Returning to the Lone Wolf and Cub series evokes similar feeling to Outlaw Gangster VIP. Like that yakuza series of the late ‘60s, Lone Wolf and Cub appeared in theatres every few months with a new film not unlike a new episode of a television show. And much like television before the rise of heavily serialised shows that relied on a slowly advancing, overall arc story that required viewers tune in every week or miss out, Lone Wolf and Cub offers pretty much the same content each time. Baby Cart in Peril (1972), the fourth film in the series, is no different. Even allowing that I left the series alone for several months before picking it up again – much as contemporary moviegoers would have seen it back in ‘72 – I found myself looking at a very familiar movie. Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is hired as an assassin, there’s a beautiful but deadly woman, the assassination subplot weaves around the ongoing Ogami-Yagyu clash, and there’s a gigantic fight at the end in another of Japan’s mysteriously sandy valley locations where they seem to film all the Super Sentai show battles.
My experiences with the first two Lone Wolf and Cub movies didn’t fill me with excitement for the remaining four films in Criterion’s box set. I don’t regret watching them, but I was starting to regret owning the collection – all the more reason to be sad Amazon was shuttering its LoveFilm rental service. And yet! Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (1972) performs the nigh impossible task of course-correcting from the previous films, with drastically improved cinematography and fight scenes, as well as more interesting character interactions. While still by no means a perfect film, it took me by surprise, and reinvigorated my interest in the series.
In this second instalment of the cult Lone Wolf and Cub, Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and infant son Daigoro take on a Shogunate plot to steal a region’s indigo dye techniques, do battle with a legion of ninjas and plenty of sword maidens, and spray buckets of luminously-red blood. It’s Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972)! When I reviewed the first film in the series, I wrote how deeply disappointed I was; it was not the vital action classic I was imagining. Does the sequel manage to right those wrongs?
The Female Prisoner Scorpion and Lady Snowblood film series present a similar challenge: at the end of the first film in each, Meiko Kaji’s protagonist has found her revenge, so how will the series continue? I suspected Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972) might be a sequel in name only, starring Kaji and her titular, vengeful protagonist in a new scenario, rather like the Outlaw films of the 60s. Instead, Jailhouse 41 picks up where the first film left off, with a brutal reminder that Scorpion’s vengeance is not complete: the prison warden yet lives.
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.
As I look to explore the cult and classic movies of Japanese cinema from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, I’m limited by what’s actually available in the West and guided by recommendations from other film fans and critics. Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972) was an early suggestion for this blog and one that I’m glad I sought out. The directorial debut of Shunya Itō, starring Meiko Kaji, Scorpion is a brutal exploitation film and a subversive example of the women in prison subgenre.