Thursday, December 25, 2014

Lone Wolf and Cub Series Roundup

By Crankenstein and Goat Scrote.

     Lone Wolf and Cub, "the greatest team in the history of mass slaughter", slice and dice through bamboo and bone with a razor-sharp Dotanuki sword. They have chosen to wander the earth as demons, sworn to kill for a price. Ogami Itto carries his 3-year-old son Daigoro in a weaponized baby carriage forging a legendary trail of butchery and existentialism.
     There are six incredibly bloody movies in the “Lone Wolf and Cub” series, aka the “Baby Cart” series, aka Kozure Ōkami (“Wolf With Child in Tow”). In the Deep Red catalog they were available separately under various confusing titles like “Lightning Swords of Death” (which is a dubbed edited version of Part 3).
    The films are based on the manga of the same name(s) written by Kazuo Koike with outstanding art by Goseki Kojima. The manga author wrote most of the movies as well and gets story credit on all of them, with Tsutomu Nakamura co-writing on the final two films. There are other movies based on the manga and even a couple of TV shows.

     Director Kenji Misumi helmed four of the films and also directed both the “Zatoichi” and more demented “Hanzo the Razor” series. Buichi Saito steps in to direct the fourth film, and Yoshiyuki Kuroda the sixth. Eiichi Kusumoto is responsible for the fight choreography for the series. The stoic Ogami Itto is played by Tomisaburo Wakayama and his son Daigoro by Akihiro Tomikawa. Daigoro's gestures and confused look never come off like an annoying "child actor", he's very natural and does an incredible job. Yagyū Retsudo, the Lone Wolf’s mortal enemy, is portrayed by various actors throughout the series.
Wait, I thought you said no real weapons
around kids, where's my agent!

     The six “Lone Wolf and Cub” (LWC) films were compressed into the five-movie “Shogun Assassin” series, all awfully dubbed with ridiculous swishing blade noises added in! In the 80s and 90s in the US you could only find the dubbed truncated abomination “Shogun Assassin”, which is 12 minutes of the first movie and about half of the second movie squished together into a new story. The movie still managed to attain cult status and go on to be showcased in “Kill Bill 2” (2004). These movies are that good. You can butcher them like one of the Lone Wolf’s victims, and they will still keep kicking your mind right in the face like armless ninjas.

It's only some minor edits, we'll be up kicking ass again in no time.

    In the overviews of each of the movies, we've tried to leave major plot points unspoiled as much as possible. Body count numbers are courtesy of allouttabubblegum. Every one of these movies is exceptionally bloody and there are severed limbs by the bushelful. All six movies are highly recommended, and the 2nd and 4th movies are our favorites of the series.

     Crank Comments: I reviewed parts 1, 2, and 3. I avoided “Shogun Assassin” like the plague. LWC 1 and 2 were not only beheaded for grindhouse audiences to easily digest but neutered and appallingly dubbed by some cringeworthy talent (like Sandra Bernhard and Lamont Johnson). I do have fond memories of seeing the poster in various early 80's video stores, moving toward the horror section to rent "Zombie" for the 20th time. I’m not opposed to bad dubbing, but it feels wrong to me that this particular piece of chopsocky re-edited bullshit is so widely acclaimed even though it’s actually robbing us of so much of the original movies! I admit I have the rottencotton “Shogun Assassin” t-shirt, because it’s the only availably merch connected to one of my favorite Japanese series. I can watch the Baby Cart movies repeatedly, they never get old to me!

     Goat Notes: A series of six samurai movies churned out in the space of 2 years, featuring a pre-kindergarten child actor? I used to walk past the LWC series back in the VHS age, browsing for martial arts movies, and turn up my nose. I envisioned a cheap, sanitized Kurosawa knockoff aimed at little kids. I never suspected what I was overlooking. I watched all six and reviewed #4 - #6. These movies are not at all what I expected, they are some of the most blood-soaked films I've ever seen. Every one of them is beautiful, ultra-violent, and viciously entertaining!

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972)
     Kozure Ōkami: Kowokashi udekashi tsukamatsuru
     “Wolf with Child in Tow: Child and Expertise for Rent”
Gore Score: 10/10
Body Count: 62

Retsudo Yagyu, professional meanie.
It sure doesn't look like gold.
     “LWC: Sword of Vengeance” is the first in the series. I decided to review each sequel individually since I'm obviously not a fan of the mixtape version of the “Baby Cart” films. In the Deep Red catalog, the first film easily gets a 10 out of 10 on the gore score and according to Chas "will make you howl with unabashed glee". This film doles out geysers of crimson splatter. Arteries spray like garden hoses. That samurai sword is sharp, and limbs get separated and bounced off the walls. The erratic but tranquil score by Hideaki Sakurai really sets the tone effectively. “Sword of Vengeance” is just a superior film on all levels.

Somebody get me a band-aid,
I got a thousand ouchies!
     Ogami Itto is the Shogun’s Decapitator. His job is to assist a person who's committing seppuku (ritual suicide by self-disembowelment), one of the most honorable deaths in Japanese culture. He is framed by Yagyu Retsudo of the Shadow clan as part of a bid to seize more power. Itto’s wife and the rest of the Ogami household are slain, except for his son, and Itto is accused of plotting to kill the Shogun. They show how corrupt the authority he works for is, so that we can admire his conviction to quit and walk the barren lands in the form of a demon ronin, slaying any target for the price of 500 gold pieces. 

