The average movie goer thinks samurai movies and they think Kurosawa or Toshiro Mifune. Perfectly reasonable names to come to mind when you think feudal Japanese sword epics. Over the years, though, the chambara has moved further and further away from those lyrical Shakespearean styles and into a realm much more exploitative. Many of them are good but in my opinion, the king of them all is the Lone Wolf & Cub series. Though I’ve made it clear in the past that my opinion of manga is pretty low, I have read a few of the translated reissues that Dark Horse Comics put out in digest form and as far as comics go, they don’t get much better than the song of Ogami Itto. Like Rodriguez’s Sin City adaptation, the film version of the Lone Wolf manga are particularly faithful to the wildly popular source material. Given the iconic status of Itto and his son Daigoro, any liberties taken with the comics to film adaptation would be considered heresy. Thank god for that.
I love samurai movies. From the traditional Kurosawas to many of the contemporary offerings from Japan. Easily, the origin of that love came with Lone Wolf & Cub. I first caught wind of it like many Americans did with the Shogun Assassin movie which acts like a highlights reel of the first two movies. So many movies have followed in the footsteps of Sword of Vengeance that by now, the true impact of the innovator is lost. You saw it here first, wildly violent battles, geysers of blood from sword cuts and a steel eyed man out for revenge. It seriously doesn’t get much better than Lone Wolf & Cub.
Set during the particularly turbulent Tokugawa period, Ogami Itto serves the Shogunate as the second, the man responsible for beheading those who have disemboweled themselves as their act of seppuku. The treacherous Yagyu clan desires that position and through seedy political maneuvering begin a plot to frame Itto in a conspiracy to kill the Shogun. The tables turn, however, when Itto strikes back with his superior sword skills. With his wife dead and child, Daigoro, in tow, Itto swears to follow the Yagyu to the ends of the earth in order to have his revenge. He walks the countryside, pushing three year old Daigoro in a wooden baby cart loaded with hidden weapons. He offers his sword expertise and son for rent (make of that what you will). Mostly, though, he just kills dudes for money. In this particular entry, Itto is hired to go to a hot-springs village and kill the rival chamberlain of the man who hired him. When he arrives, he finds the village around the springs under siege by the chamberlain and his goons who terrorize the people there. Itto wanders in, posing as he usually does as a down on his luck ronin and positions himself in a place where he can carry out his mission.
The plot is quite simple and like many of the manga, he keeps it short and sweet. It moves at a brisk pace and wastes no time. There is no meandering, no unnecessary exposition, everything on display is a deliberate move in Itto’s game to get to the point in his plan where he has the advantage. The goons that he has infiltrated have no idea that they’re being played. In spite of his particularly special sword, they still underestimate Itto until it is way, way too late.
The manga, in particular, was very cultural and thanks to a hefty glossary included in the American reissues to define some of the Japanese names and political positions we’re not left in the dark. The Animeigo DVDs, probably the definitive western editions of the series, continue this tradition. Without a little help, the cultural signifigance would be lost on many. The weight of defiance in Itto exposing his executioner’s robes from under his death robes seems like a great, cinematic way to turn the tables on the Yagyu but it, in fact, carries a great deal of insult to his persecutors. Little touches such as this are what puts this movie in a class above the competition.
Though Lone Wolf & Cub is not a fight-a-minute as many action movies have come to be over the years, it is punctuated by impressive and extraordinarily bloody fights throughout. Each movie improves upon the last but even this one, the one that kicked off the series is particularly impressive. Like the many kung fu movies from China, Lone Wolf & Cub has a great deal of grace to its fights. It becomes a little ridiculous with an arsenal of hidden weapons and defenses concealed in the baby cart, but this is something that you’re here to see. It is one of the signatures of the series and a tool to establish Itto’s cunning. Heads roll, body parts are severed and Itto almost always strikes and holds a dramatic pose at the climax of every fight as his last opponent staggers slowly to his death, blood spraying impossibly like a fire hose from the final, fatal wound. Who started this tradition of blood letting in Japan is beyond me, but I thank them for it.
I’d be hard pressed to find a criticism of Sword of Vengeance. It’s no Seven Samurai or Hidden Fortress but as far as bloody, exploitative samurai movies go, this is it. One of the few perfect comic book adaptations.