Lone Wolf and Cub: Ultimate Collection (1972 - 1980)
By: Stuart Giesel on November 7, 2013 | Comments
Eastern Eye | Region 4, PAL | 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced) | Japanese DD 2.0 | 566 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Kenji Misumi, Takeichi Saito, Yoshiyuki Kuroda
Starring: Tomisaburo Wakayama, Fumio Watanabe, Tomoko Mayama, Shigeru Tsuyuguchi, Tomoo Uchida
Screenplay: Kazuo Koike
Country: Japan
Based on the long-running (28 volume) manga series written by Kazuo Koike and illustrated by Goseki Kojima, Toho Studios produced six live action films between 1972 and 1974 starring Tomisaburo Wakayama as former Shogunate head executioner turned assassin-for-hire Ogami Itto. The films were notorious for their high level of extreme bloodletting. Despite their reputation however, the films contained a good dose of dialogue, political intrigue and plotting, meaning they weren't simply cartoonish hack-and-slash samurai films with no substance. Madman's Eastern Eye label has released a seven-disc DVD collection containing all six Lone Wolf and Cub films in anamorphic widescreen with their original Japanese soundtracks, along with the Westernised release Shogun Assassin, which recut and dubbed bits from the first two films to make them palatable to people who normally shunned subtitled films.

The manga is admittedly superior to the six films, but that's probably because 28 massive volumes of print can provide a breadth of detail that the movies can't hope to match. But, of course, the films outmatch the manga in terms of grotesque, lurid bloodletting. These aren't epic Akira Kurosawa samurai films in the vein of Seven Samurai, Ran or Kagemusha, they're unashamedly bloody and pulpy, despite their literary origins. Madman have to be commended for releasing such a superb collection, a must-buy for all Lone Wolf or samurai film fans, or anyone who appreciates Japanese cinema, really.

So, here's a breakdown and quick review of each of the seven films in the set.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972)

The first film in the classic series is one of the best. The Shogunate's head executioner Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is framed for treason by the treacherous Yagyu clan, forcing him to flee with his infant son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) after the murder of his wife. Despite looking like he's staggered out of a bar at three in the morning, Itto is quite the adept swordsman, so he travels the land with his son in a pushcart - a perambulator, really - and hires out his services as an assassin to make ends meet - basically, he'll kill anyone (or any number of people), anywhere for 500 pieces of gold. He's hired to kill a Chamberlain and his men at a bathhouse, setting the scene for a bloody climax.

Bright red blood abounds. No, it doesn't just abound - it sprays like water from a fire hydrant, splashes the walls and covers floors as people are dispatched by Itto's ruthless blade. Sword of Vengeance takes the famous final fight from Akira Kurosawa's Sanjuro and amplifies it tenfold in bright, glorious technicolour. If you want a realistic samurai movie, look elsewhere. But if you want a damn entertaining samurai flick with copious bloodshed, you'd be hard pressed to do better. There are annoyances, chiefly the head of the Yagyu clan, Retsudo, who has the slowest, most maddening line delivery imaginable, and his ridiculous pasted-on beard and hair cause the character to come across as foolish rather than menacing. Sound effects suddenly drift away whenever dialogue comes into play - it's raining heavily and we get the sound of falling rain, but it quickly fades to silence, even though we can clearly see the rain carry on for a good few minutes. There's also some unintentional humour: a song some kids are singing comes with the lyrics "if you shit a rocky turd...it'll be all covered with sand". But for the most part this is a really satisfying and bloody samurai film that, if anything, just gets stronger as it goes along - the last third that takes place in the bathhouse is a fine and memorable finale. Wakayama is from the Clint Eastwood school of "action rather than words" variety, and his chemistry with Tomikawa as Daigoro is the heart of the film. It probably ties with its sequel, Baby Cart at the River Styx, and the fifth film, Baby Cart in the Land of Demons, as the best in the series.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972)

Ogami Itto and Daigoro are still hounded by the Yagyu, as explained in a bloody pre-credits fight, despite Itto winning a duel against them and apparently gaining his freedom in the process. As it turns out, the Akashi Yagyu Clanswomen are hired to hunt down and kill Itto. Itto himself is hired to kill a clan traitor, and has to face three imposing killers, the "Three Gods of Death", along the way to a desert-bound showdown.

