Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972)
Directed by Kenji Misumi

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance
Kozure Okami: Ko wo kashi ude kashi tsukamatsuru
Starring Tomisaburo Wakayama (Itto Ogami), Akihiro Tomikawa (Daigoro), Yunosuke Ito (Lord Retsudo Yagyu), Fumio Watanabe (Chamerlain Sugito), Tomoko Mayama (Osen), Shigeru Tsuyuguchi (Kurando), Tomoo Uchida (Goto), Taketoshi Naito (Bizen Yagyu), Reiko Kasahara (Azami), Saburo Date (Yagyu official)
Screenplay by Kazuo Koike
Produced by Shintaro Katsu

Toho Company/Katsu Productions, 83 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: AnimEigo

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance is a pivotal touchstone in my personal appreciation of the jidai-geki genre. I'd have to say it and Kurosawa's Ran are the two most important films that sparked this intense passion of mine. I first came to the Lone Wolf and Cub story through the U.S. reprints of the source comics, by way of my admiration of Kozure Okami devotee Frank Miller. The series remains the only manga I have read extensively, and while I admire it, I never got to be fanatical about it. I heard about the movie adaptations and a college friend testified that they were excellent, but I never saw the movies until years later, when Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1 led me to discover Lady Snowblood on DVD from AnimEigo, which in turn got me into the publisher's Lone Wolf and Cub discs.

Sword of Vengeance, the first of the six-film series, introduces us to Itto Ogami, a bedraggled ronin traveling the countryside with his young son Daigoro. A banner on their baby cart proclaims "sword for hire," and for the steep sum of 500 ryo Ogami will accept assassination orders -- which he reliably completes with astonishing skill. A series of flashbacks reveal how he once held the esteemed post of official executioner for the Shogunate. The treacherous Yagyu "shadow clan" murdered Ogami's wife Azami and framed him for treason in a conspiracy to take over his esteemed post. Though he was sentenced to seppuku, Ogami chose to resist and seek vengeance, walking a self-described road to hell along with little Daigoro. As an assassin he aims to stir up chaos and evil in this wretched world until he can finally fulfill his revenge against the Yagyu.

Two years later, we find Ogami accepting a commission to kill a corrupt chamberlain named Sugito who is plotting to supplant the heir of the client's clan. Ogami tracks down Sugito and his hired gang at a hot springs, where circumstances force the assassin to endure humiliations at the hands of the thugs before he can make his move against them. The one weakness of Sword of Vengeance is that this slow-burn plotline suffers in comparison to the compelling origin flashbacks, making the middle of the film seem to drag a bit. Ogami sits passively while Sugito's henchmen ridicule him, and they coerce him into having sex with a prostitute in a crowded room for their amusement. His behavior makes sense in terms of the circumstances and his code of honor, but his prolonged lack of action test the audience's patience a bit following the buildup of this ultimate bad-ass killing machine. Maybe this episode from the comics would have worked better in a later film after Ogami's character was more fully established. But in the end, of course, Ogami uncorks his wrath and the bad guys end up spewing blood by the bucket.

Which brings us to the feature of the Lone Wolf and Cub series that always grabs the most attention: the violence. Yes, it is extreme and over the top and very entertaining to watch, once you get past the initial shock value. I'm as much a fan of the high-pressure arterial spray and severed limbs as the next guy, but I think the blood n' gore overshadows the finer points of the series. You can find crazy cartoon violence in any number of hack genre movies, but there's a lot more going on here.

For starters, as a screen adaptaption, Sword of Vengeance and its sequels are incredible. With a screenplay by original Lone Wolf and Cub author Kazuo Koike, the film absolutely captures the tone and emotion of the original comics. Many sequences are lifted directly from the source. As a comics fan accustomed to movie versions that suck, I can say that these are the most faithful comic book films ever made, rivaled only by Frank Miller's Sin City, to draw another synchronicity to the man who introduced Lone Wolf and Cub to North American readers.

Tomisaburo Wakayama finds the role of his lifetime in Itto Ogami. True, he's fatter and less handsome than the comics character, and he was known for playing comedic and buffoonish roles elsewhere. But Wakayama simply becomes Ogami, playing the flat, dead, thousand-yard-stare of a damned soul with utter conviction, and his real-life sword training makes Ogami's superhero-level fighting skills somehow believable. His portrayal has ruined all other Lone Wolf and Cub adaptations for me. Similarly definitive is the casting of Akihiro Tomikawa, the phenomenal child actor playing Daigoro. He is exactly like the kid in the comics, both adorable and grim, but never annoying or transparently "acting," an impossible combination.

To cite one other aspect that makes Sword of Vengeance more than just a blood-spattered exploitation flick, the use of sound is remarkable. During the flashback sequences, background noises are silenced and all we can hear is dialogue. Rainfall and coursing streams make no sound. The audience is able intuitively to understand that the silence is a storytelling device to separate past from present, and the effect is both fascinating and chilling.

Touches like this made me recognize that Lone Wolf and Cub represented a different kind of filmmaking. As a first-time viewer I found this flavor of cinema intoxicating, and I knew I had to have more of it. I have since identified this as the distinctive experience of finely crafted Japanese chambara films, swordplay incorporated into cinematic art. I went on to find delectable variations on this flavor in the classics in the works of Hideo Gosha and Kihachi Okamoto, in the classic Toei productions, in the Zatoichi series, in the Shimizu no Jirocho legends, and on and on. Sword of Vengeance opened that door for me and I will always be grateful for that.

The Lone Wolf and Cub Series

The Jidai-Geki Knights
Cinema