Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972)

The second instalment of this epic series sees our protagonist Ogami Itto and his son Daigoro hired for an assassination job by a clan who specialise in creating a special type of dye in a process only they know. The target is a man who plans to sell out their secret, thus undermining their profitable enterprise. Ogami must find the man who is being protected by three deadly warriors, each with a particular weapon. Ogami must also battle a group of female assassins who have been hired by the Yagyu to kill him.

This film picks up right where the last film left off and goes out of its way to top that films more eccentric elements. The introduction of colourful characters such as the female assassins and three warrior brothers helps distinguish this from the first film. Again there is no holding back when it comes to the violence and there is great creativity in how characters fight and day. Particularly amusing is the use of the baby-cart as a weapon, deadly straw hats, dancers, and just about anything that can be used to kill. There are a number of great action sequences, especially the one on a burning ship that tops anything in the first film. The plot this time around gets a little more complex with various factions, but it is a great strength of the film that at all times you are carried along with it and never confused by who is fighting who.

A hugely entertaining film. Just as with the first there are contemplative moments amongst the action and a certain poignancy to the situation of the two lead characters, but this is balanced perfectly with frenetic action. The addition of female assassins offered a great counter-point to a series that at times is less than respectful to its female characters. A sequel that stands on the shoulders of the first and exceeds it in almost every way.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972)

lone wolf and cub sword of vengeance

The film opens with Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) as the shogun’s executioner. We see preparations for the decapitation of a lord who is too young to fully comprehend his fate. It seems an unusual way to set up a protagonist with whom we are going to spend considerable time, but it turns into the great strength of the film as Itto is a complex character and we are never quite sure what he is capable of. Itto is betrayed by the powerful Yaggyu clan, his wife is killed, and he is forced to set off as a masterless samurai with his son Daigoro (Akiriho Tomikawa). The two of them are now on a dangerous path, taking whatever work they can find. When he receives a payment for the assassination of a chamberlain he travels to the hot spring resort where he is resident. Arriving he finds the village overrun with the man and his gang of thugs who are terrifying the locals. The men at first wish to kill Itto, but decide to let him live, a decision which turns out to have dreadful consequences for them.

Kazuo Koike’s manga is translated into his own screenplay. Directed by Kenji Misumi, they have created perhaps one of the best manga adaptations, with high quality cinematography sitting comfortably alongside more outrageous sequences of blood letting. Lone Wolf and Cub does belong firmly in the category of exploitation films, being unashamed to present violence and nudity, but this tendency is balanced with more contemplative moments. The whole hinges on the character of Ogami Itto and Wakayama delivers a fantastically moving performance. Understated for the most part he lets his swordsmanship do the talking as we see the beginning of a legend. His relationship with his son is touching and in the scene where he makes him choose between death or a life of wandering the audience is in no doubt that he would be cold enough to carry out his promise. A similar scene later in the film involves his relationship with the prostitute Osen (Tomoko Mayama), in which we are never quite sure of Itto’s motives or what he is feeling. The film’s use of flashbacks help keep the narrative moving forward while giving us everything we need in terms of backstory. While the plot may be familiar to fans of the genre, there is certainly enough originality with the idea of the father and son pairing to keep it interesting.

The relationship between Itto and his son offer a rumination on the nature of fatherhood, masculinity, honour and duty. We see social issues such as prostitution, gangsterism, a cruel world and good men trying to do their best with the bad circumstances. The idea of Daigoro choosing his path, albeit perhaps unwittingly, is expertly woven through the film, as we see the idea of choice repeat itself again and again. Desire versus duty, a way of peace or a way of war, to stay or to run, all of these difficult choices are presented time and again to characters and it creates for a powerful drama. A fine film that deserves its place amongst the samurai greats.

Love and Other Cults (2017)

Ai Shima is a troubled young woman. Her mother, a religious cultist, sends her away to a cult centre for seven years, further destabilising her fragile psyche. When she returns to schooling Ai catches the attention of fellow classmate Ryota, who falls in love with this peculiar girl. While the two never seem to quite come together, their relationship forms the basis for an exploration of everything from gang culture, Japanese youth, drug abuse, religion, sex and pornography and what causes relationships to form. Through several secondary characters, such as family, friends, gang members, and others, we get a look at the complex web of competing loyalties that form a modern life.

