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Lone Wolf and Cub: a long-read guide to samurai cinema’s tender, bloodthirsty duo

lone wolf and cub

We take an in-depth take a look at Lone Wolf and Cub. An epic journey by means of all six films, that includes samurai cinema’s most hyper-violent and touchingly depicted father and son duo.

lone wolf and cub

There’s an episode of Bob’s Burgers that I dearly love, maybe a tiny bit greater than all of the others. ‘Hawk and Chick’ options Bob and his rabbit-hatted daughter Louise working collectively to reconcile an ageing Japanese actor together with his personal long-lost daughter. The hopeful duo lastly succeed by holding a screening of a 70s martial arts movie (the ‘Hawk and Chick’ of the metatextual title), which stars the estranged father and daughter as a pair of nomadic samurai tied collectively by a familial bond of vengeance.

It’s a good episode; full of heat and pathos, and by means of Bob and Louise’s shared love of those previous samurai films, we discover the deepening relationship between the pair. The episode can also be a loving homage to the Lone Wolf and Cub collection of movies, which additionally centre on the journey of a sword-wielding father and youngster through the Edo interval of Japan – one thing I used to be utterly unaware of till Lone Wolf and Cub was introduced for a lavish re-issue by Criterion this month. They’ve now develop into my new obsession.

lone wolf and cub restored

Based mostly on the long-running manga collection of the identical identify, the six basic Lone Wolf and Cub movies have been shot between 1972 – 1974 and function Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) an executioner for the Shogun, who’s betrayed by his personal clan and framed for treason. After his spouse is murdered by ninjas, Ogami is pressured to wander the countryside as an assassin-for-hire whereas in search of vengeance towards those that betrayed him. Fortunately he’s not alone following the ‘Demon Way in Hell’. Accompanying Ogami is his three-year previous son Daigoro, who he pushes round in an impressively weaponised pram, tooled up with an infinite provide of knives, swords and the opposite lethal surprises.

Lone Wolf and Cub accommodates probably the most extraordinary combination of interval samurai drama (“Chanbara”), exploitation thrills and gob-smacking ranges of bloodshed. There’s additionally a surprisingly touching father and son relationship at its centre, which offsets all of the lopped-off heads and limbs, and makes the entire expertise massively affecting.

Chanbara (チャンバラ) actually interprets to “sword fight” and has come to denote Japanese samurai cinema, which is itself a sub-genre of Jidaigeki (or “period drama” – often set through the Edo interval of Japanese historical past between 1603 – 1868). Chanbara is onomatopoeia for the sound of blades putting collectively.

Though to be truthful, I’ve simply develop into a father AND I’m a large fan of previous Akira Kurosawa samurai movies, so I’m principally the precise audience. Within the first weeks of her delivery, I might rise up to feed our child at 3am and collectively we’d watch Seven Samurai, Yojimbo or Hidden Fortress. Primarily as a result of they have been subtitled and I wouldn’t wake my spouse, but in addition as a result of it felt applicable to return and rediscover the movies that first made me respect world cinema as a youthful movie nerd. My daughter, clearly, had no concept what was happening, however I can be positive to incessantly remind her of this time when she’s a lot older.

It’s on this spirit that I start a journey with my mercifully unaware four-month-old daughter alongside the ‘Demon Way in Hell’, and binge-watch all six Lone Wolf and Cub films. Will we bond in a comparable approach as Bob and Louise? Or will I shortly realise these movies are undoubtedly not appropriate viewing for a minor, whether or not they can focus past the tip of their very own nostril or not?

I really feel that by the third sentence of the subsequent paragraph, my query might be answered emphatically.

Lone Wolf And Cub: Sword of Vengeance [1972 Dir: Kenji Misumi]


The origin of Itto Ogami and Daigoro is a fascinating instance of schlocky exploitation cinema, elevated to extra expressive heights. It’s breathtakingly violent, typically absurdly gory. The fountains of pink blood that spring out of each wound are comically excessive. There’s salacious nudity, intercourse and loads of different lurid moments that depart an disagreeable style within the mouth. Nevertheless it’s additionally thrilling, thanks to some distinctive cinematography, kinetic modifying and artfully crafted violence.