This is easily the goriest film of the six, yet for some reason only the first in the series, Sword of Vengeance, apparently warrants an R rating in this box set (if you discount Shogun Assassin). Presumably it's Vengeance's sexual content that took it over the line from MA to R, though it has to be said that the third Lone Wolf film has its fair share of nudity and sex. I tell you what, though, if Baby Cart at the River Styx warrants an MA for violence, then the rest of the films in the series certainly do as well. The fights are spectacularly bloody and gruesome in this film: there's an early fight in the Clanswomen's lair where ears, fingers and a nose is liberally sliced off a guy like we've suddenly entered the Cenobite's domain. Even by today's standards, let alone a 70's film, the bloodletting is pretty mental - there are a couple of scenes where the arterial spray literally showers the camera. The film's a good deal sillier too: there's a really out-of-place psychadelic trip-out complete with crazy camera zooms; a female assassin jumps out of her traditional clothing to show that she's wearing form-fitting lycra before running away backwards (?); would-be assassins hide in the sand in the desert - presumably for hours on end - even though it provides them no advantage; there's even a scene where Itto has to deal with lethal flying carrots! Daigoro's cart has even more tricks and traps than before, and the damn thing floats, too. The cinematography is very good, with some memorable shots including one of a straw hat rolling down the windswept dunes. Even though this sequel is far more action-packed than the original, it's less affecting than the original simply because the plot isn't quite as tight this time around, and the tone is a lot more serious even compared with Sword of Vengeance. Still, the bond between father and son, who have accepted a "life of evil" as demons, remains strong, and there are some nice, quiet moments between the scenes of blood and gore to show us that their bond is, if anything, strengthening the more they head down that proverbial dark path. What little characterisation Sword of Vengeance had is jettisoned here in favour of spraying blood and severed body parts - not a bad tradeoff, mind you, but just know that Baby Cart at the River Styx is to Sword of Vengeance what Aliens is to Alien.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (1972)

The third Lone Wolf film, Baby Cart to Hades, is probably the weakest in the series. The biggest culprit here is the uneven mix of storylines. There's a bit around the rivalry between Ogami Itto and samurai-for-hire Kanbei, and how Itto has come into the good graces of a clan of "adult entertainers" because he defended the honour of one of their prostitutes who killed a client (she bites off a bit of his tongue, from which he quickly dies - he must have been a haemophiliac). And then Itto is hired to kill an evil chamberlain, and ironically winds up being hired by the chamberlain himself to kill his rival who just hired him. Of course, Itto doesn't take sides - he simply has to honour the first contract he took - which leads to the chamberlain hiring a bunch of goons to take out Itto, resulting in a massive, explosive finale.

Baby Cart to Hades feels much more exploitative than the other films in the series, probably due to the abundance of female nudity and an unsettling rape at the start of the film that sets a grubby, mean-spirited tone. It also feels less focused than the first two films, probably due to a more meandering storyline that is more setup than payoff. Still, there are the prerequisite bloody swordfights which never fail to entertain. There's one scene where a guy wants to hire Itto because of his reputation. Itto refuses, so the guy wants his two men to kill Itto because Itto knows too much. Helloooo? You just hired the best assassin there is, then act shocked when your two idiot bodyguards fail to kill this man with the amazing reputation for killing anyone and everyone. Buddy, you're a fucking idiot. Things get silly when we come to the final fight, where we learn that Itto has pimped out the perambulator even more than he did in the second film - seriously, now we get metal shields and a set of machine guns installed into the goddamn thing. Though it has its moments, Baby Cart to Hades is a significant step down in quality from the first two films, and there's not even enough mindless gore to distract from the silly goings-on - it's probably the most bloodless of the series. It's not terrible, just a disappointment compared with the other films.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (1972)

