When "First Comics" started publishing a series of Japanese samurai comics in the eighties, what immediately caught my eye was the cover art by Frank Miller. I loved Frank Millers work growing up and for that reason alone I bought the first issue when it hit the shelves. Well, I want to take this opportunity to thank Mr. Miller for introducing me to the most famous work of Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, Lone Wolf And Cub, a three thousand page story about a ronin named Ogami Itto and his son, Daigoro.
Roughly two years after the manga originally appeared in Japan, the story was adapted into a series of six films. The first two films in the series were released in North America in a chopped up, re-dubbed, condensed format as a single film, Shogun Assassin, in 1980 (oddly enough, with Sandra Bernhard handling some of the dubbing chores) by Roger Corman's New World Pictures.
Animeigo has released all six of the original films in their original aspect ratios completely uncut and in their original Japanese language on DVD and has now seen fit to collect those six single disc releases into one handy boxed set format. If you already have the single discs, there's no reason to double dip on this set as the box is the only thing that differentiates it from those earlier DVDs, but if you don't, this is a nice way to get the whole storyline at a slightly discounted price.SWORD OF VENGEANCE
This first chapter in the series of six films based on the aforementioned manga introduces us to Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and his young son, Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa). Itto was at one time the Shogun's official executioner, or, kaishakunin. He was the man who would slice off your head for you should it be decided that you need to commit seppuku. He was loyal to the Shogun and he took his job and his commitment very, very seriously.
When the opposing Yagyu Clan start moving in on the territory, they murder Itto's wife and frame him for destroying the Shogun's crest, which is a huge sign of disrespect that in turn leads the Shogun to declare that Itto commit seppuku. Rather than take his own life as punishment for a crime he didn't commit, Itto and his son escape and swear vengeance for his wife's death, vowing to destroy the Yagyu Clan and making a living by hiring out his services as an assassin. Together they travel the road to Hell as assassins for hire, capable of killing anyone should the job meet Itto's requirements, for the sum of five hundred gold pieces. Unfortunately for father and son, the clan is still after them, and they don't intend to let them live any longer than they absolutely have to.
A tragic film filled with poetic violence that examines the worth of one man's loyalty, Sword Of Vengeance is a strong film that kicks off the series in high gear. Plenty of arterial spray keeps the sword play scenes bloody and intense while the imposing figure of Wakayama gives the movie a sense of intense brooding. The man is able to say more with his stone faced expression and his cold, lifeless eyes than many are able to get across with lines of dialogue and he really is the perfect embodiment of the Ogami Itto we learned about in the original source manga.
BABY CART AT THE RIVER STYX
Having now gained a reputation across the land as one of the finest swordsman in all of imperial Japan and as an assassin to be feared and respected, Itto and Daigoro are spoken of by the people as almost mythical beings, as demons journeying together on the long road to Hell.
In this second film of the series, Itto agrees to assassinate a member of the clan who has defected from the group and who happens to have a clan secret. The clan use this secret to dye fabric and in turn they are able to make a lot of money, which he is trying to deliver to the Shogun.
Three deadly ninja assassins known as the Benterai Brothers, are guarding the traitor on his way to the Shogun as he travels to Edo. While all of this is going on, a the Akashi-Yagyu, a group of female ninja assassins, are hired to take down the Lone Wolf and Cub. Of course, the inevitable happens, all three of the major factions clash, and a whole lot of blood is shed by the end of the film.
While the first film is more or less a setup for the rest of the series, the second film kicks the action into high gear. Blood and guts literally fly across the screen in extremely liberal amounts and the carnage on display here is rather astonishing, and also at times, strangely poetic. There's a lot more to these films than just arterial spray and flying severed arms. It's quite tragic and rather moving, almost Shakespearian at times in its tragedy, particularly during the scenes in which father and son bond. While their relationship is a strange one, it is also very close.
BABY CART TO HADES
Released theatrically in North America as Lightning Swords Of Death and on video as Lupine Wolf, the third film in the series is one of the strongest. The movie begins with our two protagonists journeying by boat to another part of the region. One the way, they meet a young woman named Omatsu who has been purchased to work as a prostitute. When, by chance, Itto and son hole up in the same inn as she and her pimp, they end up defending her when she kills him after he attempts to rape her.
The clan that purchased her wants her to pay for the death of her captor, he was one of their own, but Ogami refuses to hand her over and instead allows them to torture him in her place. Once that's over with, they ask him to take on a job for them and in return, they promise to leave the girl alone for good. A local deputy named Genba is his target, but it's not going to be an easy task as he has an army of samurai at his disposal as well as a master swordsman named Kanbei on his side.