Eiji Uchida (Lowlife Love) writes and directs and once again has created a vivid warts-and-all portrait of modern Japan and in particular youth culture. The cinematography is fantastic, both in the shots of the majestic Mount Fuji and surrounding fields and forests and in the urban streets of Tokyo, complete with hostess bars and all the elements that make up a modern city. The script brings in so many elements that there is rarely a dull moment in the ninety minute film. Sairi Ito, who plays Ai, is truly great in the film as a social chameleon who seems to adapt to every situation she is in, whether cultist, adopted daughter, gang member, or porn actress. Every role she takes on seems like a natural progression, no matter how bizarre it might seem on paper. The supporting cast also do an incredible job of building a believable world of various characters.

As the title of the film suggests it is an atypically love story that takes an ironic approach to the traditional romance tale. While there are romantic sub-plots present, love is generally portrayed as just another of several competing interests for characters, and one that is hard to distinguish in a world awash with sex, religion, crime, drugs and any other number of distractions. Uchida has created a fun, entertaining film that can also be understood as a detailed examination of modern society. While it remains ambivalent about the value of the several “cults” people devote themselves too, it does offer a believable representation of society.

Azumi 2: Death or Love (2006)

Azumi 2 picks up following the events of the first film, with our assassin attempting to kill the final person on her hit-list: Sanada Masakuki. Azumi and her companion from the first film, Nagara, are joined by a group of ninjas. One of the ninjas, Kozue, turns out to be a spy who is intent on preventing Azumi carrying out her mission.

Azumi 2 begins with no exposition about events of the first film, assuming that the audience is aware of Azumi’s mission from that film. It also introduces a character who looks identical to the friend she killed in that movie. Although continuing the story, this film feels very different. The direction here is clearer, with less hazy, poorly lit night scenes, and more sensible camerawork. There are occasional¬† zoom-ins or comic-book style action scenes (such as speeding up footage), which still don’t work here as they didn’t in the first film, however overall the film has a much more consistent tone and style, with less of the ridiculous humour of the first in favour of more serious character development. The costumes and sets are good again and there are some really stand out action sequences.

This film deals more with Azumi coming to terms with the fact that she is a killer, and attempting to forgive herself for what she has done and is doing. The plot is a little thinner than the first, basically wrapping up the unfinished portion of that story, but this is definitely a worthy sequel, better in many ways than the original.

Azumi (2003)

Ten children are taken when they are young and trained to be assassins, among them Azumi. On the last day of their training, their master tells them they must pair up with their favourite person and kill them, thus qualifying them to be useful assassins. Set in feudal Japan, when the country is torn apart by warring factions, the film follows a group of assassins as they are tasked with killing a number of clan chiefs, allies of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, in order to restore peace to the country. After defeating the first of their targets, the second sends a skilled swordfighter, Bijomaru, of his own to defeat the band of assassins.

The plot of the film will perhaps be better understood if you know a little about the Tokugawa shogunate, and this period of history, as it is a fictionalised version of that time. The story is not too complicated, basically the assassins are tasked with taking out the clan chiefs, while avoiding death themselves. I had a couple of issues with this film, largely relating to the tone. There are many comedic scenes, cartoonish violence, even almost slapstick comedy, while other scenes are sombre, dealing with death and tragedy. The film never really seems to pull these two distinct characters together, instead veering wildly from one to the other. This is not helped by the rock score and direction at times, which make it seem like a pop music video. It is hard to know whether you are meant to be taking any of this seriously. The photography likewise seems to lurch from being well shot, with a real cinematic feel, and looking like a home movie (sometimes it looks as though the actors are just role-playing here, rather than feeling like real people). The costumes and set design are all good and the acting is good for the most part (if you can get over the sudden shifts in tone from tragic to comic acting).

