Thursday, June 16, 2016

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972)

          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


Allen Rubinstein said...

Major correction, Peter. Lone Wolf and Cub isn't "a graphic novel". It's a series of 28 300-page graphic novels, and one of the most riviting work of comics I've ever read (and I've read more than a thousand graphic novels in my life). I have only seen one of the films, which seems to arrive in the neighborhood of at least the basic concept created by ‎Kazuo Koike (writer) and ‎Goseki Kojima (artist). I don't even know if the full series attempted to encapsulate the overall narrative.

Thing is, the whole first half is entierly episodic. Ogami Itto and son just wander from location to location taking jobs as a hired assassin, with most episodes lasting for 100 pages, thus three tales per volume. At the halfway point, the overriding story kicks in and the meaning, motivation and world building of the first half becomes clear, making the series a single, cohesive, massive tale. Dark Horse published the English translations one per month ($10 each, a bargain!), so I followed it for two years four months. The last year was counting days for the next installment to be released which I brought right home to devour. It's the most amazing epic, and for a story lover like yourself, I can't recommend it enough.

Allen Rubinstein said...

Oh, and it was published 1970-76, so right in your wheelhouse.