With a renewed focus on Ogami's warrior code and his strong sense of honor, Baby Cart To Hades is a powerful film about a man's sacrifice. He literally puts his life on the line for Omatsu, a girl he hardly knows and who he has no intention of collecting anything from in return, and he almost dies in the process a couple of times. It's this strict adherence to the code that makes Ogami Itto such an interesting character and it's perfectly demonstrated in this movie from the opening scene to the final showdown with Kanbei.
The highlight of the film, at least in terms of action and fight choreography, is the scene in which Ogami and Daigoro square off against an army of samurai brandishing bows and arrows, guns, and swords and many of whom are on horseback. The way in which this problem is resolved might owe a little bit to Sergio Corbucci's Django as it's a little similar in the way it's handled Either way, Baby Cart To Hades is a great blend of period sets and costumes, tragic drama, and exploitative action.
BABY CART IN PERIL
At a young age, a woman named Oyuki was selected to be taken away from her clan so that she could be trained as one of Lord Owari's personal female soldiers. During her training period, however, Kozuka Enki, the man in charge of her education, takes advantage of his position within the organization and he rapes her. She leaves the comfort of her new home, enraged and disgraced by what has happened to her, and after she gets a back tattoo to mark her forever, she sets out on her own quest for revenge against Enki and won't let anyone stand in her way.
While Oyuki is dealing with her problems, Ogami Itto and Daigoro are once again on the trail of their own mission of vengeance, hot on the trail of the Yagyu clan who they have vowed to destroy. Oyuki's life and the lives of the father and son assassin team will soon intertwine with interesting results.
While yes, the trademark moments of harsh gore and bloodshed are still here, this film contains one of the most memorable sequences out of the six films in the series in which Daigoro, separated from his father and protector, opts to stand his ground armed with only a stick against a full fledged samurai. This scene is not only intense in the way that it puts a completely sympathetic child character in danger, but it also demonstrates how the son has learned from the ways of the father. Daigoro, who usually plays second fiddle to his dad, is fast learning the code of the samurai and the way of the warrior through his journey and his character does show some evolution throughout the six films.
Again, the showdown towards the end of the film against yet another army of enemy samurai is the action set piece to beat, with blood and severed arms aplenty. Itto is put into a pretty precarious situation and it's pretty intense when he has to essentially carve his way out of trouble. An earlier scene in which Ogami squares off against a band of ninjas inside a temple also stands out as a really well executed action scene, with his opponents using the shadows to their advantage, hoping to surprise him and take him down.
One of the more interesting aspects of this fourth film is the relationship that develops, however briefly, between Itto and Oyuki. Two people with so much in common and on a very similar path in life meet up for a short period of time and find solace in each other's company in a strange sort of way. This adds a more human element to the story that grounds it a little bit, and which continues to make the characters more sympathetic and therefore more interesting.
BABY CART IN THE LAND OF DEMONS
When the fifth film begins, Ogami is forced to fight for his life against an assassin sent to kill him. As he finishes the killer off, he finds out that the Kuroda clan has sent a series of men after him to test his skills and that each of these men can be identified by the fact that they will be wearing a decorative veil over their faces – one that is illustrated with some demons.
Ogami continues on his travels but as he does, he is continually confronted by these veiled assassins until he learns that for political reasons, Lord Kuroda is having his daughter pose in drag as his son. Kuroda entrusted a monk with this information but that turned out to be a rather bad move on his part, as the monk is in allegiance with the Yagyu clan who Ogami has sworn to destroy. With Lord Kuroda now confident in Ogami's skills, he sends him off to take care of the monk and get the documentation back before it is made public and his house is shamed. The clincher is that Lord Kuroda doesn't want anyone to find out about the whole son/daughter thing he's got going on, not even Ogami Itto…
In addition to the main plot, we also learn more of Daigoro's growing strength when a female thief swipes a wallet and under threat of getting caught hands it off to the boy. Rather than open his mouth and tell who the real thief was, he opts to keep quiet and accept a beating in return. Ogami watches as his son takes his licks, and while we know he could easily save him, he leaves his sword in its sheath and lets Daigoro take the beating, a sign of acceptance on his part and recognition that his son is committed to following the path to Hell with him. While on the surface this might seem irresponsible of Ogami, in fact it's quite the opposite. If anything, this scene, as demented as it is, demonstrates the strength of their bond and of their mutual understanding of what it is they are doing together and why. It's a fairly powerful moment in what is one of the more action oriented films in the series. Of course, with the main story focusing on Ogami's mission for Kuroda and in turn his quest for vengeance, the focus of the story lays with that plot and not with Daigoro's growth but it is a very interesting scene and one which aptly shows the unique bond that makes these movies work so well.
