “Demon Way in Hell” so he barely bats an eye-lid, and this mirrors Ogami’s own pitiless dispatch of the princess and her family.
Baby Cart in the Land of Demons sees Kenji Misumi return to direct for the fourth and final time. Misumi’s strength was in adding poetry and humanity to the expressive violence, which can also be seen in the Zatoichi films directed by Misumi. As with Lone Wolf and Cub, Misumi’s films were often the series’ most existential entries.
Baby Cart in the Land of Demons is one of the more meditative, spiritual chapters in the series. It’s also its slowest paced, which makes the explosions of violence more impactful. The pairs’ sailing off into the sunset while a concubine commits hari-kari in the water, for the first time reveals a sombre reflection on the carnage they leave behind.
LONE WOLF AND CUB: White Heaven in Hell [1972 DIR: Yoshiyuki Kuroda]
If Baby Cart in the Land of Demons was a thematically and philosophically strong entry in the series – this final chapter is pure improbable action. The film is most memorable for its snowbound escapades, with the baby cart adapted with rails instead of wheels and all the attacking samurai riding on skis.
In what feels like a tying up of loose ends, Ogami’s long-time enemy Retsudo pulls in every favour to rid himself of Ogami forever – this includes the resurrection of a few long-dead enemies in the series’ most absurd moment. Daigoro noticeably has been asked to ‘do more acting’ here too; mainly this results in a few cheesy cutaways of the boy looking shocked.
Despite the promise of an even bigger ‘one man against an army’ snowy spectacle, you leave the film a little disappointed. The action is indistinct and repetitive. Ogami’s super-human indestructibility is restored. Where in earlier, more artful episodes we would have seen lovingly framed depictions of blood and ice, here we’re just left with a snowmobile pursuit straight out of a James Bond movie. Retsudo gliding along in his own cannon-mounted cart also, unfortunately, conjures up the Dalek’s supreme leader, Davros. The fact that Retsudo escapes, exclaiming, “I’ll get you next time, Ogami!” (or words to that affect) makes for a dissatisfying conclusion to the film and indeed the series.
According to a documentary included with the restored edition, Wakayama was annoyed that a TV adaptation of the same manga series was being produced concurrently with his own film series. So he stubbornly refused to make any more, despite a promise from the television company that they’d fire their chosen actor and replace him with Wakayama. Ever the arrogant stoic, Wakayama walked away from the franchise.
This leaves Lone Wolf and Cub, somewhat literally, frozen in time. The original manga ends on a suitable note of bloody finality, and manages to bring the story back around full circle to Daigoro – but the film incarnations of Ogami and son are forever cursed to journey their way across Edo period Japan, painting the countryside red.
The complete Lone Wolf and Cub box set is available to buy on blu-ray from 27th May.
Sources and acknowledgements:
Main illustration by Paul Pope, taken from the Criterion cover. Colours by Ron Wimberly. Stills by Criterion and Toho Co Ltd.
SHOGUN ASSASSIN: http://nerdist.com/schlock-awe-shogun-assassin/
SHINTARO KATSU: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-sintaro-katsu-1248398.html
KENJI MISUMI: http://www.midnighteye.com/features/remembering-kenji-misumi/