This period of Japanese history is the subject of many films, and this one takes a fairly light-hearted approach to events. The story looks at whether it is morally right or even possible to prevent war by killing those who cause war. The main character of Azumi is somewhat conflicted during the film, having killed her friend early on, and being forced into this life of death, causing suffering to others. There is also a scene in which another girl attempts to make her more feminine and cease killing, but Azumi finds that being an assassin is now the only thing she can do. The film is a real shame, because there are some great fight scenes and really interesting ideas let down by scenes where the filmmakers seem to have applied little effort.

Dead or Alive: Final (2002)

Set in a future dystopia, “Dead or Alive: Final” is a speculative science-fiction involving replicants, totalitarian government and a nascent rebellion. Show Aikawa plays a replicant, imbued with powers of super-speed, able to catch bullets, and indestructible. He is taken in by a family who are fighting against the oppressive regime of a flamboyant dictator. The population are kept under control by being forced to take a pill that makes them infertile. It is suggested that procreation is no longer required in a world where replicants are prevalent. Riki Takeuchi plays a police officer who is attempting to root out and destroy the resistance fighters that threaten the dominance of the leader.

The third part of this trilogy is quite a departure from what has gone before. Being a future science-fiction it allows Takashi Miike to explore themes from a new perspective, by examining what a future Japan might look like. There is an international feel to the film, with Chinese and English spoken frequently alongside Japanese, in common with his previous work on the “Black Society Trilogy”. The idea of a population being kept in a state of oppression and forced to consume the birth control drug is a clear satire of Japan’s problems with population decline, subservience to government, and perhaps even the conservative values that typify modern society. A few of the elements may seem derivative, such as the idea of replicants, but there are definitely unique flourishes. The film is a little uneven in terms of the balance of comedy and drama. Usually, Miike is good at this, but here it is unclear what is parody and what is serious. This is partly due to the lack of money and resources to create an effective future world. The special effects are stretched to breaking point, especially towards the¬† end of the film. The ending is somewhat incomprehensible for another reason. It draws in scenes from the previous two “Dead or Alive” films that really have no place being here. While there are parallels between the films, sex, violence, crime, themes of childhood and fate, woven through each, and the main actors are the same, there is really little connecting them. It comes across as though the leads here are remembering past lives, but doesn’t provide the audience with enough to make any coherent point about the three films as a whole

There are some interesting ideas here, but a lot have been done before and better. The concept of replicants is raised though never fully addressed. This is exemplified in the scene where Riki Takeuchi discovers that his family are replicants. It should be a dramatic moment, but since the concept is only vaguely established in the world this revelation has little impact. The idea of a society struggling with a lack of reproduction, or the diminishment of the importance of sex and reproduction is likewise a fascinating avenue, but it seems the film always shies away from exploring anything in depth. Worth watching for a couple of standout scenes, and again capped with a bizarre, unforgettable ending, but doesn’t quite live up to the standard of the earlier films.

Dead or Alive 2: Birds (2000)

Two assassins meet unexpectedly when they are both contracted to kill the same man. After realising that they were actually childhood friends, they decide to escape from the city and return to the island where they were brought up, visiting a third friend who is now living there with his pregnant wife. After their respite the two decide to return to the metropolis and use their skills as professional killers to benefit orphans in the third world, by sending the money they make overseas. This soon brings them back into contact with the violent gangs they had previously escaped.

After the grotesque comedy of the first Dead or Alive film, this is a much more sedate affair. There is still puerile humour, sex, violence, and quirky storytelling with bizarre plot twists, but throughout is a strong central theme helped along by fantastic performances by Show Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi. The two actors this time play the assassins returning to their hometown, reliving former traumas and triumphs along with their old friend. Both are charismatic and it is good to see them getting more screen time together. The story meanders its way through their reminiscences and may not appeal to those fond of the more frenetic pace of the earlier film, but it does a much better job of creating likeable characters. Takashi Miike brings a visual flair and intelligence to the directing that keep things interesting. There are moments of pure cinema, such as when the characters sprout wings, one black, one white, or when we see feathers falling from nowhere after a murder, or when the characters transform into their childhood selves.