Tough love.
Choose death!
     Enemy clans make things difficult for father and son, who travel wheeling a stroller armed with an array of secret deadly weapons. The narrative swings back and forth like a pendulum as we find that the killer who decapitates a child in the opening scene has a conscience after all. There is a lot of honor and symbolism in the cultural mythology of this film and kind gestures are not overlooked. There's a brilliant scene at a sauna riddled with the most hideous scumbag rapists and criminals where Ogami Itto takes a situation of shame and turns it into glorious beauty.

     There's another brilliant scene with a bouncy ball and a sword stuck in the floor, where Daigoro is required to choose his destiny: An immediate merciful death at the hands of his father; Or to “live at the crossroads of Hell” and leave piles of mutilated corpses in his wake. We know Daigoro chooses the sword, otherwise he would be in the afterlife with his slain mother.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972)
     Kozure Ōkami: Sanzu no kawa no ubaguruma
     “Wolf with Child in Tow: Baby Cart of the River of Sanzu”
Body Count: 37
Gore Score 10/10

     During the second film we're waist-deep in the blood trail left by Ogami and son. A new foe, Sayaka, and her band of face-shredding Shadow clanswomen find out Itto beheaded one of their allies (in the first film) and they want vengeance. They show their prowess to a foolish ninja by whittling him down into doggy bag sized chunks.

Oh crap, I'm pissing blood!
     This sequel gets intense fast as father and son battle female assassins at every turn. Little Daigoro almost gets his tiny head ripped off by a frisbee straw hat containing razorblades. Sayaka does an amazing trick and nearly stabs Itto in the throat. He almost has her until she pops out of outfit like a Holly Hobby doll and disappears backwards into the brush.

The Citizen Kane of wall paper decoratives
     To impress a group of samurai, Itto sails that famed sword of his across the room to instantly kill a silent hidden intruder. This is one of my favorite moments in cinema history!

     Smiling women pull knives out of big Daikon radishes to stab at the baby cart, narrowly missing the kid's neck! Even though the bodycount is the lowest in the series, there is tons of grisly violence. There's an incredible showdown at the finale. The stern killer poses in the sand dunes and awaits the arrival of his enemies, three brothers known as The Gods of Death armed with iron claws, flying clubs, and chainmail fists.

     Does Ogami even slightly flinch or sweat a drop? FUCK NO!

     The last "death god" gets very poetic about his neck wound before his jugular bursts and red poster paint soaks the dirt. This film sets the pattern for father and son to travel down the road at the end, to journey to the next adventure.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (1972)
     Kozure Ōkami: Shinikazeni mukau ubaguruma
     “Wolf with Child in Tow: Baby Cart Against the Winds of Death”
     aka “Shogun Assassin 2: Lightning Swords of Death”
Body Count: 72
Gore Score 10/10
     Unlike most sequels, these were shot during a short time period, so the characters haven't aged much even though we're three movies in. This film has a great crooning theme song at the end with lyrics, one of my favorites of the series.
Trepanation gone disastrously wrong.
Itto loves disco.

     “Hades” starts off on the river with the Yagyu clan lurking, waiting to strike again. A new group of lazy perverted samurai (known as Watari Kashi) show up and attack a woman with blacked-out teeth, but are soon set straight by Kanbei, a samurai who earns Ogami's respect. He faces Ogami in the forest and demands a fight. Before they go to war, Ogami mentions that he and his son live as demons prepared to venture to the netherworld and this inspires Kanbei, the insecure warlord.
     In one scene a prostitute bites off the tongue of her pimp, and he dies from the wound almost instantly! 
Some goons known as the Boohatchimono show up to collect the murderous prostitute, but Ogami and son find a kinship with her. The Boohatchimono are outcasts with no shame or justice, so they may be worse then the Yagyus. Speaking of the Yagyus, they show up later in droves during an epic horse battle between one man and child armed with a machine-gun baby stroller!
     Ogami faces an endurance test, spun around upside down in a basket while being drowned and beaten by the group of outcasts. He does this to make that prostitute he protected, feel something of value, this is clearly his style, to let himself be tortured to save a woman's integrity.
     This time, unlike in Sword of Vengeance, it doesn't work to his benefit, in fact the water torture scene was more of a temporary setback, than what comes later. This bit of unnecessary humiliation leads to a job and a new target for him to slay. The moments with Diagoro communicating with nature are some of the best scenes. 
     The actor that plays the long haired gunman with rat-like features plays an entirely different character in the first film. The pacing is a little slow toward the middle, but stick it out because the ending goes completely insane and that's when the body count really starts to rack up! The gun battle at the end has severed heads and a rain of shredded toes and feet, so make sure you stay awake for the final scenes!

