This Lone Wolf and Cub Complete Series release from Animeigo is one of the best arguments for changing over to Blu-ray that I have ever seen. It isn’t that it is stuffed full of extra features and funky junk that you will look at once and then never again—it’s how all six films in the series have been put on two disks, then packed into a single, slim box.
Seriously, I panicked a little when I got this in the mail. I figured something was wrong, that maybe they had only sent me the first flick instead of the complete series. I couldn’t believe it until I popped the disk in my player; this set is actually all six films—with the best quality releases ever seen—packed efficiently into a tiny little package. As someone who is a bit of a film junky, and whose house is overflowing with giant, six film box sets, I really appreciate the space. I want to convert everything I own to little packages like this.
That’s the packaging; now how are the films? Obviously, the Lone Wolf and Cub series is a bonafide classic. Adapted from the comic series by Koike Kazuo and Kojima Goseki, Lone Wolf and Cub may be one of the first comic-to-film adaptations to really nail it. No surprise since Koike also wrote the screenplays. They were produced by Katsu Shintaro—flush from his Zatoichi fame—who hired his brother Wakayama Tomisaburo as the assassin Ogami Itto. Some might see a bit of nepotism there; tubby, middle-aged Wakayama is hardly anyone’s idea of a dashing action hero. But Wakayama is well known as being one of the best true swordsmen to make a career as an actor. Most actors just faked it. With Wakayama, you are getting something closer to the real deal.
But that is about where reality ends. Lone Wolf and Cub are what I think of as "Cinematic Samurai." Far from the considered humanism of Kurosawa or the socio-political commentary of Kobayashi, these flicks are full-on over-the-top ultra-violent unapologetic male power fantasies. They eschew any form of realism. Blood doesn’t trickle from a wound; it bursts forward like a geyser, and with enough blood to paint a house red. Swords can be thrown like darts and never miss their mark. People don’t stand still and fight, they leap and bound with superhuman vigor. And one man can cut down an army, so long as they aren’t named characters. These are the kind of flicks that inspired Tarantino and Frank Miller. They are a hell of a lot of fun.
The six films are:
Sword of Vengeance – 1972 – Any movie that starts out with the beheading of a 3-year old child is making a statement about where it stands. If you can’t get by that scene, best to just pop the disk out and never watch the series again. The first Lone Wolf and Cub flick is a solemn, gloomy affair. Ogami Itto and his child Daigo are on the run for a crime they didn’t commit, and wind up with a troop of mountain bandits who want to sport with the father and son before killing them.
Baby Cart at the River Styx – 1972 – The unquestioned best film in the series. Elite squads of female assassins, the three Lords of Death, and—best of all—Daigo gets into the action. When that cherubic little face hits a button on the baby cart and a big spear comes shooting out, you know this series has leapt beyond its humble beginnings an into something spectacular.
Baby Cart to Hades – 1972 – Ruminations on the Way of the Warrior and a concealed Gatling gun are the memorable moments of the third Lone Wolf and Cub flick. There is a danger of escalation, of films going so over-the-top that they move into parody, but the fine balance is still maintained no matter how wild the action gets.
Baby Cart in Peril – 1972 – Daigo is getting a little too big for his famous baby cart in this film, and decides to head out for some adventures on his own. Meanwhile, Ogami is engaged in a battle with the beautiful—and perpetually topless—female assassin Oyuki. Nice showdown in this film, with no easy win for Ogami.
Baby Cart in the Land of Demons – 1973 – Name aside, the baby cart is mostly gone now as Ogami and Daigo head out on their separate adventures. Ogami proves he is no hero as he takes on the assassination of a young girl fated to succeed the local daimyo.
White Heaven in Hell – 1974 – The last film in the series takes some new twists and turns, including supernatural elements and a final showdown with Ogami’s longtime enemy who has pursued him throughout the series. The famous baby cart returns with a vengeance, and Ogami manages to slaughter an entire army. He pulls off 150 on-screen kills in this film, the most of any individual character in a movie.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.