When it all winds up in the end, this is a pretty interesting penultimate entry full of some interesting political backstabbing and fun plot twists that keep the story engrossing even without the action scenes, though thankfully those are here too. Ogami cuts his way through his opponents here as he always does, as is his fate and as is his destiny.
WHITE HEAVEN IN HELL
It all comes down to this one, the final chapter in the six part series of films. Ogami Itto's sworn enemy, Yagyu Retsudo (Minoru Ohki), has really got nothing left to live for. His three sons are dead and he has no one else to carry on the family tradition save for his sole daughter, Kaori (Junko Hitomi), who he has had trained since birth to become the ultimate killing machine. The last card that Yagyu has to play, she proves to be quite a formidable swordswoman and Yagyu looks forward to using her to complete his quest of killing the lone wolf and cub.
Yagyu also has an illegitimate son named Hoyouei, the product of an encounter with one of his concubines. Seeing as Hoyouei was illegitimate, he was sent off to live with a tribe of mountain dwellers called Tsuchimugo's who taught him some mystical fighting skills. Hoyouei hates his father and when he learns of the status of his clan, he decides to kill off Ogami Itto and Daigoro to prove his worth and to usurp control of what's left of the Yagyu clan for himself.
You'd think that a film that is known for its fantastic endings would really amp things up for the final film but sadly, White Heaven In Hell doesn't deliver on the level that the other films do. The final chapter definitely has its moments but it just isn't as strong as the first five films that came before it. When Yagyu Retsudo and Ogami Itto finally square off to finish their feud once and for all, the ninjas tripping around on skis make it a little too campy to take seriously and for the first time in the six film series things start to feel hokey.
Thankfully there are some stand out moments in the film that make it worth watching such as when Ogami attacks some of his enemies in a swamp, making short work of them in an absolutely fantastic and very bloody showdown. Lots of swords and flying daggers pierce through people's heads and the addition of a primitive bazooka to the baby cart itself is an interesting touch that somehow manages to work in spite of itself. A few evil samurai who are able to travel underground make for an interesting set of opponents, and Ogami manages to find a neat way to take care of them.
In the end, however, it just isn't quite as strong as the first five movies. It could be the addition of a new director, Yoshiyuki Kuorda, or it could be that the writers were just tired of the material but the ending feels a little rushed compared to the pacing of what came before it. Regardless, White Heaven In Hell still gets enough right that it's completely worth watching if for no other reason than Tomisaburo Wakayama is quite simply the man and he's given a lot of people to fight here and as convoluted as aspects o the movie are, it does bring the storyline to a close.The DVD
As previously mentioned, Animeigo has gone all out and completely restored these films from brand new prints. Each film is presented in it's original aspect ration of 2.35:1 and is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The transfers for each of the six films in this set sport rich, robust color with a pretty decent level of both foreground and background detail. Animeigo should be commended for taking the time and effort into treating these films right in Region One. There is some print damage here and there and some line shimmering in a few scenes but neither of these faults prove to be over powering at all. While the image isn't perfect, it's a huge improvement over the R2 Artsmagic releases. The picture could have been a little bit sharper but overall things do look very nice all the way across the board here.Sound:
All six films are presented in Dolby Digital Mono in their original Japanese language with nice, clear, easy to read English subtitles. The track is clean and free of any hiss or distortion and sounds about as good as mono is going to sound. Dialogue is clean and clear and the scores sound quite lively. In terms of the subtitles, you've got a basic subtitle option that just does the dialogue, or a more advanced subtitle option that supplies definitions for some of the Japanese terms used in the series, which is a nice touch.Extras:
There are some liner notes included in text format on the DVD as well as some trailers for the other films in the series and some other Animeigo films like Zaitoichi Vs. Yojimbo. It's a shame that more wasn't done here in terms of extra features – the liners are informative and well written, and the trailers are fun, but the films deserve better than that in terms of supplements and a commentary or documentary feature would have been a nice touch.Final Thoughts:
Again, if you've already got the individual releases of the six films in this set, there's no need to bother with this set but if you don't already own them the half a dozen films in this set are fantastic. Rarely has anyone played a stone faced killer as well as Tomisaburo Wakayama and this series remains his signature role. A fantastic blend of arthouse style, gory exploitation, and poetic and at times almost Shakespearian tragedy, the Lone Wolf and Cub Collector's Box Set comes highly recommended!