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.

Three Outlaw Samurai (1964)

three outlaw samurai

A ronin happens across a village suffering at the hands of a greedy governor. Finding a house of three farmers who have kidnapped the governor’s daughter as a bargaining chip he decides to help. One farmer’s daughter has also been taken by the governor, leading to a stalemate. The ronin is joined by two rogue samurai from the governors guard. Various conflicts ensue as the situation becomes increasingly violent.

The film is based on a long running T.V. series and as such is packed with incident as the characters struggle and scheme against each other. As such the film moves rapidly from one set-piece to another, feeling like a round-up of a series rather than a story which has time to breath. It’s well-shot, in black and white, with plenty of sword-fighting and not a little melodrama. Occasionally it feels cheap compared to other films of the period. Not for the faint-hearted, the film actually  gets surprisingly violent and the treatment of the daughters is fairly shocking.

Violence begets violence is the moral at the heart of this film. The ronin character is played as a hero rescuing the villagers, but their treatment of the daughter is of cause for concern. To what extent should conflict be allowed to escalate. A fast-paced action story with a few powerful scenes which you will remember.

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011)

Hara Kiri Death of a Samurai
The age of the samurai is drawing to a close with many having fallen on hard times. For a struggling ronin there is a risky, but potentially profitable, gambit that might be attempted: approach a wealthy lord and request to commit ritual suicide in his presence. If all goes well the lord will decide to take you on, or at the very least give you some money and send you on your way, rather than see blood spilt in his hall. This so-called “suicide bluff” is what we see attempted in this film by the samurai Tsukumo Hanshiro. However, following his request to commit ritual disembowelment the guards inform him that another recently appeared there attempting the same thing, and rather than being offered money they had forced him to carry out his proposed course of action. We learn that Tsukumo was aware of this and in fact good friends with the young samurai, who is in fact his son-in-law. We then hear the sorry tale that led him to that juncture, taken in by Tsukumo after his own father perished, and married to his daughter with a young child. Through various circumstances he was driven to the rash course of action that ultimately ended in tragedy. Tsukumo is now here for his revenge.

Takashi Miike is usually known for outrageous spectacle, violence, and even extreme horror. With this film, a remake of the 1962 classic, he takes a much more restrained approach. The tone is sombre, the drama slowly revealed and delicately considered. There is a certain theatrical feel to proceedings, particularly the sequences in the lord’s palace. Everything is driven by dialogue rather than action and this could easily work as a stage play. In fact there are perhaps only two sequence of swordplay coming late in the film. The cinematography by Nobuyasu Kita is incredible, perfectly captures the period, the palaces, feudal era streets and homes. The score by Ryuichi Sakamoto is likewise a gorgeous accompaniment to the drama. There is a lot to recommend the film, both cinematography and music, fantastic acting and a stirring central plot. It is a little overlong and lacking in the sort of frenetic action you may expect in a samurai film. It takes its time, relishing each moment and scene, and it rewards patience.

The film features a great look at the code of honour prevalent in the feudal period. It may seem peculiar that anyone would think to attempt this “suicide bluff”, but it allows us a look at both the relationship and reaction to death of this harsher social climate. There are a few hints to a more biting satire here, such as the shots of a white cat perched atop a pillow in the noble palace starkly compared to the feline corpse lying in the dirt in the lower home of the ronin. This is a world where the caste system rules and the line between rich and poor is clearly drawn. It is also a film about duty, both to your family and superiors, and whether it is possible to be good in such a rigid hierarchy, asking what it means to be an honourable person in such a world.

13 Assassins (2010)

 

The sadistic lord Naritsugu tortures and terrifies his subjects with impunity. One of his retinue Sir Doi decides to attempt a coup by recruiting a band of assassins led by his friend Shinzaemon. As the king returns from Edo the assassins wait in a village along the route to block his path.

A simple fight against the odds tale against a merciless lord. The film never looks less than stunning, with stylistic framing and actions. The final fight scenes employ hand-held cinematography to great effect. The opening scenes of the lords cruelty highlight an unhinged villain and the camaraderie of the assassins is also well-done. Although this kind of story has been done numerous times Miike adds his trademark off-beat humour and sensibilities to it. Occasionally the film seems undecided on whether to be a straight-faced historical drama, or a tongue-in-cheek action film. However inconsistent it is it remains very entertaining.

The focus is largely on the plight of the assassins against the vicious Naritsugu. The lords privileged, out-of-touch take on the world is highlighted later in the film when he remarks how fun it must have been to live in feudal, war-torn, Japan. Meanwhile, the assassins are left to muse on their fates as they face almost certain death. A fun action film with a fair mix of comedy and tradgedy.

Sakurada Gate Incident (2010)

 

19th  Century Japan. The European powers are carving up Asia, with their sights set next on Japan. Tetsunosuke and like-minded samurai opposed to the opening of Japan and union with America determine to assassinate the lord of their province who sides with the invaders. The film tells the true story of that fateful incident in 1860, the events leading up to it and its aftermath.

The film looks and feels like a historical dramatization with many dialogue heavy scenes. The incident of the title is shown early on and the film proceeds with flashbacks explaining the character’s motivations. The film does a good job of explaining the characters situation, but again lacks the impact of a more emotionally driven story. The samurai are portrayed favourably, with the main Tetsunosuke’s wife and son offering much of the heart of the film. However, the direction is competent and the acting strong, helping to carry the bare story, which is stretched at over two hours.

Patriotism and protecting traditional values are at the core of this story. As an engaging film it feels lacking. However, for those with an interest in this period, this is worth watching as it is perhaps one of the most famous incidents in Japanese history.

Based on the novel “Sakuradamon no Hen” by Akira Yoshimura.