Japanese Manga is notoriously long-running. One Piece, for instance, one of the most popular Manga series of all time has a total of 85 volumes that have been published since its debut in 1997. The story of a Manga must be equally as long, with multiple smaller arcs in the greater narrative. Such is the case with our subject today; Lone Wolf and Cub, is a Manga series written by Kazuo Koike and illustrated by Goseki Kojima, running for 28 volumes over 6 years. It became a smash hit with tv and video game adaptations as well as a series of critically acclaimed films made by Toho from 1972 to 1976, and is now being released on Blu Ray by the Criterion Collection.
With seven films in this collection, that's right seven, I am not going to be able to go into great detail on each of them. However, I will be able to comment more generally on the visual style, performance and sound design of a unique samurai series.
Through the six original films Sword of Vengeance, Baby Cart at the River Styx, Baby Cart at Hades, Baby Cart in Peril, Baby Cart in the Land of Demons, White Heaven in Hell and the English re-edit Shogun Assassin, there runs a highly engaging story of a father and son. Itto Ogami, is a swordsman of some renown during the Tokugawa shogunate. He is also the executioner, a man tasked with helping the shogun's enemies commit seppuku (ritualised suicide). However, when the evil Yagyu clan frames him for treason, he and his son Daigoro become assassins to avenge the death of Daigoro's mother and destroy the Yagyu clan headed by the diabolical Retsudo Yagyu.
The main thing to note about this series is that it is steeped in duality. Lone Wolf and Cub is a series soaked in bright red blood, the bushido code and revenge. But it is also a tale of a father and son and their relationship. The lead actors Tomisaburo Wakayama as Itto and Akihiro Tomikawa as Daigoro do an amazing job carrying both sides of the story. Akihiro especially conveys so much for a small child actor; it is a miracle. But it is clear that there is love between the father and son, which goes somewhat to excuse and endear the silent, brooding and violent Itto to audiences.
This duality seeps into the pace of the films, with long sections of quiet, peaceful shots of travelling through tranquil Japanese countryside, then suddenly switching to Sergio Leone style showdowns, extended sequences of closeups followed by brutal exchanges of violence, and geysers of blood. The various directors, especially Kenji Misumi, who set the style of the series, understand the core of the film, that being a father-son relationship, and can plot out these fantastic stories that explore a unique relationship in a violent time in Japanese history.
Lone Wolf and Cub is a masterful ballet of blood and emotion; I enjoyed every single film for its quiet, restrained, reflective moments and the excess of gore, violence and sex. It is a series that I enjoyed thoroughly and I insist that you seek it out for yourself as it that deserves attention.
Criterion is a company known for distributing quality films on quality discs, and the same high quality that they bring to their other releases applies here.
There are no digital issues with the film transfer, audibly or visually. Menus are laid out in typical easy to navigate fashion and the subtitles are clear.
The 2K presentation makes the film sing, and the uncompressed monaural soundtrack suits a movie full of silences and fury.
Again this is a Criterion release, so you know that the disc will be good, even if the film is not to your taste.
The disc is absolutely packed full of bonus features, including the previously mentioned Shogun Assassin, an English language re-edit of the first two Lone Wolf and Cub films. While it can be evaluated in the same way as the other films, it also supplies an interesting comparison between national film sensibilities based on what Shogun Assassin chose to focus on. Here the film focuses more on the violence and the assassins rather than the relationship between father and son which was at the core of the Lone Wolf and Cub franchise.
Also included in the collection is an interview with the original writer of the Manga, Kazuo Koike, who explains the process in creating the original Manga and the film series.
Alongside that interview the film also contains interviews with Sui-ryo master, Sensei Yoshimitsu Katsuse, who goes further to explain martial arts’ relationship to art and the fundamentals of Ogami Itto's style of fighting.
There is also a conversation with Kenji Misumi's biographer, Kazuma Nozawa, who supplies a great deal of information about the filmmaker and his unique visual style.
Finally, the collection also includes two documentaries. The first a silent 1930 film, exploring the art in making samurai swords with a fantastic score provided by Ryan Francis. The second is L'ame d'un Pere, l'ame d'un Sabre (Soul of the Father, Soul of the Sword) a documentary produced in 2005 that deals with the production of Lone Wolf and Cub.
All of these go into incredible detail about the making of the film series, as well as an introduction to the philosophy behind the main characters. All in all, it provides lots of entertainment after the original movies, as well as extra perspective on a selection of films that I found remarkably entertaining.
The Criterion Collection has produced a collection of films that every film lover needs. Lone Wolf and Cub is a series of movies that has a wonderful visual style, a great central cast and it takes the time to explore a unique period in history. The extras that Criterion have included enrich the experience of the film and make it well worth the price.
The Lone Wolf and Cub franchise is a that is a joy to watch from start to finish, which is saying something, and the extras on this fine disc from Criterion make it a collection that needs to be owned.