Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (1974)

The film begins with Ogami Itto skiing downhill on the specially adapted baby cart carrying his infant son Daigoro. It is one of the striking features of this series that it juxtaposes serious moments, scenes of rape, torture and death, with more silly exploits such as this. White Heaven in Hell is the final film in the series and it does not disappoint. There is an almost melancholic feel to things as we see in the wintery landscape at the beginning. It is the perfect environment as it shows the world to be cruel and unforgiving. Ogami’s long term rival Retsudo Yagyu sends his daughter, now the last of their line, to defeat him. Her highly skilled knife juggling technique fails to kill Ogami setting up the grand climactic battle between Retsudo and the “Lone Wolf”.

Zombie assassins, a machine-gun baby cart, skiing samurai, this film has no problem with presenting more ridiculous moments. However, these are also tempered with more ordinary scenes of Ogami and his son. This film sees Daigoro more expressive, with looks of shock at what is happening. I am not sure this is a positive change, as we previously learned that he had the “eyes of death” and was inured to violence. The choreography is incredible and the special effects are once again exceptional. We see a body be sliced in half, blood spurting, and even the ghostly apparitions of Yagyu’s son. There are a few stand out scenes, but the final battle is again a masterclass in over the top action. The music is a bizarre blend of contemporary seventies vibe with  electric guitar and a jazzy melody, while there are more fitting songs for a historical epic utilised at other points.

A fitting end to this fantastic series. All of the films have standout moments and bring something new to the table. This film manages to tie up the story with Retsudo and Ogami that was established in the very first film and brings things to a close in a satisfactory way.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973)

Having recovered from the bloody finale to the last film, Itto Ogami and Daigoro are confronted by a mysterious group who have a job to offer the wandering ronin. Each one carries a part of the payment for his services and after attacking him and being defeated reveals a little more of the story. This new mission revolves around a lord who is pretending that his illegitimate daughter is his son and heir to his dynasty, while he keeps his true son hidden away from the world. Along the way there is a side story involving Daigoro becoming caught up in the activities of a female pickpocket who is able to change appearance quickly. During this escapade he shows his steadfastness and complete dedication to honourable conduct.

By breaking up the central story into several encounters with the different assassins the film generates a great sense of momentum that builds towards a thrilling finale. In some ways the film is smaller in scale than what has gone before, with some fantastic one-on-one duels. The structure keeps the audience guessing about the next part of the tale and Daigoro’s side-story is an entertaining distraction (he also has some fun interactions with the princess towards the end of the film). The standout action sequence must be Ogami’s underwater assassination and stealing the scroll that he is contracted to regain.

Thrilling action sequences, more of Daigoro, and a novel approach to telling the story make Baby Cart in the Land of Demons a great follow on to the previous films.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (1972)

A thrilling pre-titles opening sequence effectively sums up what this series is about. We see a topless swordmistress take down a group of ninjas, blood spraying theatrically across her bared chest. A quick cut to Itto Ogami as he is hired to kill this woman. As the titles roll a couple of minutes in the filmmakers have essentially told you everything you need to know about what is to follow. This is not in any way a criticism, but praise. Film four in the popular series seems to have found the heart of the story and presents exactly what the audience has come to expect. In an interesting twist Daigoro, Itto’s son, wanders off and is discovered by a rival swordsman who threatens him. Realising the child has the Eyes of Death, due to his repeated contact with violence, he spares him. This time spent with Daigoro helps set up his character a little more as we see the toll his father’s choice has had on him. We also learn more about the woman from the beginning of the film from a tattoo artist who produced the artwork we see on her at the beginning.

Utilising voice-overs and characters talking about stories lends the film a story-book quality, as though this is a famous historical event or legend. This also helps us to see certain characters as archetypes and their struggles as universal. The character of O-Yuki (the female warrior Itto is hired to assassinate) is mysterious and poignant. She is a more sympathetic villain than in previous instalments and one worthy of Itto’s respect. Once again the film does not spare the bloodshed and in a thrilling scene in a small temple we see Itto dispatch of a group of ninjas, severing limbs, blood pouring out across the floor. Decapitations, lopped off arms, splitting skulls, every conceivable wound that could be inflicted with a blade is used in a violently creative series of action sequences. As might be expected there are a couple of scenes that are similar to previous instalments, with an onsen, a climactic battle, but the action and story are highly entertaining.

Itto Ogami’s legend has at this point grown so that he is known throughout the land. It is always hard with a long running series not to make the protagonist into some kind of superhero. Baby Cart in Peril does a good job of this by seeing him badly injured and struggling to maintain the absolute composure he shows in usual circumstances. By giving us an example of Daigoro in trouble we also see his second major weakness: that of protecting his son. This film also shows us again that while he is undoubtedly capable of callousness and not averse to killing, he does maintain an underlying code of honour in his behaviour.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (1972)

Itto Ogami and his son Daigoro continue their lonely journey through feudal Japan finding employment where they can and attempting to protect the helpless. In this third instalment of the series it seems the story has hit its stride. The pace seems a little slower than in the first two movies and the various incidents a little more episodic than before. We see Itto take on a fellow samurai, protect a young woman being forced into prostitution, meet an old enemy, take on an assassination mission, confront a vast force of soldiers, and again come face to face with his enemy the Yagyu clan. Much will be familiar to viewers of the earlier films, with rape, violence, swordplay and more of Itto and Daigoro’s farther-son interaction. There are a couple of scenes which set this film apart. One of these is the torture sequence, where Itto agrees to accept the punishment that should be meted out to the runaway prostitute. The special effects work is exceptional and you see the inner-strength that is driving him on through adversity as well as his absolute dedication to the way of the samurai and protecting who he sees as the wronged party.

The Lone Wolf and Cub films were all made in a short space of time with the same writers and director and as such it is perhaps easier to see them as one epic story rather than individual pieces. It is an episodic work that really needs to be appreciated as such. This film certainly keeps up the quality of the first two while settling into a familiar rhythm of theme, character and tone. The beginning of the film sees the two boarding a boat to travel downstream, while it ends with them walking off into the distance. While there is a somewhat definitive ending it is clear that this is intended as a continuation of and connection to the films before and after.

Another classic of the genre, the film features some of the clearest discourse on the samurai spirit as well as upping the ante on the action and violence in the final battle sequence. A worthy addition to this great series.

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.