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Lone Wolf and Cub(1972-1974)
He is the most feared assassin in all of Japan, known only as the Lone Wolf. Pushing his young son along the back-roads of feudal Japan in a heavily armed baby-cart, he strikes fear into the black hearts of evil-doers everywhere -- as long as someone can come up with his fee. Nothing, not the legions of a mad shogun, hordes of Yagyu ninja, or even the undead, can stop him!
For more about Lone Wolf and Cub and the Lone Wolf and Cub Blu-ray release, see the Lone Wolf and Cub Blu-ray Review
Starring: Tomisaburo Wakayama
» See full cast & crew
Lone Wolf and Cub Blu-ray Review
A stone faced Shogun Assassin by any other name would still smell as sweet. Wait, that's not right.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, September 24, 2012
My review of the Shogun Assassin Box Set from earlier this year provides a cursory overview of how Lone Wolf and Cub and Shogun Assassin intersect (and overlap), so I'll repeat it here for those who are perhaps unaware of this franchise's rather convoluted history:
Everybody have their flowcharts ready? Okay, here we go: in 1970, a popular manga series called Lone Wolf and Cub appeared depicting the feudal Japanese adventures of an official executioner of the Shogun named Ogami Itto who finds himself ostracized after false accusations are leveled against him by a family of feudal lords known as the Yagyu. Itto is consigned to a mercenary like life as a roving assassin, taking along his infant son, Daigoro, with revenge against the Yagyu a primary goal. Two years after the manga appeared, the first of what would become a long running franchise of Japanese film adaptations premiered, starring Tomisaburo Wakayama as Itto. The first film bore the title Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance, and was followed in short order over the ensuing years by Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons and Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell. In the late seventies, American producer David Weisman obtained rights to the Lone Cub and Wolf film franchise from Toho and with his partner Robert Houston recut the first two films (Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance and Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the River Styx), redubbed the edited version into English, and released it to American markets as Shogun Assassin in 1980. The film was deemed to be incredibly violent in its day (an allegation that completely ignores the patently cartoonish aspect of a lot of the violence), and in fact the reaction in overseas markets (especially in Britain) led to savvy marketers using the alluring "banned" appellation once the film started matriculating to home video. Weisman and Houston soon moved on to the third Lone Wolf and Cub film, and then to the succeeding sequels, bringing each of them out dubbed into English as Shogun Assassin 2, Shogun Assassin 3 and so on, though of course Shogun Assassin 2 was in actuality the third film in the Lone Wolf and Cub franchise, since the first Shogun Assassin had been cobbled together from the first two Lone Wolf and Cub outings. See why a flowchart was recommended? Shogun Assassin has always been something of a cult phenomenon, a tendency that was given a new shot in the arm when none other than Quentin Tarantino featured a snippet of the film in Kill Bill Vol. 2.
As detailed above, since the first Shogun Assassin film combined the first two Lone Wolf and Cub outings, other than this set being released in its original language, the only real difference in terms of the films themselves is with both Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance and Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx, which are now presented in their entirety. With that in mind, my original thoughts about the final four films are represented here with some small changes.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance 4.0/5
As is so often the case, in many ways the first film in this franchise is the strongest. Filled with a melancholic, tragic ambience, Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance has its own share of patently goofy violence (sprays of blood go insanely far throughout this film), but which also seems to deal the most realistically with the emotional trauma suffered by Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama). Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance may also well come as the most surprising film in the franchise to those only acquainted with the Shogun Assassin versions, since this film, while pushing right up to that silly line a couple of times, has a strange, almost poetic, quality as it details the forced "fall from grace" that Itto suffers after he's framed by the nefarious Yagyu Clan.
The first film also beautifully details the ferocious bonds between father Itto and his cute little son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa). This is of course a fundamental element in the entire franchise, but again, it's handled with a degree of effective simplicity in this film that tends to become a bit more cartoonish as the franchise goes on. What's also notable in this film is Wakayama's performance, which manages to invest some incredible emotional content masked behind a completely stoic appearance. The film also is filled with some nice period costumes and a good feel for feudal Japan in both its production design as well as the often sumptuous photography which captures the beauty of the Japanese countryside.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx 3.0/5
This second film, a lot of which was ported over to the first Shogun Assassin film, both benefits and suffers from now being seen in its standalone form. One of the things that the Shogun Assassin film did was cut the first two films together in such a way that one of the central elements of Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx—namely the three female Ninja assassins who chase after Itto and Diagoru—became an almost lunatic element in the edited version. Here, as just one of a whole slew of competing alliances and internecine clan warfare, it somehow loses a little of its fun factor, and Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx becomes a decidedly more serious property as a result. While those acquainted with Shogun Assassin may be a little surprised at this rather drastic change in tone, in a way it more securely tethers this second film to the first Lone Wolf and Cub, and therefore seems more in tune with the general ambience set up by that first film.
