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September 20, 2012

Lone Wolf and Cub

Lone Wolf and Cub 1.jpg

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance / Kozure Okami: Kowokashi udekashi tsukamatsuru / Wolf with Child in Tow: Child and Expertise for Rent
Kenji Masumi - 1972
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx / Kozure Okami: Sanzu no kawa no ubaguruma / Wolf with Child in Tow: Perambulator of the River of Sanzu
Kenji Masumi - 1972
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades / Kozure Okami: Shinikazeni mukau ubaguruma / Wolf with Child in Tow: Perambulator Against the Winds of Death
Kenji Masumi - 1972
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril / Kozure Okami: Oya no kokoro ko no kokoro / Wolf with Child in Tow: The Heart of a Parent, the Heart of a Child
Buichi Saito - 1972
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons / Kozure Okami: Meifumando / Wolf with Child in Tow: Crossroads to Hell
Kenji Masumi - 1973
Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell / Kozure Okami: Jigoku e ikuzo! Daigoro / Wolf with Child in Tow: Now We Go to Hell, Daigoro!
Yoshiyuki Kuroda - 1974
AnimEigo Region A BD

Coincidentally, when I purchased a blu ray player, I received a this new collection from AnimEigo. The best part is that I had no seen any of the Lone Wolf and Cub films previously, not even in the Shogun Assassin version. Yes, I know it may seem surprising that I some how missed seeing these films in all this time, but, hey, even some of the better known film critics, and I'm not going to embarrass anyone by naming them, have their gaps in films that are considered classics.

The collection is on two discs in a case no bigger than any single disc case, so kudos just for saving shelf space. Each of the films is in Japanese with colored subtitles, with a few historical notes as supplements to explain some of the more arcane references to places and people.

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The basic setup is that the Shogun's chief executioner, Ogami Itto, has been falsely charged with an act of treason. The head of the Yagyu clan, jealous that they didn't get this coveted position, is responsible. Ogami's wife is killed. Ogami's infant son, Daigoro, is given a choice between joining his mother in death, or joining his father in meting out death. The little boy chooses daddy's sword. The six films follow Ogami, with Daigoro in a special 'baby cart", traveling throughout Japan, taking special assassination jobs for 500 pieces of gold, while confronting various members of the Yagyu clan along the way.

Having seen all six films now, the popularity forty years after the initial appearance is not surprising. Along with geysers of blood gushing from every cut of Ogami's blade, there are flying body parts, amputations of arms and legs, as well as some dashes of bawdy humor, and a generous dollop of bare breasts and nudity. Heads are split open, torsos are cut in two, but the movies themselves are uncut.

The films were successful starring vehicles for Tomisaburo Wakayama, the older brother of Shintaro Katsu, famous for his series as the blinds swordsman, Zatoichi. The brothers are similar looking, although Wakayama appears a bit heavier. As Ogami, whole armies are decimated. One person claims that around 450 people get killed in the entire series. But there's more than the high body count. Daigoro is the secret sauce here in the form of young Akihiro Tomikawa, four years old when the series began filming. There's the perfect facial expressions, and the eyes that alternate between inquisitiveness and intensity. If Ogami was just another ronin that killed a lot of people, interest would probably be short lived. It is the scenes of paternal affection that make the difference.

The baby cart evolves to a point where one can compare this series to that of the James Bond films. From hidden blades in the cart handle, to spring loaded blades in the axles, and hidden weaponry that shoots arrows or bullets. The cart floats in water, and glides across desert sand and snowy mountains. The sixth film is the most gimmick laden as Ogami faces an army of samurai on sleds and skis in a glacial outpost.

The best of the series are those films directed by Kenji Masumi. What is notable is the use of sound, alternating between the natural sounds of the environment and total screen silence. Masumi also likes to cut to shots of small animals, frogs seem to be a favorite, from the point of view of Daigoro.

A constant in the series is an examination of the social rules of 17th Century Japan, with a sometimes complex caste system, and rules of protocol that govern every aspect of life. As such, Ogami and Daigoro encounter both the highest and lowest of Japanese society. There are several scenes depicting popular culture of the day.

Also, Buddhism is integral to the series. Not only are there scenes of priest and formal practices, but also scenes taking place at roadside shrines. In one film, a hungry Daigoro takes the food left at a shrine, but leaves his little jacket behind as an offering. Similarly, Ogami leaves coins in the offering dish when taking food from some shrines. The attention to cultural and character details help distinguish these films.

While the film is filled with many of the expressive faces of Toho's supporting players, there are a few guest appearances of note, including So Yamamura, Eiji Okada and Go Kato.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 20, 2012 09:10 AM