And once more, at its core, is the sweet-natured relationship between father and baby, which by no means turns into saccharine. Little or no dialogue is shared between the pair, save for Daigoro’s shout of “papa” within the few moments of separation – however their inextricable bond is unwavering.

lone wolf and cub

Ogami is performed by the massively prolific Tomisaburo Wakayama, an already established martial arts star who – regardless of his age and weight – is a powerful swordsman and, as we’re reminded continuously all through the six movies, a fairly good somersaulter. Though Wakayama’s efficiency is the very definition of stoic, he really comes alive when his sword is unsheathed. Akihiro Tomikawa, who wouldn’t seem in some other movie outdoors this collection, performs Ogami’s three-year previous son, Daigoro. His efficiency in every Lone Wolf and Cub chapter is indelible. Daigoro is simply as measured as his father, with a stern centeredness past his years, nevertheless it’s onerous to keep away from the truth that he’s additionally heartbreakingly lovable. Ogami is nearly indestructible, undefeatable – however Daigoro offers the a lot wanted hazard and vulnerability.

Lone Wolf and Cub (子連れ狼) is predicated on a manga collection created by author Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima, first revealed in 1970. The story spans 28 volumes, with greater than 300 pages in every guide. Lone Wolf and Cub is among the most extremely regarded manga, promoting greater than eight million copies in Japan.

Sword of Vengeance begins darkly; with Ogami in his position as Shogunate Executioner requested to ceremonially behead an toddler lord on the behest of the Shogun. It will get darker too, as Ogami’s spouse is callously murdered by the Shadow Yagyu clan, on the orders of untamed eye-browed nemesis Retsudo, setting Ogami and his younger son on the street to vengeance. There’s a lot of delicate slicing between the previous and current, all triggered by minor particulars alongside their journey, making this the collection’ most narratively fascinating chapter.

It additionally accommodates a few of Lone Wolf and Cub’s most iconic scenes. In a flashback, Ogami permits his toddler son to select between the lifetime of an murderer or a ‘reunion with his mother’. Daigoro has to crawl in the direction of an object to make his determination – the sword (Daigoro lives, however his life might be filled with homicide) or the brilliant vibrant ball (counter-intuitively, demise on the blade of his personal father). It appears a merciless trick, however fortunately Daigoro is attracted to shiny metallic objects and he will get to accompany his father alongside the murderer’s path.

In Lone Wolf and Cub (子連れ狼), our duo walks the trail of “meifumadō” (冥府魔道) which interprets as ”The Street to Hell,” symbolised by the dual demons of the bull and the horse. The time period meifumadō was truly invented by</a> Lone Wolf and Cub’s writer Kazuo Koike. “Meifu” (冥府) refers to the underworld – or hell “Jigoku” (地獄) – and ‘Madou’ (魔道) refers to a heretical lifestyle.

It’s throughout an early scene – the place father and child are sentenced to a noble dying of seppuku – that you simply realise this isn’t going to be some typical, cold Chanbara. Ogami fights his approach out of the courtroom, child in a single arm, sword within the different, and the following carnage is astonishing. Blood splatters on tatami mats, fountains of patent-red blood douse the partitions – the soundtrack is sparse, save for the swish of blades (though eagle eyes will spot the younger child screaming his head off in silence).

Lone Wolf_Sword Vengeance

On this world, swords are referred to as ‘horse slayer’ and males are reduce down on the knee, leaving ft and ankles standing upright, spurting geysers of blood whereas the remainder of the physique falls to the bottom. The escape sequence leads to a one-on-one duel, which ends in probably the most luxuriously photographed beheading ever dedicated to movie. You’ll be able to see why Quentin Tarantino and John Woo maintain Lone Wolf and Cub in such excessive esteem.

Seppuku (切腹) means “cutting abdomen/belly” and is usually much less previously referred to as hara-kiri (腹切) It’s a ritual suicide by disembowelment with a sword, previously practiced in Japan by samurai as an honourable various to shame or execution. In his position as Shogunate Executioner, Itto Ogami can be the ‘second’ (“kaishakunin” 介錯人), anyone appointed to behead the condemned samurai on the level of disembowelling.

