Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance [IMDB]
Directed by Kenji Misumi
Starring Tomisaburo Wakayama
Early last year I finally saw the infamous Shogun Assassin for the first time. In an experience shared with a lot of people, the film had previously existed for me only as a fleeting reference in Kill Bill Vol. 2 - a typical example of Tarantino's flair for introducing new audiences to old films. Only later did I learn that Shogun Assassin was compiled by US actor-turned-director Robert Houston from the first two of a series of six 1970s Japanese samurai films known in English as Lone Wolf and Cub.
I loved Shogun Assassin, enough to include it in my book. Having seen Houston's terrific efforts to fashion the first two Lone Wolf and Cub films into something palatable for American audiences, I immediately wanted to track down the original films on DVD. For many years, this had been a real challenge in the UK – happily, it's now easy to pick up a lovingly restored box set which was released in 2009 by Eureka Video. It's a tremendous package which puts some of Japan's most infamous and acclaimed films within easy reach.
The series opens with Sword of Vengeance (known in Japanese as Child and Expertise For Hire), from which only around ten minutes was culled in order to make Shogun Assassin. In the US film, the origins of central characters Ogami Ittō (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and his young son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) were quite hazy, but in the first Japanese entry they and the society they live within are explored in much more detail. As Tom Mes makes clear in his excellent liner notes for Eureka, Sword of Vengeance deftly introduces the series and its themes from a harrowing first scene in which Ogami – the shogun's feared executioner – dispassionately puts to death a child lord as his attendants look on and weep.
Ogami is a loyal instrument in the often illogical and brutal system of Bushido enforced by the Tokugawa shogunate. However, when his wife Azami is murdered and he is framed for crimes against the shogun in a complex scheme by rivals who covet Ogami's role, the master swordsman is forced to become a wandering assassin for hire, taking Daigoro with him. In this way, the series sets the characters on a path into the wider world, which allows the film-makers to critique through Ogami the system in Japan which Mes says is “so often presented as the soul of the nation.”
Of course, Sword of Vengeance would be nothing without its inimitable sense of style and thrilling, bloody swordplay. In his first adventure on the road, Ogami is hired to prevent the assassination of a particular lord by his rival. To do so, the ronin secretes himself and his son in an isolated mountain village to await a spectacular showdown with a group of vicious thugs. As this expertly-made first entry closes, it's clear that Ogami's road to vengeance will be long, and that this is only the beginning.
Body Count 73
Best Moment Ogami defeats Inspector Bizen (Fumio Watanabe) and his men in battle atop a weir.
Sometime film reviewer, Letterboxd user, novice Blu-Ray collector. Top 3 directors: Woo, Hill, Leone.
Henry V (UK, 1989) ★★★★½
The Fast and the Furious (USA, 2001) ★★★★
Goodfellas (USA, 1990) ★★★★★
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