Lone Wolf and Cub was always one of those series that I knew existed, but had never seen; I knew it better from the voluminous stacks of manga sitting unread in my local comic shop than as a movie series. Unlike some of the films I’ve reviewed here that only received a wider release outside of Japan very recently, Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972) did actually get an international release back in the 1970s, but it’s probably better known under the title Shogun Assassin from 1980. That film, a dubbed re-edit of the first two films in the Lone Wolf and Cub series, apparently only uses 11 minutes of footage from Sword of Vengeance. After watching it, I can guess why, and only hope the rest of the series – presented by Criterion in a wonderfully illustrated six-film set – offers some rapid improvement.
There are some slightly interesting behind the scenes facts around the production that I might delve into more if the sequels pick up – my interest in that kind of stuff is directly proportional to how much I enjoy a film, which is not necessarily connected to its actual quality. I’ve written before that I can get a lot out of a film as a kind of cultural artefact. Even if the film itself is not good – and not everything I review on Kino 893 is – the experience of watching it and reading up on its creation can be an interesting insight into Japan or film-making or any number of other topics. Of course, if the movie is enjoyable on top of that, that’s all the better, as I found in my recent review of Retaliation. In addition, I try to be both constructively critical and mindful of the circumstances behind a film, rather than simply dismissing the whole production outright.
With all that in mind, Sword of Vengeance was not a good experience. It commits one of the greatest of cinematic sins: it’s boring. This is particularly shocking when it feels like the entire point of the film is to indulge in excessive comic book violence; it’s 1970s samurai exploitation cinema with blood and sex and a really weird amount of breastfeeding. Somehow, very little of it manages to grab and hold one’s attention, from Tomisaburo Wakayama’s rigidly wooden performance as Itto Ogami, the disgraced wandering swordsman and titular Lone Wolf (with cub), to the threadbare plot of betrayal and revenge that spends far too long dwelling on the political and familial structures of Japan’s shogun-era government.
I was already well aware of the film’s origins in manga, but it quickly becomes obvious anyway. I couldn’t say how closely it follows the structure of the original manga, but it is extremely episodic. After an opening that introduces Ogami and his son as wandering swordsman for hire and “son for hire” respectively, the film jumps unceremoniously into a flashback that establishes how he lost his position as the Shogun’s favoured executioner to the scheming Yagyu clan. The editing between the flashbacks and the ‘present’ of the film means the lurching timeline is hard to follow and never clearly delineated (though I’m sure would be inspirational to a film fanatic like Tarantino, and his chronologically inconsistent works, decades later). The rest of the film is essentially a standalone story unrelated to Ogami’s need for revenge against the Yagyu, following him as he’s hired to assassinate four men, and gets caught up with an incident involving bandits who have overtaken a hot spring resort.
Aside from the episodic storytelling, the film’s manga connection seems obvious in the way some of the fight scenes are narrated. In one, pantomime villain Retsudo Yagyu monologues over Ogami’s duel with a Yagyu clan underling, describing Ogami’s ‘Suiō-ryū’ sword technique which, impractically, is best performed waist deep in running water. In cliché manga and anime fashion, multiple characters have a habit of naming the moves used. The grand finale is particularly cartoonish; it would probably be the best fight in the film, if not for the fact Ogami gets through it by turning the baby cart he pushes his infant son around in into a variety of nonsensical weapons.
As a fan, to varying degrees, of other ‘70s Japanese cinema – from the unexpectedly leftwing fun of Delinquent Girl Boss to the women-in-prison exploitation in Female Prisoner Scorpion or Kinji Fukasaku’s phenomenal jitsuroku yakuza films – I had hoped Lone Wolf and Cub would be an interesting counterpoint to the samurai films of the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Certainly, there is a contrast between the bloodless fights of those films and the generously blood-spattered battles here, but it’s not enough to hold the rest of the film aloft.
Still, there is a glimmer of promise. Wakayama’s Ogami might be astonishingly wooden, but surrounded with the right cast, he might come alive – or be a useful straight man foil. The episodic storytelling also lends itself well to reinvention, so there is always the chance that later films in the series aren’t nearly as dire; they would do well to ditch the truly terrible Ura-Yagyu chief but, unfortunately, I don’t see that happening, and I’m not looking forward to hearing all his lines ground out through gritted teeth again. Future films will also hopefully bring the relationship between Ogami and his boy, Daigoro, to the fore – after all, it’s that father-son relationship that defines the title of the series but is almost a non-factor in this film.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance / 子連れ狼 子を貸し腕貸しつかまつる
Director: Kenji Misumi
Japanese Release Date: 15th January 1972
Version Watched: 87 min, Criterion Collection Release