It may seem out of place to have a school play half-way through a film about hit-men, especially one that is juxtaposed with a sex scene and gangland murders in another part of the country, but it typifies what makes this movie great. By creating a powerful contrast between the placid life of the small island community with the horrors of inner-city crime we get a picture of divided characters, contract killers who still retain their basic humanity. The film is essentially about a loss of innocence as we see what these young boys have become, and their attempt to regain that through travelling back to their old town. The plot involving the two killers helping young children out with money through the proceeds of murder is a fairly pointed commentary on what is wrong with society, and done in a way that makes it seem like common sense (why not kill bad guys and give the money to helpless orphans?). It is great to see a film that has the confidence to tell its audience uncomfortable truths, while at the same time not being overly moralistic.

Crows Zero 2 (2009)

With the same cast and director as Crows Zero the style is consistent with the first film. This film introduces the Houzan gang, whom the Crows, following the murder of Houzan’s boss by an ex-student 2 years prior, are unwittingly drawn into war with. This time Selizawa and Genji must fight together against this new rival. There are also a few interesting new characters introduced.

The style is identical to the first, with the comedy and action set pieces expanded on. There is little to say about this film that couldn’t be said of the first. The new dynamic of a rival gang is exciting and the first half is fast paced with the usual blend of violence and humour. The second half is largely a single assault on the rival gang’s building. While the direction is fantastic and it’s broken up with memorable moments, it feels overdone at times.

Definitely worth watching if you enjoyed the first film as it rounds off the story with the boy’s graduating. A highly enjoyable comedy action film.

Based on a manga by Hiroshi Takahashi.

 

Vital (2004)

Tadanobu Asano stars in this tense thriller about love, loss and dissection. After waking up from a car crash suffering severe amnesia Hiroshi Takagi (Asano) restarts his medical training, something which he had given up on. He takes to the subject with a great degree of dedication and skill. When the class begin on dissecting corpses, he is surprised to see that the body they are working on is that of his former girlfriend, killed in the same car crash that resulted in his memory loss. As Hiroshi dissects the body, he has recurring dreams in which he sees the woman, Ryoko, spending time with her in that otherworld beyond life.

Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), this film is more accessible than his earlier work. Despite its seemingly macabre and gruesome plot, it is a surprisingly charming film, largely concerned with themes of grief and human relationships, albeit told in an unconventional fashion. The direction uses a number of tricks to disorient the viewer, jumping from real-world and dream-sequences to create a sense of unreality to everything you are seeing, and including seemingly unrelated scenes of factory chimneys that cause you to ponder their significance. One of the most effective shots in the film, for me, was the image of elevator doors sliding up and down beside each other, a simple but chilling effect that puts you in mind of left-right brain dichotomy, and is subtly troubling. Tadanobu Asano does a good job at portraying the lead, who is not only suffering memory loss, a sense of isolation and alienation from the world following his girlfriend’s death, but is also a studious person who is keen to analyse his own psyche as he examines the corpse on the table before him. If there was problem for me with the film it was in some of the more experimental shots, such as a car crash filmed in negative or the aforementioned inserts of smoking chimneys, but these can be forgiven when experiencing a singular vision such as this. The film is far from generic, so some eccentricity is to be expected in the direction.

A fantastic analysis of the relationship between the conscious and subconscious worlds, and how people are able to deal with grief and loss. I would definitely recommend this film to fans of more bizarre stories. There are a few scenes of autopsy that might not be for the faint-hearted, but overall the film does not rely on shock horror allowing you to get involved in what is essentially a tragic love story.

Crows Zero (2007)

Suzuran High School, violent and out of control, is occupied by factions formed among the students. New student Genji, backed by his uncle in the Yakuza, attempts to wrest control from the most powerful faction leader: Selizawa. the film has many comedic moments and a stylized design make it feel like a live-action manga should.

From the opening scene of a Yakuza gangster shooting a man, to the final rain drenched battle, the director strings together a number of powerful set pieces. The fight scenes are well-done, though gleefully cartoonish in the levels of violence. The rock soundtrack also gives the film drive. While it might easily have been a meaningless array of fights, the scenes between the two leads and Genji and his uncle help give an emotional edge to the film.

The characters are largely arrogant, impetuous high-school kids and the film to some extent glorifies fighting. The pugilistic lifestyle does however allow for reflections on the power of family, loyalty and honour. An exhausting but ultimately fulfilling experience.

Based on a manga by Hiroshi Takahashi.