Baby Cart in Peril is not only the fourth Lone Wolf film, but also the fourth film in the series to be released in the same fucking year. Did they film all of these movies at once or churn them out on an assembly line? Mighty impressive. And thankfully, this entry is a step up from the directionless third film. Baby Cart in Peril - the literal Japanese translation appears in the credits as "Heart of the Parent, Heart of the Child" - is remembered if for nothing else as the one that has the topless tattooed assassin Oyuki running around killing people. After a gruesome opening, the story follows Daigoro's brief separation from his father; he winds up in the hands of Itto's old rival for the post of Official Executioner, Yagyu Gunbei. Itto is eventually hired to kill Oyuki, but it seems like he might have a change of heart when he learns about Oyuki's background. This fourth film sees the reappearance of Yagyu chief Retsudo, whom we first saw speaking incredibly slowly in the first film. This time he's played by a much fatter actor, which is initially amusing, but then a fortunate turn of events considering this actor can actually talk without emphasising every goddamn word.

Unfortunately, more silliness abounds. One of Retsudo's men uses a mask to emulate Gunbei, which turns out to be absolutely flawless - seriously, this is better work than the masks Tom Cruise uses in Mission: Impossible, and we're supposed to believe that in feudal Japan, a clay mask somehow produces better results than what many of the best makeup effects people in Hollywood today could pull off. Gunbei also wields a flamethrower-type sword - God knows where he gets the fuel from. Still, if you ignore the dumb bits, you can enjoy the film for its action which, like part two, consists mostly of episodic events where Itto staves off would-be assassins with gory aplomb. Oyuki proves to be the most memorable new character, not only because she gets her rack out to distract her opponents, but because she's an interesting and well-developed character, whom we want to see win against all odds.

The director of this film was not Kenji Misumi, who directed the first three films, but rather Buichi Saito, who does a commendable job in retaining the look and feel of the Lone Wolf series. There are a lot of flashbacks in this one, including how Oyuki became an assassin, and more about why Retsudo framed Itto for treason. Whilst the usual bloody mechanics are at play, a low point is where a narrator comes in at about the one-third mark - what the hell is a narrator doing in a Lone Wolf film when we haven't had one in any of the previous films? As is typical with the use of narrators in film (other than some exceptions such as Goodfellas and Casino), this narrator adds nothing to the story. Thankfully the narrator buggers off soon after. The typical sequel tendency to "go big" with an explosive, many-baddie battle in the finale ultimately becomes pretty ridiculous, and also less impactful than Itto slicing his way through two or three really skilled opponents. There's also a convenient "main bad guy gets away even though he's shitter than everyone else good guy has killed so far" scene which dilutes some of the thrills. Nonetheless, this is a solid entry in the bloodthirsty samurai series.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973)

The fifth film, Baby Cart in the Land of Demons, has Itto being recruited by the Kuroda clan to obtain an important document before it reaches the hands of Yagyu head Retsudo, but before he can do this he has to kill five Kuroda clan warriors to prove he's man enough for the job, with each warrior providing information about the next challenge ahead of him. Lucky Itto's able to beat each of the five just enough so that they can keep talking as they are dying; God forbid he cuts their heads off or something like that. Meanwhile, Daigoro gets caught up in a pickpocketing scheme and is mistaken for a gang member.

