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.