The primary half of Sword of Vengeance is a master-class in over-the-top motion, exquisitely choreographed bloodshed and mythology setting. Nevertheless the second half accommodates the collection’ sleazier moments. The rape and informal homicide of a prostitute in broad daylight is pointless, as is a prolonged and glamorously shot scene of pressured public intercourse. It’s an uncomfortable combination, particularly if you add within the tender scenes the place Ogami bathes Daigoro in a scorching spring. Sword of Vengeance additionally incorporates one of many few scenes of breastfeeding I’ve ever seen in a movie – I might say it’s refreshing however sadly it simply feels blatantly exploitative. Feminine characters can be dealt a fairer hand in later, stronger chapters within the collection. However for now, that is an eye-opening, if unsavoury first introduction to the world of Lone Wolf and Cub.

LONE WOLF AND CUB: Child Cart on the River Styx [1972 DIR: KENJI MISUMI]


The blood is even thicker and redder (it’s now house-paint consistency), the modifying choppier, the cinematography is artier; Child Cart on the River Styx is the strongest chapter within the Lone Wolf and Cub collection, and it’s definitely the rationale why it types the majority of Shogun Murderer – the American model of Lone Wolf and Cub, edited collectively from the primary two movies and redubbed with a cloying English language voiceover.

Shogun Murderer was compiled from the primary two movies within the Lone Wolf and Cub collection, utilizing 12 minutes of Sword of Vengeance and most of Child Cart on the River Styx. It was launched in 1980, eight years after the originals and discovered itself embroiled within the UK’s video nasty panic. Shogun Murderer was later sampled by GZA on the Liquid Swords album and is watched by the Bride and her daughter in Kill Invoice: Quantity II.

Right here Ogami and Daigoro should fend off enemies from all sides, together with Sayaka and her clan of feminine assassins, the Akari Yagyū, and the three Hidari brothers. Who with their over-size straw hats and distinctive weapons (the iron claw, the flying mace and a pair of armoured gloves) are a clear inspiration for Huge Hassle in Little China’s ludicrous The Three Storms.

Child Cart on the River Styx is probably the most relentlessly action-packed chapter, Ogami and Daigoro can barely the first step foot with out coming beneath assault. This reaches its nadir throughout a scene the place the pair trudges alongside a river and are constantly attacked by teams of assassins – first by razor sharp straw hats, then by razor sharp radishes. The modifying is extra playful too. A scene the place the assassins hypnotise Ogami with their somersaulting is all crosscut patterns of color and crash zooms earlier than they unleash their ultimate assault.

You start to see the toll of violence on our beforehand indestructible hero, as Wakayama’s Itto Ogami lastly succumbs to blood-loss and exhaustion. Clearly he’ll be positive, there are 4 extra of those movies, however his weakened state leads to some heroic moments for Daigoro, who should have a tendency to his unconscious papa. The movie additionally incorporates the primary (and solely) time within the collection the place Daigoro is kidnapped and positioned in direct peril. Actually – he’s suspended over a nicely. Because the captor taunts Ogami for displaying weak spot in caring for his son, Ogami replies, “I shall do my best and then wait for destiny.” It’s a touching, transcendental reply that speaks to a notably zen parenting type. On the finish of the scene, Daigoro drops his shoe down the properly to secretly point out the depth to his father and how a lot time he’ll have when ultimately dropped. It’s a delicate second and proves how deep connections may be insinuated by means of mere gestures.

Tomisaburo Wakayama’s brother, Shintaro Katsu, can also be a main a part of Japanese samurai cinema historical past. In addition to producing Lone Wolf and Cub for his brother, Katsu starred within the even longer operating movie collection, Zatoichi. He performed the titular blind masseur 25 occasions between 1962 and 1973, and throughout 4 seasons of a spin-off tv collection.

This chapter additionally incorporates Lone Wolf and Cub’s most memorable moments – primarily down to their pure strangeness; you by no means know fairly what to assume or anticipate. A merciless dissection of a ninja by the hands of the Akari Yagyū – first his ears are sliced off, then his nostril, then the remainder of his limbs – can be Monty Python-esque if it weren’t so terrifyingly grotesque.

