A lone samurai, heavy but forbidding, pushes a wobbly cart down a dusty road. He approaches a vendor, rolling his wares past, who tips his hat. He spies, inside the Samurai’s cart, an infant boy. We see the Samurai eye the vendor, then in a lightning move, the vendor has unsheathed a sword and leaping in the air, comes down on him. Even faster, the Samurai pulls out his blade and in one fluid motion, lops his attacker’s head off, which jets through the air, propelled by a hose-like stream of blood shooting six feet high. The body falls, and the Samurai continues on his way, pushing what we realize now, is a baby cart.
This is Lone Wolf and Cub; one of the most prolific and popular manga series in Japan, adapted to the screen by its creator Kazuo Koike into six films in an unparalleled secession of action films produced in just three years, four pumped out in the first year alone.
If you’re not a Samurai film fan, it’s hard to describe the joy Criterion Collection’s stunningly complete Blu-ray box, Lone Wolf and Cub will offer. Even so, if you’re new to the genre, and for some crazy reason have not seen Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Sanjuro, you will still find the many pleasures awaiting you in this set.
Created in 1972, the Lone Wolf and Cub series included some of the most difficult Samurai films to see in the US, let alone own. In 1980, an American company re-edited and condensed the first two films into Shogun Assassin, which became the first real introduction in the States to this wildly creative series. It’s what got Quentin Tarantino hooked, informing almost everything he’s done from Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill on down.
Every now and then, poorly transferred videos would turn up in bargain bins, but it went years before you could find all of the films. By the late 90s, stand alone DVDs of varying levels of quality showed up, and if you were a convert, you hungrily gobbled up any incarnation you could get your hands on. (I’m obviously speaking from experience).
But now, Criterion has blessed us all with the definitive collection with not only razor sharp 2k digital restorations of all six titles, but a treasure trove of extras that will satiate even the most obsessive of collectors.
Lone Wolf and Cub, also known as the Baby Cart films, were one part Sword and Sorcery, the other, James Bond actioner, with a generous portion of intentional kitsch. Body parts fly, endless blood shoots yards away, and the cart itself, which houses little Diagoro the Samurai’s son, has enough hidden weapons, including machine guns and rocket launchers, to arm a country. And it’s needed. From zombie samurai to swordsmen on skis, Oggami Itto (Lone Wolf) and Daigoro (Cub) need anything and everything to combat the hordes out to kill them.
Begun as a Manga in 1971, newly created Katsuo studios wanted to turn the wildly popular comics into a film franchise. Because of the notoriety of the series, a slew of producers and actors wanted in. The story goes that Kabuki and stage actor Tomisaburo Wakayama appeared one day at creator Koike’s home, dressed as a Samurai, sporting a bamboo sword, and preceded to audition by showing off his skills with the sword (he was arguably the greatest swordsmen of all Japanese actors) finishing his performance by flipping in the air and landing deftly on his feet. This was a major accomplishment since he was a rather portly fellow. Koike was impressed, but the character in the Manga, Itto, is a slim and younger man. No matter – Wakayama wanted this role more than anything. It didn’t hurt that his brother was producer and actor Shintaro Katsu, star of the incredibly successful Zaitoichi the Blind Swordsman series. With constant pressure, Koike and the studio relented.
Staying faithful to the material, Lone Wolf and Cub follows the story of Itto, the celebrated Shogunate Executioner to the Emperor. (The Executioner would act as second during penalties of Seppuku. The condemned would stab themselves and run the blade across their stomach as Itto would lop off their heads, an act of mercy.)
But the Shogunate Executioner is a most coveted position, and Itto’s clan, because of his prominent position, is set for life. All along however, the evil Yagyu clan has fought to replace him, and through several devious machinations, murder Itto’s wife and frame him for treason. Forced to flee, Itto must take to the road with his infant son Daigoro, offering his services as an Assassin for hire, all the while staying one step ahead of the Yagyu clan as they dispatch every form of murderous bounty hunter to finish him off, lest his true story make it back to the Emperor.
As much fun as the series is, there’s one blemish across them that deserves discussion. Released between 1972 – 74, exploitation films on both sides of the Pacific were in high demand, and part and parcel of this genre is the built in element of female degradation. Five of the six films feature sexual abuse and rape. While Itto is a fair and just character, this doesn’t stop the crimes against the female characters taking place around him. Be advised, this element, from the benign to graphic, permeates almost everything. While there are many strong female characters, including some strong warriors in their own rite, they must endure, as do several ancillary characters, the worst kinds of abuse. If you are sensitive to this, you should pass.