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (1972)
     Kozure Ōkami: Oya no kokoro ko no kokoro
     “Wolf with Child in Tow: The Heart of a Parent, the Heart of a Child”
     aka “Shogun Assassin 3: Slashing Blades of Carnage”
Body Count: 84
Gore Score 8/10

     This is a fantastic movie. It’s fast paced, gory, and fun as heck. This was my first exposure to the LWC series and it whetted my appetite for more. Like a lot of the LWC movies I suspect there are lots of cultural references I don’t get, yet the story is still accessible and the emotional underpinnings are universal. The fight scenes are creative and frenetic and every aspect of the movie comes together in near-perfection.
A winning strategy.

I am soooooooo scared.
    This fourth entry opens with battle, blood, and boobs, and pretty much continues that way. The half-naked killer wears tattoos on her breasts and back designed to startle her foes. She makes mincemeat of a group of attackers to show us right away what a badass she is.
It's all fun and games...

     The Lone Wolf, Itto, accepts the commission to kill Oyuki, the breasty lady with the tattoos and swords. Oyuki is a swordswoman who served Lord Owari and then deserted for reasons unknown. Itto slices apart crowds of enemies on the hunt for her, uncovers an old foe who is supposed to be dead, and strikes a blow against the clan which betrayed him, all while keeping the Cub alive.
Come at me, bro.
     Things only get more complicated when he finds his quarry and discovers Oyuki to be far more honorable than the people who hired him to hunt her. At the climax Itto purees his way through an entire army using his famed Sui-O sword technique until he's facing Retsudo Yagyu himself. Many, many limbs are lost along the way. Moral of the story: Don’t piss off the deadliest man in the world.

Titty clutching tat

Gonorrhea flare-up

...she's really obsessed with my cawk.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973)
     Kozure Ōkami: Meifumado
     “Wolf with Child in Tow: Land of Demons”
     aka “Shogun Assassin 4: Five Fistfuls of Gold”
Body Count: 80
Gore Score 7/10
     This is not as furiously-paced as part 4 but the movie is still brutal and bloody. Five deadly messengers test Itto’s strength. Each one carries 100 gold pieces, 1/5 of the payment for a very special job. One of the men calmly delivers a message while he slowly burns alive!

     The abbot of Sofuku (ha!) temple has double-cross the Kuroda clan. This revered man is actually the head of a secret order of ninja spies, allies of Itto’s mortal enemies the Yagyu. Itto is contracted to kill the abbot and return the documents to Lord Kuroda. It turns out the abbot has wizardy holy-man powers and Itto can’t or won’t draw his sword to cut him down.

I accidentally swam into your sword, bro.
      A servant of the Kuroda clan arrives with a new job, piggybacking on the first job. The completion of the first assassination will put Itto in place to execute his second set of targets: An entire family, including a 5 year old child. It’s merciless but the reasons make sense in the context of the difficult situation.

     Retsudo Yagyu is still around making trouble as an ally of the abbot. He wear an eye patch after his last fight with Itto. Itto manages to pull some serious special-ops shit to complete his mission, and then fights an army wearing nothing but his underwear. The crimson really starts to spray when fights a second army at the end, and he really lives up to that whole Decapitator thing.
This helmet is way too tight.

All demons are issued Sam Elliot mustaches in Hell, you didn't know?

Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell
     Kozure Ōkami: Jigoku e ikuzo! Daigoro
     “Wolf with Child in Tow: Now We Go to Hell, Daigoro!”
     aka “Shogun Assassin 5: Cold Road to Hell”
Body Count: 155+ kills!!!
Gore Score- Infinity

     The series racks up its highest body count yet with a satisfyingly slaughter-happy final entry. Young Daigoro manages an impressive number of kills with babycart gadgets, but it’s only a fraction of the host of enemies swept aside by Itto’s ruthless blade.

The size of Itto's scrotum demoralizes his foes.

Santa is furious with you.
My special weapon is Brillo Pad hair.
     Itto is declared a wanted criminal by the Shogunate. A manhunt begins and old enemies converge on LWC looking for revenge. There are assassins everywhere, using every trick and technique in their personal arsenals. An evil wizard of the Spider Demon clan stalks and taunts the duo, brutally slaying every person who shows LWC kindness on the road. Later the wizard rapes his own sister in front of their father, series arch-nemesis Retsudo Yagyu! Dysfunctional doesn't even begin to cover it.

I call this move Snoopy Snowcone style
     Three half-living killers, strengthened by martial-arts sorcery, are sent by the one-armed ronin Gunbei (a survivor from the fourth film). They fight in perfect unison, and do not fall even after being riddle with gunfire.

Itto explores bondage
     An army of Yagyu clan warriors surrounds LWC, led by Retsudo, who has a lot of anger issues at the moment. Itto battles an army of skiing ninjas, cuts one of them in half and uses the baby cart as a sled to kick butt. Retsudo has made his own combat sled armed with heavy artillery, and they battle their way down the mountainside.
Gandalf was a pussy.

I'll never be a sex symbol
     This wild movie ends this cycle of the epic revenge tale but doesn’t wrap up the overall story. The original manga series comes to a startling yet almost inevitable conclusion. My ultimate fantasy version of this movie series would have ended the same way, but in any case these are really entertaining movies and I wish they had made more.

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