You'd think by now that the fifth film in any series would threaten to become overly stale, repeating the same formula time and time again to diminishing returns. However Land of Demons proves to be one of the strongest Lone Wolf episodes, perhaps because original director Kenji Misumi has returned to the chair with renewed vigour. There's a memorable river assassination scene, culminating in Itto fighting off a horde of fighters in his undergarments (raawwwr!), and although the following battle is complete with the prerequisite "one baddie attacks at a time" choreography despite their clearly greater numbers, it's a thrilling set-piece. There are plenty of other bloody fights, including the five Kuroda challengers, of course, and it all culminates in a fabulously gory showdown with plenty of spraying bright red blood, severed heads and ridiculously overwrought deaths. Daigoro's subplot may not add much to the proceedings, but it's certainly nice to hear him speak, even if it's only one word ("nope!"). The story here mainly concerns Daigoro's stubbornness, how he refuses to give up one of the gang members to the authorities despite the punishment he will almost certainly receive if he doesn't talk, and it nicely mirrors his father's continual struggle between maintaining honour versus doing what is painless and easy. So if you want more political intrigue and astonishingly bloody swordfights, you can't do much better than this excellent chapter in the Lone Wolf saga.

Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (1974)

The series ends with the sixth film, White Heaven in Hell, a film which has a significant departure in tone, but one that's almost always entertaining despite its weird elements. Embarrassed by his former executioner having gone rampant as an assassin-for-hire, and sick of the Yagyu's inability to stop him, the Shogun has sanctioned an official manhunt on Ogami Itto. That dickhead loser Retsudo has lost all his sons to Itto's blade, so being the brilliant mastermind he is, he enlists his dagger-wielding daughter Kaori to kill Itto before the Shogun declares Itto as a wanted criminal, destroying the Yagyu's reputation. Retsudo also enlists the help of Hyoei, his bastard offspring, as well as Hyoei's mountain-dwelling warriors. Hyoei wants to kill Itto, but not because of his father - he wants to oust Retsudo and take over the Yagyus as chief himself. And that's about it as far as plot goes.

This feels like the least Lone Wolf-ish film in the series - the tone is slightly skewed towards the supernatural, which makes it more atmospheric, but at times it strays a long way from the bloody samurai setting we know and love. There are no assassinations for Itto to undertake, and the wintery vistas set this film apart from the others, giving White Heaven in Hell a distinctive visual style. The funky score accompanying the opening scene is wildly out of place, sounding more like it belongs in a 70's blaxploitation film than a Lone Wolf movie. Where's the usual Lone Wolf theme? It's like if the opening crawl to a Star Wars film replaced John Williams' iconic theme with a riff from Superfly. This is also the silliest film in the series, and the supernatural elements feel mostly unnecessary. We have a clan of mountain-dwelling sort-of-ghost people who can move through dirt and brick to dispatch their enemies, and three men are buried for forty-two days as part of some ceremony, making them both alive and dead at the same time. Apparently this makes them brilliant warriors, but of course we know the outcome when it comes time for them to face down Ogami Itto. There's an absolutely crazy bit where what I can only assume is a rocket made out of fireworks that explodes a female pedestrian - it turns out that Hyoei's mountain goons are knocking off anyone who comes into contact with Itto, presumably to make him want to kill himself or become a hermit.

And it's unfortunate to say that the final Lone Wolf and Cub film proves to be an anticlimactic ending to the series, in that it doesn't truly cap off the series in fitting style. Presumably the makers were intent on adding at least one more film to the series beyond this one - sadly that never came to be for some reason. We get another overblown finale that feels more like a James Bond film than a Lone Wolf film - Itto was always better when he was facing a single or a few opponents at a time, not countless faceless goons like he's John Rambo. Perhaps it was because of director Yoshiyuki Kuroda's influence, but this only sporadically feels like a legitimate Lone Wolf and Cub film - and Itto and Daigoro aren't even in the film that much! That being said, the film's consistently entertaining, and Wakayama fits the role like an old suit by this stage, so much so that you get the feeling that he and Tomikawa could have done another ten Lone Wolf films after this one and still kept the magic going. It's not quite the ending Lone Wolf and Cub deserved, but it's by no means a failure. By the way, the traditional name of the film as it appears in the credits is actually "Daigoro! We're off to Hell!" - wonderful.