With these elements addressed, let’s take a look at the six films:
Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972)
All good anthologies must start somewhere, and as with many comic book/superhero series’, we need an origin story. Generally, origins can get bogged down with too much unnecessary information and heavy plotting. Lone Wolf and Cub’s first film defies the traditional framework by doing something that is commonplace today (see Deadpool), revolutionary for 1972. We start with our characters “in motion,” Assassin for Hire Ogami Itto, pushing a wobbly baby cart with his son, little Daigoro, cute as a button, in tow, and flashback throughout the film to their roots.
As with most Samurai plots, there is a convoluted backstory which deals with the cross and double-crosses of clans and henchmen that strategize to overthrow one another. Allegiances are broken and reformed, and it generally takes a very shrewd viewer to follow the multi-layered storyline and make some sense out of it. Luckily with the Lone Wolf and Cub series, there’s enough of this to keep the characters’ objectives clear, but never so much that the storytelling becomes bloated beyond recognition. There’s an evenhandedness in the telling of the tale, with just enough action to counterpoint the writer’s criticism of the Japanese Feudal system of the 1800s when the stories are set.
As Ogami moves forward, calling himself a “spirit,” now that he is emotionally “dead,” we flashback to his story, as the high powered Shogunate’s Executioner. With his absolute power and legendary skill, his is not to question the judgment of the state, he terminate the lives of prisoners or humiliated enemies with dispatch. But his increasing power causes major intrigue (as usually the way with Samurai stories) and his entire clan is sabotaged, with the leader of an abolished clan, conspiring to remove Ogami and place his family in the position of Head Shogunate Decapitator.
To do this, the Ura-Yagyu clan goes full tilt, murdering his entire family, save for son, Daigoro. More than a coincidence, the Shogun’s investigators arrive and discover a “funeral tablet” with the Shogun clan name etched on it in Ogami’s family temple. This is considered a major offense, and shows a break from Ogami’s allegiance. This was all, of course, orchestrated by the evil Yagyu clan. The Shogunate demands Ogami commit seppuku, but instead, Ogami declares all these clans his natural enemy, and vows to spend his life exacting his revenge on the Yagyu clan. A bloody conflict ensues, with Ogami demonstrating his incredible power and skill, decimating the Shogunate’s ranks.
Alone, Ogami offers his new born son the option of either joining his mother in the afterlife, or joining forces with him to walk as a hired assassin, exacting bloody retribution. With a ball or a blade as his choices, the baby crawls across the thatched floor and touches the blade; his fate is sealed.
Now on the “Road to Hell,” Ogami offers his services as “assassin and baby” for hire, as they are brought into different plots, sometimes as double-crosses to finally destroy Ogami, other times to seek out some type of vengeance on the part of the client. All he ever asks for is 500 ryo (gold) and the name of the party to assassinate.
Along the way, though, Ogami has outfitted his baby carriage with some hi-tech gadgetry , including blades hidden in the handles, and a bullet proof under-carriage, that seems to always allow for Ogami and son to destroy their attackers while sill remaining alive.
By the end of Sword of Vengeance, our duo’s objectives are clearly laid out, with just enough violence and swordplay to satiate the most obsessive action seeker.
Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972)
Shot in chronology immediately after wrapping Sword of Vengeance, “River Styx” is without a doubt the very best of the series, hitting all the right notes of action, violence, plotting, kitsch and humor in one mighty ball of wax. Even though this second entry is still helmed by Kenji Misumi, there’s something even more assured with his direction. The opening sequence is a perfect vignette to establish everything the viewer needs to know about the two characters’ mythology, so you could start here and never even need to see another (but why would you?). Several beautifully compressed long lens shots show Itto preparing for a fight at one end of an expanse, with an assassin charging him from the other. A quick clash with a swift and bloody result, assisted by his babycart full of cutlery, culminate in the dying henchman warning Itto that the Yagyu clan is still everywhere across Japan, searching for him, and he will never survive. Follow this action up with the familiar musical strain of the series’ surf guitar and drums and we are on the way!
Immediately following, Itto and his son are eating by a river when chimes and percussive drums bang out of nowhere, and the camera pushes into them, foretelling of nearby danger. Once this has Itto’s attention, the camera retreats back. There’s no question you are under a master storyteller’s spell.
