What’s up, Contenders? Terry Malloy here reporting live from the Waterfront.
“Between fire and water lies the white road, and I shall follow it” – Ogami Itto
Imagine with me: Japan, the 1600s. The head executioner of the Shogunate is framed and betrayed, his wife murdered. Rather than accept the fate of ritual suicide which is expected of him, the man instead chooses a life of vengeance. But will his young son be forced to walk the road between heaven and hell with him? The man places the young boy’s fate in his own hands, setting before him a sword and a ball. Choosing the ball would bring the young child to his mother swiftly and painlessly. But the boy chooses the sword. Together, Ogami Itto and son Daigoro become the wandering assassins LONE WOLF AND CUB.
This is the set up for one of the single most fun franchises of all time. Not to mention possibly the greatest comic book film series adaptation ever made. (LONE WOLF AND CUB began as a long series of manga created by Kazuo Koike, which were then adapted from 1972-1974 into 6 films.) And yet, I often meet fellow film lovers who haven’t had the chance to experience these highly influential films.
For that reason, I think of myself as a bit of a LONE WOLF AND CUB evangelist, so I’m going to step up to the pulpit here for a minute in order to recommend the latest home video edition of the films, released this September on Blu-ray by AnimEigo. I myself discovered the adventures of Ogami Itto and Daigoro on a whim in the early days of my Netflix membership. It was sort of the greatest thing that could happen to a young man who has only recently understood the beauty of consuming as many films as possible with only a 3 disc limit to slow him down.
So, what exactly are the LONE WOLF AND CUB films all about? And what is the big deal about the Blu-ray set? Let’s dig in.
In total, there are six LONE WOLF AND CUB films. And don’t let this confuse you, but this is also the same series of films that are often called SHOGUN ASSASSIN. The short version of that story is that LONE WOLF AND CUB are the Japanese films, and SHOGUN ASSASSIN was the result of American Producers re-editing the series down to 5 films and redubbing and re-titling them.
You can see an in depth explanation of the differences between these series that I wrote upon the Blu-ray release of the SHOGUN ASSASSIN boxed set over at CHUD.com right here.
When I checked out the Blus for SHOGUN ASSASSIN, it was the very first time I had experienced the American mash up that is SHOGUN ASSASSIN 1. My conclusion at that point was to recommend that fans buy the single disc Blu-ray of SHOGUN ASSASSIN, and also invest in the boxed set of all 6 original Japanese films on DVD. My reasoning there was that I feel the 6-film series is superior overall, but that SHOGUN ASSASSIN does bring some awesome elements to the series, namely a haunting voice over by Daigoro and a sick ‘80s synth score.
But with the full 6-film series now being available on Blu-ray, I’d suggest seeking out this new iteration to experience LONE WOLF AND CUB in the fullest way possible. Then follow that up with just the Blu for SHOGUN ASSASSIN 1, which is really the only entry in that series that is significantly altered in content by editing together LW&C 1 and 2.
I have been known to refer to the LW&C films as the Roger Moore BONDs of the samurai world. And yet, upon re-watching this time around, I don’t think that is accurate.
On the one hand, within the first ten minutes of the first film, you’ll see a small child killed, multiple exposed breasts, and arterial spray. I’m not kidding. Time it. So those opening ten minutes really do set the tone for what you are going to get with this series. Filled with exploitative elements and over the top action, this is where the Roger Moore Bond-comparison fits. Itto will pull out secret weapons and tools as though some feudal Q had provided him with cutting edge tech. Seriously, Daigoro’s baby cart is probably cooler than the Batmobile and Batman’s utility belt combined! And much like Batman’s belt, or 007’s gadgets, whatever Itto needs at the particular moment that he needs it will certainly be hooked up in the cart. Oh, you are getting shot at? No worries, the cart has a bullet proof plate! Oh, you are surrounded? Not a problem, the cart’s blade wheels will cut some dudes’ ankles off!
You’ve also got regular nudity going on, and enormous battle sequences throughout that defy all mathematical probability. No matter how many soldiers face off against the solitary samurai, you can always bet on Itto. And during each of those battles? Severed limbs and arterial spray that puts KILL BILL to shame are guaranteed.
