The notion of an action hero accompanied on his or her adventures by a child has been around for centuries, so it’s not as if Japan’s popular Lone Wolf and Cub franchise, which originated with a graphic novel in 1970, exists in isolation. Still, Lone Wolf and Cub takes the notion to such a bizarre extreme that the franchise is noteworthy for its outrageousness. Set in feudal Japan, the underlying premise of the franchise involves a ronin—a samurai without a master—traveling the countryside accompanied by his infant child, slaughtering enemies with a sword while his sweet little boy watches from inside a pushcart. The combination of bloody violence and fatherly devotion is weirdly effective.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Spirit of Vengeance was the first live-action iteration, kicking off a five-film series that ran its course by 1974. Three seasons of a Japanese TV show extended the brand to 1976, and subsequent iterations have included a videogame and another TV series in the 2000s, as well as myriad comics. Most U.S. audiences first encountered the franchise via Shogun Assassin (1980), which comprised portions of Sword of Vengeance and its first sequel, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972), dubbed into English.
Watching the first movie in its proper form, it becomes evident that the heart of the franchise is the central character, Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama), who personifies the concept of an individual living by a personal code of honor. Meting out justice in an unjust world, he’s a cousin to Dirty Harry and to the Paul Kersey character in Death Wish (1974), although there’s also something of the counterculture seeker inside Itto’s soul. He pursues an ideal of duty and fairness and responsibility, even though the thirst for revenge drives most of his actions. The setup is a bit convoluted, but here goes. Itto once served as the official executioner for a shogun, but he became a pawn in a conspiracy. His wife was murdered, and an attempt was made on Itto’s life as well as that of his three-year-old son. Itto disavowed loyalty to the shogun, slaughtered his way through guards to gain freedom, and became a ronin. During Sword of Vengeance, Itto settles into his life as a wandering mercenary, even as he systematically kills those responsible for his circumstances. Woven into the narrative is a love story of sorts, since Itto becomes the champion and defender of a beautiful prostitute.
As directed by Kanji Misumi, Sword of Vengeance is gory and stylish. Battle scenes involve geysers of blood and graphic dismemberment, with the Itto character displaying almost supernatural powers of swordsmanship. (In one scene, he kills two people who approach him from behind without either rising from a sitting position or looking in the attackers’ direction.) Misumi and his collaborators employ some dreamlike effects, amplifying the sense that Lone Wolf and Cub is some dark modern fable, and leading man Wakayama’s stoicism works well. Whether Sword of Vengeance is actually about something, beyond familiar macho themes, is anybody’s guess. However, the movie is consistently interesting and offbeat, offering a funhouse-mirror vision of samurai culture.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance: GROOVY