During a later scene when Itto and son Daigoro are taking respite in a bathtub, the clanging returns, and we see father and son staring at each other, the camera spinning around them. Now it’s clear not only that danger is always near, but that the parent and child are bonded more than by blood or experience, but a spiritual connection; they both now have this advanced “sense.”
But this entry isn’t just spiritual connections and ephemeral symbolism; the plotting and action are in turbo gear. The Yagyu clan, made up of a never-ending rogues gallery, includes an arm of Female Assassins who make short order of a poor messenger, hacking him to bits so he’s only a torso rolling across the floor. Meanwhile, Itto and Daigoro are enlisted as hitmen that must do away with a member of the Awa clan who holds the secret to the production of a rare Indigo dye. Not an easy job, because this “governor” is protected by a trio of straw hat wearing “masters of death” who wield mailed fists, a club and a metal claw. (If you recognize their description from Big Trouble in Little China, you’ll now understand John Carpenter’s homage.)
From here, we are treated to a gauntlet of assassins trying to kill Lone wolf and Cub while the duo are pursuing even greater foes. One extended sequence could be considered one of the greatest action showdowns of villainy ever filmed. Assassins of all genders and sizes attack the baby cart, each more determined than the last. From razor sharp daikon radishes thrown like knives, to a small army, their deaths push the boundaries of hilarity and creative bloodletting. And it’s no longer just Itto hacking away at these killers while baby Daigoro sits and watches. Now the infant pounds buttons that reveal more weapons of death. At one point, Itto pushes the cart straight at an advancing mob, as Daigoro dislodges steel wheel spikes that hack through the assailants from ankle down, sending bodies sprawling everywhere.
Predictably, there is a scene of barely veiled rape, and a woman assassin who succumbs to Itto’s charms. Luckily, what starts out as a forced “undressing” turns out to be a life and death situation that Itto is attempting to rescue her from. (Yeah, sure.)
But this small hiccup, while distracting, still does not completely degrade a film that has so many elements going for it, it cannot be simply discounted. By the end, after a slew of assassins are ripped out of the desert sand and windpipes cut so surgically that the blood escapes like dried sand (just go with it), you have one of the most creative action films in history. And as always, Lone Wolf and Cub continue pressing on, pushing that wobbly, broken down baby cart.
Baby Cart to Hades (1972)
Coming off of the arguably strongest film in the series, “Hades” is also the weakest. Tonally different from all the others, Baby Cart to Hades is meditative, serious and almost turgid. As discussed, rampant misogyny is a pervasive theme, but the third installment kicks the rape and female degradation to the next level. Women are nothing but possessions to abuse and toss away. It may be however, why our hero Itto sacrifices his own safety and well-being for the release of an indentured prostitute.
As always, Itto and Daigoro are making their way through the wilderness in that indefatigable cart. A quick journey across a river introduces us to a young girl sold into prostitution who is being transported to a brothel. Her pimp cannot stand the temptation of her attractive limbs any longer and attempts to rape her, she bites his tongue out, the loss of blood killing him. She seeks refuge in Lone Wolf and Cub’s hotel room while the local authorities search for her. Beautiful gang leader Torizo Kushiro, does not want to lose all her henchman in any confrontation with Itto, recognizing him as the now infamous ex-Shogunate Executioner, and offers him a deal; if he gives her the girl, Torizo will ensure once the girl is “deflowered,” she will have paid for her freedom. Itto will not permit it. It turns out the girl has been carrying a memorial tablet with her (most probably the loss of a parent has forced her to be sold) and relates her peril to his own tale of a similar tablet being the catalyst to his hellish exile. The only other way for the girl to be free is she must submit to torture. Itto offers himself up in her stead, revealing yet another side to his powerful restraint. Submerged in and out of water upside down, he is also beaten with sticks, leaving him in a bloody heap – nonetheless his courage and silence during the treatment has yet again won him another female fan. Torizo yearns for him as he leaves her.
There’s always two plots battling for center stage in the Baby Cart series, and here we find Itto and Daigoro encountering a Rashomon-esque scene when three low-level Ronin have raped a traveling woman and her daughter for pure fun. Their leader, a legendary Samurai Master Kanbai has killed the two victims so they cannot ever be informants to the horrible deed done them by the criminals. He also dispatches one of the rapists to atone for his offenses. Humiliated that Itto has witnessed his strange form of justice, Kanbai begs Itto face him in a duel. Itto determines they are of matched skills, and considers it a draw before any blood is lost.