The central plot of Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx finds Itto agreeing to dispatch a traitor of the Yagyu Clan, while at the same time the female Ninjas are trying to dispatch him. Itto and Daigoro are spoken of in hushed, almost reverent, tones by the public at large during this film. They are a feared sight, for Itto's penchant for slicing and dicing anyone who stands in his way has become part of legend. That very fact also points out a central flaw that will continue to hobble this and subsequent Lone Wolf and Cub outings: Itto has become larger than life, which means that his tribulations seem minor in comparison to his outsized reputation. What made the first Lone Wolf and Cub such a riveting experience was that Itto's sad fate seemed absolutely human in scale, despite the hero's incredible fighting ability. That human scale begins to be sacrificed in this second film, and unfortunately only becomes further jettisoned as the franchise continues.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades 3.0/5
The third Lone Wolf and Cub outing is a disturbing piece that may have some of the cartoonish elements that have dotted the franchise thus far but which nonetheless preserves its primal elements and makes the film seem much more historically relevant (if not particularly accurate) as a result. Having now watched this third outing after having seen the first two Lone Wolf and Cub films in their entirety immediately preceding watching this one, I was actually more impressed with Baby Cart to Hades than I was when I watched it as the "second" "Shogun Assassin film. Daigoro is a little older now, but still is transported around in the perambulator (which is tricked out with a number of feudal versions of spy thriller gizmos), and as Itto and son traverse a river in a ferry, Itto notices he's being tailed, no doubt by the Yagyu.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades has a fair degree of violence toward women dotting its landscape, with two unfortunate women meeting their fates early in the film in a really unsettling rape scene and then, somewhat later, with a longer running arc that features a woman whom Itto initially notices on the ferry and who turns out to be a hapless unfortunate about to be sold into prostitution. Her tangle with her pimp-seller is a visceral sequence in the film, and it places Itto in the unusual position of being a protector rather than a killer.
Though it retains a lot of the tragic power that made the first Lone Wolf and Cub so visceral, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades is hampered by an overly anecdotal structure that lurches from segment to segment and which robs the film of much continuity or momentum. The film is often incredibly ludicrous despite its best efforts to take itself seriously, something which becomes completely apparent in the patently ridiculous final showdown, which will have some frustrated viewers screaming to the bad guy, "Just shut up and die already!".
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril 3.0/5
If the steely faced demeanor of Itto chopping and hacking his way through any number of bad guys hasn't been enough for you, this next outing offers the additional allure of a leading lady nemesis who is heavily tattooed and isn't above slaying her foes topless. (It should be mentioned that several of the Shogun Assassin films feature at least passing female nudity). Michie Azuma portrays Oyuki, the female assassin of a feudal warlord, who has gone rogue and is seen in the film's opening moments dicing and slicing her way through a bunch of supposedly superior males in a forest. The film initially seems to be poised to have a cat and mouse game between Itto, who has been hired to kill Oyuki, and the resourceful woman, but it takes a somewhat surprising left turn after this initial set up is developed.
Daigoro becomes the actual focus of a large swath of this film, when he wanders away from his tricked out baby carriage and ends up getting lost. That puts him in a series of predicaments culminating in an excitingly staged showdown with a nefarious member of the Yagyu family, which in turn leads to a showdown between the Yagyu villain and Itto, who through sheer determination has managed to track down his missing son and is hopefully about to be reunited with him.
Only after this somewhat circuitous route does the film finally return to the supposedly central conflict between Oyuki and Itto. The film then takes another unexpected turn after that battle is actually dispatched rather quickly in a relatively anticlimactic fashion, with a return of two Yagyu clan members who have differing responses to Itto after having done battle with him. There's the expected gorey finale which actually sees Itto fairly badly wounded. This third installment is a definite step up from the second, with a more cohesive plot (despite its twists and turns), and some outlandish but extremely effective action elements. Itto becomes less of a stony faced cipher in this film, if only because his efforts to find and protect Daigoro finally rehumanize him, if only a little bit.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons 3.5/5
This film bears certain similarities to another martial arts film which highly influenced Quentin Tarantino and the Kill Bill films, namely the great Shaw Brothers classic, The Five Deadly Venoms. Like that film, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons posits a quintet of characters who each have individual talents and, in this case, individual knowledge that will help Itto perform what turns out to be his major task in this film. There's strangely also a somewhat extra-Japanese historical aspect to this film, as it becomes evident that Itto has been enlisted to help calm some turmoil caused by an evil warlord (is there any other kind?), who has locked away his true heir, a son, and placed a daughter he fathered with his concubine in his place, the girl now fitted out to appear male. The locked away heir may remind some of British history, while the girl made to appear male will of course remind some of Disney's Mulan.
Daigoro once again wanders off in this film and gets mixed up with a female pickpocket, but rather than being a distraction from the main Itto plot, this subplot actually works quite effectively as a mirroring technique, as both father and son are beset by questions of honor, loyalty and duty and how properly to respond in the face of adversity. Dramatically, this is probably the best of the sequels, though it still bears the imprint of ridiculously over the top battle sequences that feature huge splatter elements and near laugh out loud lunacy. Once again women are shown to be no less than formidable opponents, and there's some interesting suspense in the third act of this film as Itto attempts to divine the true motives of a woman who wants to hire him to kill the scheming warlord.
Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell 2.5/5
This might equally have been called Lone Wolf and Cub: Snowbound, for the final act takes place in a frost covered environment that has some odd results, including the iconic baby carriage becoming magically fitted with sled blades instead of wheels. This is in some ways the silliest of the Lone Wolf and Cub films, yet it manages to nonetheless be immensely entertaining most of the time, especially since it seems—until the final moments—to finally be bringing the long simmering conflict between Itto and the Yagyu Clan to a head.
The film also benefits from a supernatural element, as the particular Yagyus in this film practice black magic, lending some of the proceedings a sinister air. This is in some ways the least "traditional" outing for Itto and Daigoro, and in fact it seems largely divorced from the original source material in tone and content. There's also little doubt that at the time of the film's production it was probably seen as just another cog in the Lone Wolf and Cub wheel, as the ending is set up for yet another outing with the nefarious Yagyu Clan (which has never occurred—to this date, anyway).
Despite the frozen ambience of the final portion of the film, this is a surprisingly scenic and even epic journey for Itto and Daigoro (who is considerably older and more capable now, making his "home" of the baby carriage seem somewhat anachronistic). If this outing may seem like the filmmakers were stretching a little too hard to invest the series with new life (kind of like the late entries in the Charlie Chan franchise), there's no denying the film's basic entertainment value, which while as gory as ever, has a surprising energy for a sixth trip back to the Lone Wolf and Cub well. That said, having watched it again now in a sequence with all five original films which came before it, it struck me as more of a letdown than it initially did, with a sort of slapdash quality that robbed it of some of the visceral impact of the best outings in the Lone Wolf and Cub franchise.
Lone Wolf and Cub Blu-ray, Video Quality
Lone Wolf and Cub Complete is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of AnimEigo with AVC encoded 1080p transfers in 2.35:1. Some rabid fans of this series are going to be reciting that old adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," as the Shogun Assassin transfers, while occasionally problematic, generally looked pretty darned good, with a minimum of digital tweaking and good color and clarity. AnimEigo was evidently concerned with some of the visual noise and damage that were still apparent in the elements and evidently went back to the DNR drawing board with this new Lone Wolf and Cub set. There's been a lot of hand wringing over this decision, and while I'm the first to admit I am not as troubled down to the depths of my very soul about DNR as many videophiles seem to be (something that has repeatedly raised the ire of some reading my reviews, I might add), I have to say what really strikes me about these new transfers is how dark they are in comparison to the Shogun Assassin outings. This could be due to either new color grading or contrast tweaking (I personally suspect the latter), but for me, anyway, that difference was much more noticeable than the additional DNR. Despite the DNR, the image still retains a fair amount of fine object detail, and I frankly failed to see an overly waxy, smeary image in any consistent way throughout the six films. There's DNR, don't get me wrong, but there's also fine grain still easily visible, especially in the outdoor scenes with bright skies (see the screencap of Itto walking toward the sunset for a good example, an example which also includes some obvious ringing, by the way). The darker appearance of these transfers does mean that some fine object detail is now somewhat masked and shadow detail becomes a bit more problematic. Many who have an almost genetic abhorrence of DNR will no doubt be more fixated on that aspect of these transfers, but my initial response, which I freely admit is not as vehement as most who hate DNR, is that while these are far from optimal, they're not the complete botch job some are insisting they are.
Lone Wolf and Cub Blu-ray, Audio Quality
AnimEigo may have alienated a lot of fans with their decision to tweak the video elements of this new Lone Wolf and Cub set, but they may have at least partially made up for that decision with the laudable inclusion of uncompressed soundtracks for all six films, something that was not part of the Shogun Assassin box set. All six Lone Wolf and Cub outings now feature LPCM Mono mixes that suffice quite well, within their obviously narrow parameters. Generally speaking, these sound a bit fuller than their English language counterparts, with better representation in the low end especially. That is compromised at least a little by some occasional brittleness in the upper registers, frequencies which are also hampered by some clearly audible hiss at times. Taken as a whole, though, all six films sound rather good most of the time, with only occasional niggling qualms to take into account.
Lone Wolf and Cub Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Lone Wolf and Cub Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
This set will probably have its detractors due to AnimEigo's decision to revisit what were generally fine transfers for the Shogun Assassin box set. I freely admit that DNR doesn't drive me nearly as crazy as it seems to others, but even granting that the DNR here is visible, I'm surprised there hasn't been more discussion about the darkness of these new transfers, which I personally found more troubling. Even with these two issues, the video quality here is often at the very least acceptable if not optimal, with well above average color and saturation and some visible fine grain structure quite apparent, especially in brightly lit outdoor scenes. On the flip side of things, these releases at least offer uncompressed audio on all six films. It's hard to outright recommend this release since I know so many will be so bothered by the DNR, but some may feel that the uncompressed audio and original form of all six films help to ameliorate that issue.
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