Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (1974)
Directed by Yoshiyuki Kuroda

Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell
Kozure Okami: Jigoku e ikuzo! Daigoro
Starring Tomisaburo Wakayama (Itto Ogami), Akihiro Tomikawa (Daigoro), Minoru Oki (Retsudo Yagyu), Isao Kimura (Hyoei), Junko Hitomi (Kaori Yagyu), Goro Mutsumi (Ozunu), Kyoichi Sato (Ryunosuke Kiyota), Mayumi Yamaguchi (Asuza)
Screenplay by Kazuo Koike

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

White Heaven in Hell is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Lone Wolf and Cub films. It's generally regarded as the worst of the Tomisaburo Wakayama series on several grounds: it's directed by some no-name guy instead of Kenji Misumi, it introduces heavy supernatural elements, and as a series finale it doesn't follow the climactic events from the comic book. But myself, I've always loved this movie. A lot. The main reason? Baby cart on skis versus Yagyu ninjas on skis, battling to the death on the snowy slopes. Pure awesomeness.

The movie takes on an apocalyptic tone from the start, as Retsudo Yagyu confers with the Shogun himself about the continued survival of Itto Ogami. The Shogun announces his intent to declare Ogami a federal criminal and set all the officials in Japan on his tail. Retsudo wants his own clan to carry out their vendetta against Ogami personally, but Ogami has now wiped out all his male sons. So he turns to his last surviving heirs: first his daughter Kaori, who has trained to be a deadly master killer with knives, and then his illegitimate son Hyoei, who has been raised by the mystic Tsuchigumo mountain tribe. Hyoei has no regard for the father who abandoned him as a child, but he wants to kill Ogami to gain glory and take over the Yagyu clan's social position. So Hyoei uses his black magic powers and sends forth a cadre of zombie assassins with the astonishing ability to tunnel underground like Bugs Bunny.

For his part, Ogami is also readying for a final showdown. He and Daigoro make a pilgrimage to the grave of Azami, their slain wife and mother, in preparation for settling the score with Retsudo once and for all. Hyoei's assassins stalk Ogami and taunt him with their disembodied voices, warning him that every innocent person whose path he crosses will die -- a threat they make good on. The normally implacable Ogami finds himself rattled by the bizarre Tsuchigumo menace. This is why I don't object to the supernatural turn in the story, which many critics find an unwelcome intrusion into the gritty Lone Wolf and Cub milieu. Ogami has always regarded his situation in metaphysical terms, with himself and Daigoro walking the path of Meifumado at the crossroads of the netherworlds. The material world and physical death mean nothing to him. But the Tsuchigumo also occupy the realm of supernatural, which makes them more "real" to Ogami. These enemies can hit him where he lives, so to speak.

It all comes down to that unforgettable final showdown in the snow, a winter-based battle scene rivaled only by The Empire Strikes Back. Snow is not an unfamiliar setting for chambara fights, as best evidenced by the Chushingura raid on Kira's mansion. But this is the most extensive and elaborate samurai battle in the snow that I can think of, and definitely the only one to incorporate skiing. It is extraordinarily silly and impractical, but I completely love every second of it. From the first time I saw the trailer for this movie on the DVD of an earlier episode, those throngs of snow ninjas on skis have captured my imagination. It's a spectacle without parallel in action cinema that must have been a nightmare to shoot and delivers pure entertainment.

Is the final Lone Wolf and Cub film a satisfactory conclusion? Some say no, since we don't get the final showdown between Ogami and Retsudo as depicted in the original comics. But I disagree. First, I like the movies better than the comics, so I'm not a diehard purist on that front. More importantly, this movie feels like a grand finale in its tone and gravitas. With all the dire callbacks to the first film, Retsudo running out of heirs and Ogami embracing the call of fate, it doesn't come across as if there were plans for a seventh film that never was. I mean, you've even got strains of Beethoven's 5th mixed in with the soundtrack. This is the end, and it was a good place to end a great series.

Even if studio profits and market realities weren't a concern, the Lone Wolf and Cub film series couldn't have gone on as long as a franchise like Zatoichi, considering its nihilistic outlook and the impending growth spurt of young Akihiro Tomikawa -- and there's no way we would have benefited to see Tomisaburo Wakayama get a new Daigoro. For those who want more of the story, there's the Kinnosuke Nakamura TV series and other adaptations to enjoy. But in my book, Lone Wolf and Cub ends here.

The Lone Wolf and Cub Series

The Jidai-Geki Knights
Cinema