Then there’s the scene immediately following Ogami, Daigoro and the avenging Sayaka’s underwater escape from a boat hearth. On dry land, Ogami strips all three of them down, to allow them to huddle collectively for heat. Sayaka makes an attempt to attain for a sword, however the small boy’s brushing of her breast makes her abandon the plan. Is it touching or is it simply bizarre? I assume it may be each. The identical might be stated concerning the last scene, the place a slain Hidari brother lies in a sand dune, considering the deadly blow he’s simply acquired. Blood sprays out of his neck like a effective mist. “It sounds like wailing,” he says as he begins to fade away. “The Whistle of the Fallen Tiger – I’ve always wished to kill someone, just once, and create such a fine cut.” The next geyser of blood erupting into the sand is a becoming sufficient picture to sum up this chapter.

LONE WOLF AND CUB: Child Cart to Hades [1972 DIR: KENJI MISUMI]

baby cart to hades

Ogami and Daigoro proceed their lengthy and violent journey throughout the countryside, encountering scumbag swordsmen, yakuza and a dishonoured former samurai – culminating in one of many largest spectacles in Lone Wolf and Cub up to now.

Lone Wolf Cart to Hades

Sadly, Child Cart to Hades can also be one of many hardest to watch, primarily as a result of rape appears to be its solely plot system. An early scene that includes the rape and homicide of a mom and daughter is especially harrowing. Later, Ogami and Daigoro come to assistance from a prostitute, who bit the tongue off from her rapist pimp – this one dwells luridly within the brutalisation of girls.

There are some highlights to be discovered within the sleaze. Daigoro takes a extra lively position in aiding his father, by serving to him trick a gun-toting villain with an unfair benefit. Ogami additionally exhibits extra defensive restraint and impassiveness than in earlier movies – offers are struck, pistols are disarmed; life is handled barely extra preciously. That’s till the ultimate third, when Ogami single-handedly takes on a military of 200 assorted baddies. He efficiently fends of archers, cannons, spears and samurai on horseback. It’s an unimaginable show, and the ultimate second of philosophical debate is an fascinating cap. A disgraced samurai enquires of Ogami, “What is a true samurai?” Ogami comfortingly replies, “The way of the warrior is to live by death” earlier than spilling his guts on the ground.

lone wolf and cub baby cart

With Ogami at his most outlandishly indestructible, the infant cart’s ridiculous hidden weaponry, the dreadful remedy of girls and the Matt Monro-esque music on the finish (with lyrics which are far too on the nostril), I get the growing sensation I’m watching the samurai equal of a James Bond movie.

LONE WOLF AND CUB: Child Cart in Peril [1972 DIR: Buichi Saito]


You understand how I stated the earlier chapter of Lone Wolf and Cub dealt an excessive amount of within the brutalisation of girls? Nicely to make up for it, Child Cart in Peril begins with a tattooed feminine murderer butchering a group of male samurai and lopping off their top-knots in brisk style. Though, this being a true 70s exploitation movie, O-Yuki is topless all through the battle. In truth the movie opens with an excessive close-up of her left nipple, surrounded by a tattoo of child Kintaro – born of the “Mountain Hag Devil.” The aim of the tattoos are to trigger a “grotesque” shock; to “knock wind out of people” earlier than they assault. You’ll be able to perceive why the Criterion Assortment (who lately restored all six movies for blu-ray) describes this chapter as being “distinctly lowbrow”. However at the very least the nudity right here has some narrative level, and the complicated characterisation of O-Yuki is a step ahead from earlier feminine characters, who typically discover themselves disarmed purely by way of their affection for Ogami and Daigoro.


Child Cart in Peril’s strongest moments happen through the prolonged time period the place Ogami and Daigoro are separated via the kid’s youthful curiosity. These are probably the most heartrending pictures of the collection – Daigoro’s lonesome padding his approach via the rain, and later being caught in a fiery rice area is the closest he’ll ever come to a actual menace – sadly this doesn’t final for lengthy, and ushers in some pointless voiceover from an unknown narrator that comes out of nowhere.

This chapter additionally incorporates a number of the greatest struggle choreography of the collection, soundtracked with free-jazz and funk variations of the already superior theme tune.

