Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance
The saga of the Lone Wolf and Cub is one of the most well-known tales of samurai jidai-geki (period drama) in Japan and the United States. The tale of the ronin/assassin Ogami Itto, who wanders feudal Japan with his young son Daigoro, began in 1970 with a manga created by Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima, currently released in the US by Dark Horse Comics. Six Lone Wolf and Cub films (also known as the 'Baby Cart' series) were made in Japan between 1972 and 1974, beginning with Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance directed by Kenji Misumi and written by manga author Koike.
Many American fans of samurai cinema were introduced to the Lone Wolf and Cub through the spliced-and-dubbed version Roger Corman's New World Pictures released in 1980 under the title Shogun Assassin. For this hybrid flick, director Robert Houston lifted the back story from Sword of Vengeance and combined it with much of the plot of the second film, Baby Cart at the River Styx. Although this hybrid, exploitation-flick version delivered the goods in terms of action and bloodshed, it lacked the poetry and characterization of the original films (which was, after all, pretty much what New World was going for).
Like many Japanese films, Sword of Vengeance has also seen an Americanized remake. The Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven (the English title being a literal translation of the original Japanese); Yojimbo became A Fistful of Dollars; and Rutger Hauer's Blind Fury was based on the Zatoichi films.
The Lone Wolf and Cub films are justifiably famous for their bloody swordplay action. Bright red fake blood geysers from severed limbs and slashed torsos in an unrealistic but impressively steady and powerful spray. This savagery reflects the film?s violent source material, but the film also conveys the quiet moments and emotion of the manga as well.
The action choreography is impressive, and enhances the impression of Ogami as a master of his art. Whether facing off against a single opponent or a crew, his motions are neat and graceful, wasting no motion in a display of deadly efficiency. Yet the action never appears over-choreographed. The film laudably displays the hesitation of some of his attackers in the moment between Ogami dispatching one group of enemies and the frenzied moment when they themselves rush in to be turned into sushi by his flashing sword.
The AnimEigo DVD of Sword of Vengeance presents the film uncut, unedited, and in the original widescreen theatrical aspect ratio. The mono language track is Japanese, with a superb set of optional subtitles that not only change color when more than one onscreen character speaks, but also translate signs and text displayed in the film. Overall, the DVD is excellent in its presentation, respectful restoration and translation of one of the classics of chambara cinema.
DVD extras include four trailers and an onscreen text version of the liner notes included with the DVD. As a welcome and unique bonus, AnimEigo provides its customary printed set of index cards that contain fascinating background information on the period. They explain, for example, that the Shogun was revered as nearly a god (which is ironic, considering that he was the titular representative of the Emperor, who according to legend was indeed descended from the gods). Thus, it's shocking to Ogami's opponents when he slashes his death warrant.
It also explains why, when Ogami peels back his white death robes to reveal his official executioner's garb - a kimono emblazoned with the Shogun's personal crest - his would-be killers are stymied. They can't risk slashing at Ogami, lest they risk damaging the Shogun's emblem and incurring a shame that not even death would atone. As a result, Retsudo agrees to a one-on-one duel between Ogami and his own son in exchange for the former executioner changing his garb, and Ogami accepts, knowing that Retsudo wouldn't dare violate an oath he delivered in public.
Like the Lone Wolf and Cub manga, the film also provides a fascinating look at Japanese life of the period, from the daimyo and samurai to the peasants and court functionaries. Of course, women have it rough in medieval Japan, and - at least in the first film - rarely influence the story (the lady ninjas will show up later). Only three have any prominence at all in the film - Itto's wife, who is murdered by the Yagyu ninja, the prostitute Osen (who, ironically, is able to get away with sassing the bath's samurai clientele and the bandits who run it because of her lowly position), and the deranged woman Ogami meets at the beginning of the story, who had been seduced and abandoned. (The film wastes little time depicting the depravity of the rogue samurai by showing them raping a young woman to death and killing her father who tries to intervene. Ogami does not comment on the barbaric act occurring before his eyes, but turns the cart's sun shade down so Daigoro can't see - an action that earns the contempt of the bandits.)
There's a dramatic moment in which one of the bandits gets fed up with Osen's lip, and threatens to kill her - unless Ogami will agree to have sex with her while everyone watches. Osen berates the bandit, telling him that unlike the rest of the rabble, Ogami still has honor, so he might as well kill her and get it over with. But then Ogami stands and removes his clothes, wordlessly sacrificing his samurai dignity to save her life. Osen is moved to tears at Itto's selfless act - 'For a woman like me,' she repeats to herself. Kudos to AnimEigo for adding fascinating lessons in Japanese history and culture to this samurai action flick.