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.
Opening 2018 with another Akira Kurosawa classic seems like a good way to get started, so here’s Rashomon (1950). An inventive story that retells the same event from the point of view of multiple unreliable narrators, Akutagawa’s storytelling and Kurosawa’s interpretation echo through pop culture – with my personal favourite being the King of the Hill Episode, “A Fire Fighting We Will Go”. The film presents multiple layers of narratives within narratives as a wandering traveller happens upon two other men seeking shelter from the rain in the huge, cyclopean ruin of the titular Rashomon gate.
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?
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.
Akira Kurosawa is surely one of the most well-known Japanese filmmakers, and it was exploring some of his classic samurai films that prompted me to create this blog. I wanted to explore more of his work and that led me to Kagemusha (1980). While I hope to watch some of his films from other genres soon, Kagemusha is nevertheless interesting even though it’s another samurai epic. It marks the first Kurosawa film I’ve seen in colour – only his third overall, following Dodeskaden and the Soviet-Japanese production Dersu Uzala. Even though colour film seemed to arrive late in Japan, Kurosawa continued working in black and white well into the 1960s. Kagemusha is also striking to me for the absence of Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa’s longtime collaborator. The 1965 film Red Beard was their last work, but instead Kagemusha features Tastuya Nakadai as the lead – unrecognisable from his earlier appearances as villains in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sanjuro.
I was drawn to Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy, starting with Musashi Miyamoto (1954), for the simple fact that it’s shot in colour. Kurosawa’s masterful Seven Samurai came out in the same year but is, of course, in black and white – it wasn’t until 1970 that he would begin shooting in colour with the commercially disastrous Dodes’ka-den. Surprisingly, the first Japanese colour film only came out in 1951, with the first Japanese colour film to be released in the West, Gate of Hell, not made until 1953. I’m fascinated by that early use of colour. Carmen Comes Home used Fujicolor, but Gate of Hell and Musashi Miyamoto were made with Eastmancolor, a US technique. It’s extraordinary seeing the way colour changes the way the films are shot, and so much of what makes Musashi Miyamoto worth watching is the vivid colourscape – lush green scenery, vibrant clothes, colourful blossoms.
To the best of my knowledge, Kurosawa only made two sequels in his career. The first was a sequel to his debut movie Sanshiro Sugata. The second was Sanjuro (1962), a follow-up to Yojimbo. It wasn’t originally meant to be that way – Sanjuro was intended to be a straight adaptation of an existing novel, but the success of Yojimbo led to it being reworked, with lead character Sanjuro returning. It’s not unlike the many Die Hard sequels, each an existing treatment, reimagined with John McClane as the lead character (ironically, all except for the dismal Die Hard 5, the only movie actually written and intended to be a Die Hard movie from the beginning).
It’s back to Kurosawa for Yojimbo (1961). I was a little apprehensive after The Hidden Fortress, but any worries were misplaced: this is a samurai gangster action comedy masterpiece.
While recording our most recent podcast, I got into an argument with my co-host about Kurosawa’s films. He said they’re unwatchable, I said they were great. The Hidden Fortress (1958) is not great. Hidden Fortress really is almost unwatchable; a disjointed, overlong piece that seems far more old-fashioned than either the hyper-stylised Throne of Blood or the very modern Seven Samurai – I’m surprised it has high critical praise, but I’m not surprised it’s being compared to even older adventure movies like Gunga Din (1939) and Thief of Baghdad (1924).