But in the midst of that silliness (which admittedly works for me on every level) there is a backdrop of authenticity that runs throughout.
AnimEigo has included slideshows in all their home video versions since the LW&C DVDs that delve into the historical backgrounds of what is happening in the films. And it seems that the real feudal Japan is fairly accurately represented here in these movies, even if the stylistic flourishes skew towards exploitation.
And on top of that, Tomisaburo Wakayama’s central performance as Ogami Itto is played entirely straight. And I mean entirely. Itto smiles approximately zero times in six movies. He is a man bent on revenge and the restoration of his honor. And while he is a loving father to Daigoro, he is also stern; teaching Daigoro how to grow up in a cruel world that is filled with those who would destroy them. I think Wakayama’s performance, and his straight-faced take on the character actually makes the cartoonish violence all the more potent and legendary. When Wakayama’s Itto slaughters well over 100 men in a single fight and quietly pushes his baby cart off into the sunset at the end of pretty much all 6 movies, he does it with such calm that you get goosebumps.
The more stern Itto looks, the more I cheer on his unbridled badassery.
As outlined above, our set up is that a dishonored samurai and his son walk the roads of feudal Japan as assassins for hire. 500 pieces of gold will secure the services of The Lone Wolf and Cub. But at the same time, Itto is on a quest for revenge against the Shadow Yagyu Clan, who were the masterminds behind the plot to ruin Itto. With these two ongoing story lines, the films have fun with Itto and Daigoro’s journeys. Sometimes the films are mostly about a huge battle with the Yagyu. Other times segments will delve deeply into an assignment that Itto has taken up as an assassin. Often the plots become intermingled. But they are always wildly entertaining and bloody.
On top of that, there is the wonderful dynamic of the father and son. Daigoro reigns supreme as the toughest little kid in movie history.
I don’t think there is even a debate here. Over the course of 6 films Daigoro chooses the path of the sword, engages in killing as a toddler, and routinely displays the embodiment of the samurai code of honor. Daigoro will be kidnapped, lost, and even tortured in these films. It is a remarkable thing. But through it all he becomes the most incredible child action hero ever committed to celluloid. He is the heart and soul of these movies and the tiny little Akihiro Tomikawa does it all without ever being annoying or pandering.
THE NEW BLU-RAY SET
I’m not really a techie to the extent that I completely grasp all the technology used to create high definition scans. I tend to head over to Blu-ray.com in order to get an appropriate sense of how various new high def versions of films are created.
What I learned over at Blu-ray.com this time around is that these new Blus for LW&C are actually brand new scans, even more recent than the scans used for the SHOGUN ASSASSIN set that AnimEigo released very recently. To be entirely honest, I can’t say that the quality jumped from one edition to the next in my estimation, but I can say that these films have never looked so good in my lifetime. And these are films that take advantage of the beauty of feudal Japan, so there are some shots that are simply breathtaking in high definition.
That said, AnimEigo has never really done anything in the way of extras beyond the aforementioned trivia slides that you can read through on each disc. This Blu-ray release could have been an awesome opportunity to do some interviews with modern filmmakers who were influenced by LW&C, or with those involved with the original films who are still living. Their SHOGUN ASSASSIN disc included a commentary with the American producers and even some other small bonus materials. Not so with this set. Here you are pretty much getting 2 Blu-rays with all 6 films spread across them, and you are getting them in a non-descript Blu-ray case.
AnimEigo is a smaller distribution house who happens to have the rights to one of the great, underseen classic action series’ of all time. So I thank them graciously for giving us beautiful, widescreen, original-language versions of the LONE WOLF AND CUB series. And I can forgive them for not including tons of expensive-to-produce extras, or even elaborate packaging.
But that does mean that an extras-filled, definitive collection of these films is still lurking out there somewhere, beyond the grasp of today’s rabid samurai movie fan. I love this current set, and believe it will replace my DVD boxed set of the same films. But we’ll have to dream about a day when extensive extra content is created for these films.
- All still photos courtesy Blu-ray.com screenshots.
And I’m Out.
Terry Malloy AKA Ed Travis