Shogun Assassin (1980)

As a nice addition to this box set, Madman has also packaged the Western-ised release Shogun Assassin. Writer/producers Robert Houston and David Weisman took footage from the first two films - it feels like about ten or fifteen minutes from Sword of Vengeance, and the rest from River Styx - and dubbed the footage into English to make the series palatable to Western audiences in 1980. If nothing else it's interesting to watch this version and compare it to the two complete and uncut Japanese films in the series. It's sad to say that the story is greatly dumbed down: Itto's not the Shogun's executioner in this, but the "decapitator" just in case we're soft in the head. Footage is recut and reused to serve an altered story: Retsudo of the Yagyu clan now becomes the evil shogun who has become paranoid and delusional, and wants Itto dead. The question is, why dumb it down? The original films weren't exactly hard to follow - the detail could have been diluted and you'd still have the same straightforward tale of a man and his son treading the path of demons after being framed for treason by the Yagyu Clan. This version makes it sound like the Shogun went mad, killed Itto's wife and now Itto is out to seek vengeance against the Shogun by killing his brother (who was actually the clan traitor in River Styx).

Because a lot of the original films' detail and nuance has been excised, leaving just a cavalcade of gory footage, this was associated with the notorious UK "video nasties" of the era, despite the fact it never ended up on that notorious list. Much of the original story and dialogue has been replaced by a voiceover purporting to be Daigoro's. This voiceover is actually a smart move on the producers' behalf, and actually works to the film's advantage, meaning that exposition is provided without the fuss of having to sync English words to Japanese actors. This also means that most of the characters appear on screen with nothing to say at all - Wakayama didn't have the longest monologues in the world, but in Shogun Assassin he's practically silent. However this does improve the film's pacing, and in some instances adds some very dry humour to the bloody proceedings - just check out the scene where Daigoro counts of the number of people his father has killed, in absolute deadpan style. It helps that the dub isn't as excruciating as most of the tiresome English dubs coming out of that period. The synth-heavy score is good but sounds a little out of place if you happen to be watching this after any of the original films. And, admittedly, the editing is pretty good, blending footage from Sword of Vengeance and River Styx quite well. Interestingly, some of the more extreme gore shots taken from the two original films - such as the scene in the Akashi Yagyu Clanswomen lair where a goon gets bits sliced off of him - appear to have had a few frames snipped here and there to tone down the outlandish violence. But by streamlining the narrative and keeping most of the fights and gore, you can see why censors back in the day got all worked up about Shogun Assassin.

When put alongside the six 'proper' films in the Lone Wolf and Cub series, Shogun Assassin can only be seen as a curiosity. However, if you'd never seen any of the films before you'd find a lot to love in this Westernised version, and it's a worthy addition to the Madman box set.
The Disc
Picture quality doesn't really vary from film to film - decent, functional, if hardly eyepopping - these are pretty old, low budget samurai films, after all, but the cinematography was occasionally quite striking. We at least get the films in anamorphic widescreen, and although the picture tends to err on the soft side, the use of occasionally eye-popping colour (particularly bright blood-red, of course) jumps out at you. All six films are presented with their original Japanese soundtracks, and the mono presentation tends to veer from perfunctory and a little flat in the quieter moments, to overbearing in the more chaotic scenes. Overall, sound is generally satisfactory - Shogun Assassin's audio track is English dubbed, of course. Subtitles are particularly worthy of mention: not only are the translations clear, but explanations of particular terms (e.g. "daimyo", "watari-kashi", etc) appear throughout to provide context when it's needed. English subtitles are optional.

The extras across the seven discs come in the form of stills galleries, feature liner notes, and trailers for the Lone Wolf and Cub films and other Eastern Eye releases.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
The Lone Wolf and Cub Ultimate Collection is a must for anyone who loves samurai films, tons of bloodletting or quality Japanese films in general. The six original Lone Wolf films are presented here uncut, with good picture and sound quality, along with the dubbed and recut Shogun Assassin, itself an enjoyable yarn. Though the series never got a proper send-off, the journey of Ogami Itto and his son Daigoro through the gates of hell provide many memorable and blood-soaked adventures in feudal Japan. This is a highly recommended box set for (almost) anyone's collection.
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