Criterion Project #31: LONE WOLF AND CUB – SWORD OF VENGEANCE (1972)

Author’s note: This article is appearing a day later than scheduled due to life circumstances. I could have posted something last night but I figured it would be best to take a moment to breathe and finish the post today. I fully intend to stick to Monday posts going forward.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance

Spine #N/A

Year: 1972

Director: Kenji Misumi

Lone Wolf and Cub (or LWAC, as I’ll be calling it the rest of the article) is one of the more recent additions to my Criterion library and one I’m not super familiar with. Before acquiring the set I had only seen one of the films, which just so happens to be the one I’m posting about today. By the time I watched LWAC: Sword of Vengeance I had seen many of the “greatest” samurai films – Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Harakiri, Sword of Doom, etc, so I had a blueprint in my head of what (I thought) samurai films look, feel, and sound like.

But like any piece of art, no two samurai movies are born alike. LWAC is an adaptation from a manga, a far cry from the Shakespearian roots of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. As you may have guessed from the title, the first film lays the groundwork for a revenge tale, and a bloody one at that.

Indeed, it’s a far bloodier affair than the samurai films I’m more familiar with, such as those mentioned above and others such as Kenji Mizoguchi’s The 47 Ronin. It’s essentially the origin story of a betrayed, disgraced former executioner to the shogunate, Ogami Itto (Tomisaburô Wakayama). A rival clan looking to steal the position of executioner away from the Ogami clan sets Itto up to appear to be a traitor. Unfortunately for them, they kill Itto’s wife in the process, leaving him alone to raise his son, Daigoro. In lieu of accepting a death sentence for his “traitorous” actions, Itto chooses to renounce his earthly presence and wander the country as an assassin for hire with Daigoro. Along the way he pledges his desire to get revenge on those responsible people for his wife’s murder.

We’re shown all of this backstory with a time-tested, classic narrative tool: a flashback. But this film plays with form a little bit here, many times excluding the background audio to enhance the surreal nature of what we’re watching. One of Itto’s flashbacks allows us to see the moments just prior to his wife’s murder, where she details troubling nightmares she’s been having as a result of his actions as executioner. The scene is set against a torrential downpour, but the rain isn’t heard. There isn’t even a faint sound of rain, it’s completely and purposefully muted. It let’s us know this isn’t an omnipotent perspective, this is from Itto’s memory and I think it’s a nice flourish.

Something else that stuck out to me about LWAC was the exploitive element, which was jarring at first. Again, prior to seeing this film I was more in-line with classical samurai depictions. They’re typically bloodless affairs with a romantic element thrown in for dramatic effect. This film, however, features no shortage of women’s naked bodies and kung-fu levels of blood spray, which certainly heightens the intensity of the narrative if even only on a superficial level. This film is less about romanticizing the myth of the noble samurai and more about the raging determination of a vengeful swordsman.

Which places this film within a common framework – the Western. The quiet gunman with an ax to grind is probably the most well-worn trope of the genre with stories that are often interchangeable with samurai tales. It’s no secret that Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars is nearly an exact replica of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, but by the time LWAC came about there had been a bevy of imitators to riff from. Parallels to Sergio Corbucci’s Django come to mind, for instance, with the wandering assassin similarly toting around precious (and deadly) cargo from place to place. And much like the spaghetti Westerns, we’re dumped into a lawless land where treachery and deceit are more common than nobility and honor.

If you know me at all, then you know I’m on-board with this cinematic milieu. It’s my jam. The quiet storm of a vengeful warrior biding time until the moment arises when the breadth of their rage can be unveiled is a classically entertaining, albeit well-worn, narrative. There’s something about the brooding, deadly anti-hero positioned as a ticking time-bomb waiting to unleash hell that appeals to me. Maybe it’s a bullying thing? Itto and his baby cart endure a myriad of disrespect at the hands of disreputable creatures created solely to horrifically perish at the edge of his blade. Naturally, the film builds to a crescendo of action as Itto takes on a bevy of hired killers with buckets of arterial spray on hand to punctuate the carnage. These climaxes are so cathartic, which is surely the raison d’être of the sub-genre. It also squarely places samurai films next to another genre that exists for bloodshed: horror.

Add it all up and we get a satisfying opening chapter of a samurai saga that I can’t wait to dig through. I haven’t read much pertaining to the direction the series takes in subsequent films so I’m ready to be surprised and enthralled in the ongoing tale of Lone Wolf and Cub. More samurai mayhem!

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