Finally, the epic show down when a dignitary hires a small army to annihilate Lone Wolf and Cub on a gravelly hillside. For those with a bloodlust (which is all of us who have made it this far into the canon – let’s face it), it’s the reason to stay with it, as this is one massive battle royale. For the first time, the baby cart is outfitted with firearms. The underside’s panel drops, revealing an arsenal of machine guns that takes out half the army. Finally, Master Kanbai strides through the corpses to have the duel his been yearning for. It’s a tough match for Itto, but he finally ends it. Befitting the “true samurai” Itto believes Kanbai is, he becomes the warrior’s second in an execution style final strike.
An uneven affair, there’s still some creative deaths (sword vertically driven into a head) and gallons of firehosing blood – but the sum total is in sore need of humor and fun. This episode is really for the diehard fans, and although it continues the continuity of the storyline, could be skipped with little notice.
Baby Cart in Peril (1972)
We are onto the 4th film, and how is it possible all four were released in 1972? Playing like a Netflix mini-series that drops almost all at once, the fact that each film has its own tone and continues moving the plot forward is a testament to the talents involved. But it’s Kazuo Koike, the creator of the original manga, and the executive producer and writer of the films that ensured a fluid transition from one episode to the next.
For Baby Cart in Peril, though, director Kenji Misumi passed the torch to teen mystery and action helmer Buichi Saito, who embraces this genre with a low-brow perspective not seen in his earlier films.
Before credits can roll, we witness a violent and gratuitous sword fight with a topless woman sporting incredible front and back tattoos. She cuts down her opponents as blood sprays and soaks her naked body. Why is she covered in body art? Why is she fighting topless? There is actual method to her madness, but like all of the exploitative elements of the Baby Cart series, the filmmakers are obsessed with the ogling factor first, and explaining their motives later on.
As per usual, there are two plots sharing equal importance in Peril. Itto is again hired as assassin to take out O-Yuki, the femme fatale, all the while the cursed Yagyu clan draws ever closer to him. And each installment gives child Daigoro more to do, both as a character and actor. It’s possible, in fact, to follow the chronology of the series as the four films were completed and released within one year, since as kids are want to do, the child actor Akhirio grows right before our eyes.
Following some traveling minstrels out of town, little Daigoro becomes separated from his father, and without tears, does what he can to survive until they are reunited. In the meantime, he uses the skills he’s learned from his father to evade a roaring field fire, landing into the lap of Gunbai Yagyu, one of Itto’s greatest adversaries. We return again to Itto’s days before he became an assassin and fugitive, to a battle he waged against Gunbai to see who could assume the role of Shogunate executioner. Gunbai is the superior swordsman, but a faux pas during the fight claims Itto the winner, and we are able to finally see why the Yagyu clan, of which Gunbai is the first in line, is so driven not only to discredit Itto, but to follow him to the ends of the earth.
Gunbai recognizes the “death look” in little Daigoro’s eyes, and challenges Itto to a final duel. This time, though, with Daigoro as his aid, Itto is able to separate Gunbai from one of his arms. Gunbai demands Itto kill him, but Itto instead orders the one-armed criminal return to his Yagyu clan as a message and warning.
We cross-cut to O-Yuki’s story, learning why she went from being a street performer to a deadly samurai wielding killer. And yet again, rape figures into the equation – this time in a much more violating and difficult to watch scenario. In her past, she battled a crazed swordsman whose weapon is a flaming sword (yes, real fire jets from his blade). He’s also a master hypnotizer who distracts O-Yuki, and disables her. Knocked unconscious, she awakens to the man raping her.
Flash forward and she hires the greatest tattoo artist in Japan to adorn her body in art. She desires an alluring tattoo across her front, and an ugly, violent image for her back. Her plan is to exact her revenge on all men, not just her rapist.
Heavy in plotting, Peril still offers a “cart load” of terrific fight scenes, including a temple that comes alive with Ninjas costumed as mud-covered Buddhas, and a final battle with a sea of Yagyu warriors against Lone Wolf and Cub. The pivotal climax, though, offers a much more serious finale, with Retsuodo Yagyu, the white haired head of the clan, pitted against Itto. A physical toll and sacrifice is made that will irrevocably affect these two warriors to the end.