LONE WOLF AND CUB: Child Cart within the Land of Demons [1973 DIR: KENJI MISUMI]


This fifth chapter stands out markedly from the others, purely for the distinctive means during which our pair of murderer anti-heroes are employed for this specific job. Sometimes, Ogami asks for 500 Ryō per assassination, with the proviso that the shopper reveals all of their “secrets and reasons” for the hit. In Child Cart within the Land of Demons, 5 separate samurai who want to rent him confront Ogami. Every have to be defeated earlier than they provide up their part-payment of 100 Ryō and a small a part of their general motive. This leads to many unintentionally hilarious scenes the place a slain samurai gushes blood from a wound whereas giving a prolonged expository back-story.

Tomisaburo Wakayama as Ogami Itto (foreground) in Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973). Photo courtesy The Criterion Collection

Violence towards youngsters is one the movie’s most daring themes. Ogami should homicide an toddler princess and her mother and father. Regulation officers publicly flog Daigoro, purely as a result of he stoically refuses to reveal the id of a pick-pocketer. The child is on the “Demon Way in Hell” so he barely bats an eye-lid, and this mirrors Ogami’s personal pitiless dispatch of the princess and her household.

Child Cart within the Land of Demons sees Kenji Misumi return to direct for the fourth and remaining time. Misumi’s power was in including poetry and humanity to the expressive violence, which may also be seen within the Zatoichi movies directed by Misumi. As with Lone Wolf and Cub, Misumi’s movies have been typically the collection’ most existential entries.

Child Cart within the Land of Demons is among the extra meditative, religious chapters within the collection. It’s additionally its slowest paced, which makes the explosions of violence extra impactful. The pairs’ crusing off into the sundown whereas a concubine commits hari-kari within the water, for the primary time reveals a sombre reflection on the carnage they depart behind.

LONE WOLF AND CUB: White Heaven in Hell [1972 DIR: Yoshiyuki Kuroda]


If Child Cart within the Land of Demons was a thematically and philosophically robust entry within the collection – this remaining chapter is pure unbelievable motion. The movie is most memorable for its snowbound escapades, with the child cart tailored with rails as an alternative of wheels and all of the attacking samurai driving on skis.

In what looks like a tying up of unfastened ends, Ogami’s long-time enemy Retsudo pulls in each favour to rid himself of Ogami endlessly – this consists of the resurrection of a few long-dead enemies within the collection’ most absurd second. Daigoro noticeably has been requested to ‘do more acting’ right here too; primarily this leads to a few tacky cutaways of the boy wanting shocked.

Lone Wolf_White Heaven

Regardless of the promise of a fair greater ‘one man against an army’ snowy spectacle, you allow the movie a little disillusioned. The motion is vague and repetitive. Ogami’s super-human indestructibility is restored. The place in earlier, extra clever episodes we might have seen lovingly framed depictions of blood and ice, right here we’re simply left with a snowmobile pursuit straight out of a James Bond film. Retsudo gliding alongside in his personal cannon-mounted cart additionally, sadly, conjures up the Dalek’s supreme chief, Davros. The truth that Retsudo escapes, exclaiming, “I’ll get you next time, Ogami!” (or phrases to that have an effect on) makes for a dissatisfying conclusion to the movie and certainly the collection.

In accordance to a documentary included with the restored version, Wakayama was irritated that a TV adaptation of the identical manga collection was being produced concurrently together with his personal movie collection. So he stubbornly refused to make any extra, regardless of a promise from the tv firm that they’d hearth their chosen actor and substitute him with Wakayama. Ever the boastful stoic, Wakayama walked away from the franchise.

This leaves Lone Wolf and Cub, considerably actually, frozen in time. The unique manga ends on a appropriate observe of bloody finality, and manages to convey the story again round full circle to Daigoro – however the movie incarnations of Ogami and son are endlessly cursed to journey their approach throughout Edo interval Japan, portray the countryside pink.

lone wolf and cub

The entire Lone Wolf and Cub field set is out there to purchase on blu-ray from 27th Might.


Sources and acknowledgements:
Most important illustration by Paul Pope, taken from the Criterion cowl. Colors by Ron Wimberly. Stills by Criterion and Toho Co Ltd.