Random Rewind: Lone Wolf and Cub Saga

Lone Wolf and Cub is a period samurai manga (Japanese comic) that was written by Kazuo Koike and illustrated by Goseki Kojima in 1970. Six films were made in Japan from 1972-1974 based on the manga.  In 1980 a movie using edited parts from the first two Lone Wolf and Cub films was released as Shogun Assassin for western audiences.  In this week’s column I’m going to talk about, give information and compare the originals with what initially got released here in the west.

Lone Wolf and Cub takes place in feudal Japan during to Tokugawa era.  Our protagonist, Ogami Itto, has the prestigious position as the Shogun’s executioner/ Shogun’s decapitator.  In this position Ogami Itto was a representation of the Shogun, wore the Shogun’s crest on his robes and enforced the wishes of the Shogun.  The shogun is the equivalent of a medieval king or a military dictator now.  One of the Shogun’s executioner main duties was to behead those samurais or lords put to death by the Shogun.  Those who were put to death would commit seppuku/hara-kiri, ritual suicide where one would disembowel themselves.  Ogami Itto as the Shogun’s executioner, acting as the Shogun, would skillfully decapitate those who had just committed seppuku to put them out of their misery. One day Itto takes his 1 year old son to a shrine on his estate to pray for the souls of those he has had to execute.  While at the shrine his wife, family and pretty much all of the Ogami clan is assassinated by ninjas.  He returns to find that his son, Daigoro, and he are all that is left of the Ogami clan.  Shortly after Yagyu Bizen, the Shogun’s inspector, arrives to inspect the occurrence at the house of Ogami and to also inform Ogami Itto that he has been accused of treason.  It doesn’t take long for Ogami Itto to figure out that he has been set up, that the evidence is fabricated and that the Yagyu clan is orchestrating all this to take over the position of the Shogun’s executioner.  The Yagyu clan, led by the conniving old head of the clan Yagyu Retsudo, was a one time rival of Ogami Itto for the position of the Shogun’s executioner.  Ogami Itto quickly cuts down Bizen and his subordinates and swears vengeance on all the Yagyu clan and Retsudo who put this all together.  Ogami Itto, set up and disgraced becomes a ronin, a wandering master less samurai, with his son in baby cart they become Lone Wolf and Cub.  Wandering Japan as assassins for hire, they take any assassination job at the price of 500 pieces of gold.   On their journeys they are met and are pursued by members of the Yagyu clan, take assassination jobs to fund their quest for revenge and leave a trail of blood as they travel the road between heaven and hell.  No longer men or samurai they wander the earth as demons.

Pretty heavy stuff.  This is the set up of the Lone Wolf and Cub manga that spans over 8000 pages until it reaches its final conclusion.  The comic has spawned movies, TV series and inspired other comics and films. Most notable of the comics and films that Lone Wolf and Cub inspired was The Road to Perdition.   I’m here to write about the movies so let’s get to it.

The first movie based on the comic is Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengance (1972).  In this movie we follow Ogami Itto and his son Daigoro as they wander Japan in search of work.  They are hired by a subject of a local lord who would like Ogami Itto to assassinate a group of thug assassins who are held up in a hot spring village and who plan to assassinate the local lord.  Ogami Itto takes the job as sets off for the village to deal with the thugs.  In this film the assassination job is more of a backdrop to the back story of Ogami Itto, which I summarized above, all told through several flashbacks.  In the flashbacks we see Ogami Itto as the Shogun’s executioner doing his job, we see the set up of his disgrace and best of all we see Ogami Itto cutting down several of the Yagyu clan.  Unlike many Hong Kong sword films where the fighting is carefully choreographed, filled with parries and flowery movements before the killing blow, Japanese samurai films are mostly based on one swipe, one kill.  The fights are carefully choreographed, especially when dealing with multiple opponents, but if you turn your head or blink you might miss a cut.  With every swipe of Ogami Itto’s sword you are rewarded with loss of limbs, beheadings and sprays of blood.  Eventually Ogami Itto encounters the thug assassins, the violence continues, he completes the job was paid to do and walks off.  This is a very good film that sets up the series and brings you to this era in Japan’s history.  The only slight flaws are the fact the movie doesn’t feel epic, but more episodic.  This is not much of a problem, but you don’t see any overall resolution to the feud between Ogami Itto and the Yagyu clan.  The assassination sub plot does get resolved as Ogami Itto completes the assassination job he was paid for, but Ogami Itto is a long way from getting his ultimate revenge on the Yagyu clan.  Also a lot of the details in the exposition are spoken rapidly and when reading subtitles there are times you have to stop, rewind and read again.  This can become a bit of a problem if you’re not familiar with the source material or Japanese culture in general, but it doesn’t stop the film, from being successful at setting up and telling up a good revenge story.

The second film is called Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972).    In this one we see Ogami Itto and son Daigoro roaming Japan while still being pursued by assassins from the Yagyu clan.  This time the Yagyu clan has released the Kurokawa ninjas, the Shogunate’s official spies, to follow, spy and subtlety mess with the Lone Wolf and Cub.  The Kurokawa ninjas are also sent out to get in contact with an all female sect of assassins from the Yagyu clan to assist them in tracking down and attempting to kill the Lone Wolf and Cub.  In their journeys Ogami Itto and Daigoro take an assassination job from a clan that primary income comes from making a specialized dye for cloth.  A former member of the clan has defected and plans to sell out the secrets of the dye to the Shogunate, financially ruining his former clan.  The Shogunate has hired three skilled bodyguards, The Hidari brothers, to escort the sell out.  The Hidari brothers are skilled deadly warriors each specializing in a certain weapon for combat.  Ogami Itto job is to dispatch the bodyguards and assassinate the sell out before he reaches his destination to reveal the secrets of his former clan.  The Lone Wolf and Cub have their hands full in this film.  On the one side they have a job to complete by dealing with these formidable bodyguard warriors, on the other side they are constantly dealing with attacks from the combined forces of the Kurokawa ninjas and Yagyu assassins.  The action, violence, body count and blood are all ramped way up in this film compared to the first film in the series.  You also get the feel that the Lone Wolf and Cub are in real danger this time around.  It’s not all violence and revenge this time, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx is more of a balanced film.  What balances out the violence in this story in particular is the cub, Daigoro.  He may randomly assist in a few killings, but in this film you get to see more of this child’s personality and realize that he is indeed a little boy curious about the world around him.  This little boy has seen so much violence and death in his young life, but still maintains the qualities of a well behaved samurai child.  There is once scene in particular where he wants to help his battle weary father that just melts your heart.  Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx is a great movie and even though it is still episodic it feels more like a complete film.  Only very minor flaw is that you do need to see the first film for the set up because this film just drops you into the action, but that is mostly par for the course with sequels or episodic films in general.  Both films in the series also have a great original soundtrack and theme song for the Lone wolf and Cub.

Now in 1980 an edited version of the first two films was made into one movie for western audiences called Shogun Assassin.  What was essentially  done was they took the back story origin of Lone Wolf and Cub from the first movie, edited it with most of the action sequences from the second film, all dubbed into English, with a new original soundtrack to make Shogun Assassin.    This movie is a bit of a martial arts/samurai classic film in the west if you saw it around the time it was initially released and introduced many to the Lone Wolf and Cub series.  The movie is obviously very much edited from its source material, the violence and blood is toned down compared to the originals.  The movie is still very violent and bloody especially for the early 80s, but definitely not as violent as the 1970s Japanese originals.  In hindsight, after seeing the originals, the main problem with Shogun Assassin is that they change the story up and the motivation of the antagonis, Yagyu Retsudo.  In the original plot of Lone Wolf and Cub (manga and movies) Yagyu Retsudo plots against Ogami Itto for his post as Shogun’s executioner so the Yagyu clan can take over the post once Ogami Itto is disposed of.  The Yagyu clan controls the assassins, they already have the Kurokawa ninja spies working with them all they need is Ogami’s position as the Shogun’s executioner to inevitably take control the Shogunate.  Ogami Itto ends up being a thorn in his side by not dying and it’s the reason why Retsudo uses everything in his power to eliminate the Lone Wolf and Cub.  In Shogun Assassin this is all lost.  Retsudo Yagyu is just referred to as the Shogun, which is totally incorrect, he is just bad for the sake of being bad and is made into a generic villain.   The entire treacherous motivation to take over the Shogunate is completely lost.  I still enjoy Shogun Assassin, more so for nostalgia reasons, it’s still entertaining but I’d stick with the original Japanese movies.  I’d give Shogun Assassin a watch again if you saw it back in the day, but if you’re a newcomer I’d say skip it and watch the original Lone Wolf and Cub movies and read the comics.
3 out of 5 stars for nostalgia reasons

To wrap it all up and to organize for anyone who is interested, I’ll list what is available, as far as movies are concerned, for the Lone Wolf and Cub series.

The Lone Wolf and Cub Box Set (6 DvDs): Contains all six movies that were released from 1972-1974 in original Japanese language with English subtitles.  Highly recommended

Shogun Assassin (DvD and Blu-Ray): Edited version of the first two films dubbed into English.  Recommended only if you liked it back in the day or if you’re a collector, newcomers stick with The Lone Wolf and Cub Box Set.  The Blu-Ray transfer is good by the way.

Shogun Assassin Box Set (5 DvDs): Basically it’s Shogun Assassin (edited version of the first two films dubbed into English), the four remaining films of the Lone Wolf and Cub series, edited and dubbed into English.  I have these but have yet to see the “Shogun Assassin” sequels.  It might be worth checking out for those of us who have seen all the originals to see how they’ve been dubbed into English and to see how they move the story in Shogun Assassin along.  Recommended for fans as a curiosity, again newcomers stick with The Lone Wolf and Cub Box Set.

All these are available at http://www.animeigo.com/

Unfortunately the movies never come to a final conclusion like the manga that is over 8000 pages long.  If you want to know how it all ends up the Lone Wolf and Cub comics, from Dark Horse Comics, is a must read.  Dark Horse Comics has translated the whole Lone Wolf and Cub series and is readily available.  Very highly recommended


Posted on December 19, 2010, in Random Rewind and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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