The camerawork in Peril is not nearly as inspired, and some of the shots are downright blurry. The restoration of this installment is just as beautiful as the others, but some images obviously come from degraded source material, as there are color shifts and separated images that cannot be addressed. Still and all, another terrific film in the series, leading us ever closer to the final showdown.
Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973)
Released in 1973 (thankfully, cast and crew had a little break) little Akihiro Tomikawa as Daigoro looks less like an infant and more like a little boy. He rides less in the cart, preferring to walk alongside his stoic father. Again, he’s separated from his father Itto, allowing another episode along his journey as he slowly becomes a Samurai himself. At a village flower festival, a woman pick-pocket, on the run from the police, slips a stolen wallet to the boy, asking him not to reveal her identity. When the police find him, he remains silent, even with the threat of a public beating in the square. Lone Wolf watches as his son is flogged, neither giving away the slightest ounce of concern. O-Yo, the thief, cannot bare to witness Daigoro’s bravery and gives herself up. The whole townfolk marvel at what an odd little child the boy is, as he and his father walk hand in hand out of the village.
But this event is overshadowed by one of Itto’s most eerie and dark assignments – he’s tasked with killing a Priest, and eventually, a little girl posing as a clan’s monarch, as well as her parents. One of the strongest elements of the series and actor Wakayama’s performance is the strain and stress that these battles weigh on him. He doesn’t dispatch his adversaries easily, and he never looks blasé or distracted while fighting; each battle is both physically and psychologically painful.
Original director Misumi returns, and with him, the visual splendor of the first three. His frame composition, sorely lacking from the previous film, is magnificent. And while the confidence in staging and storytelling has also returned, there’s a grim tone here. Most of the fun had gone out of the franchise at this point. If you’re a lover of the series as I obviously am, you’ll still hang with it, if not for the beautiful imagery and the grander, epic storytelling as the Yagyu clan continues to plague Itto with every step. Refreshingly absent as well, is the rape motif. We have several female characters, and while they are still relegated to whore or saint, they feel more fully realized without the knee-jerk misogyny attached.
Retsudo Yagyu fresh from his face to face battle with Itto, now has a patch where his eye used to be – and his desire for the Lone Wolf’s death is greater than ever.
So the stage is set, for the final conflict…
White Heaven in Hell (1974)
The year Baby Cart in Peril was released, a TV series of Lone Wolf and Cub premiered with none of the same crew. But in order to remain relevant and an audience draw, the filmmakers decided to go all in with the most violent, fun and ambitious of all the series. Several of the key crew members left at this point, but thankfully, Wakayama as Itto and Tomikawa as little Daigor remained. Stepping into the directors chair was Japanese horror maestro Yoshiyuki Kuroda, and he brings these skills to White Heaven in Hell. As good as the movie is, and it’s arguably one of the two best, this film is all about the finale; a battle in the white snow of the mountainsides, the Baby Cart now a sleigh with the same deadly arsenal, as they go up against none other than Retsudo Yagyu and over 100 skiing assassins. The finale took a month to film, and it’s an amazing spectacle.
By the end of the sixth film, actor and now producer Wakayama himself was tired, and with competition coming from the TV series, figured it was a good time to stop.
Along with the unparalleled beauty and action of the six films, Criterion has loaded the package with extras, including:
-Several new Interviews with creator Koike and producers, as well as an interview with biographer Kazuma Nozawa about deceased director Kenji Musumi, who helmed four of the six films and should be credited more than anyone for the style, stunning visuals and humor.
–Shogun Assassin, the 1980 American re-edit that first introduced American audiences to the mythology
–Sword of the Samurai, an intriguing 1939 documentary short from Japan that covers the painstaking method of making a samurai
-An interview with Master swordman Yoshimitsu Katsuse who demonstrates the Suio-ryu sword technique used by Lone Wolf Itto
-A deeply researched and well-written booklet featuring essays and synopses of each film
-A secret surprise, hidden, like one of Itto’s weapons, within the binding (no joke) of the package itself. (I’ll leave the reveal for those who purchase the set!)
An exhaustingly beautiful and loving tome to a singularly original Japanese series, Criterion Collection’s Lone Wolf and Cub is worthy of any samurai lover. And those who just want a hell of a good time!
Watch the Original Japanese trailer for Sword of Vengeance: