The Japanese chanbara, or swordfighting genre, came to arthouse prominence in America with Akira Kurosawa's 1954 classic of samurai cinema, The Seven Samurai (among other Toshiro Mifune films), but cult-movie status came with the Lone Wolf and Cub series, Toho's blunt-force action franchise with a soupcon of social critique, which might be called the swordfighting equivalent of, say, our Dirty Harry franchise. The six Lone Wolf and Cub pictures could be fairly branded exploitation pictures in their quantity of sex and violence (and nudity and gore), but they also qualify as comic-book movies, and perhaps the first in the modernistic style to which we've become accustomed.
Adapted from a 1970-1976 run of manga that came to 28 volumes, the Lone Wolf and Cub films were fast-tracked as a failed bid by producer and Zatoichi star Shintaro Katsu to turn his brother Tomisaburo Wakayama into an equally bankable franchise star. Now collected in a Blu-ray box set by the Criterion Collection, the six stylish films can be seen as ahead of their time, both visually (inventive cutting, dreamy double-exposure, bold close-ups, and so on, in striking Tohoscope compositions) and thematically (take-no-prisoners tales of vengeance). Now, these films defined by their arterial sprays of blood are just the stuff for the Tarantino crowd, looking to source the similarly comic-booky American chanbara Kill Bill back to its forebears.
Lone Wolf and Cub refers to the assasin handle of Ogami Itto (Wakayama), an anti-hero done wrong. A Shogun's executioner slandered wth charges of treason and sent on the run, Itto is also the single father of three-year-old Daigoro (Tomikawa Akihiro). The franchise's more direct translation ("Wolf with Child in Tow") lacks the same poetic ring, but aptly describes the intentional absurdity of its central image: a killer with a baby cart and, at times, a Baby Bjorn. In the series' first entry, Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972), director Kenji Misumi and screenwriters Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima seem relatively hesitant to fully exploit this child-endangerment angle, but subsequent entries emphasize Daigoro being in the thick of things.
The first film establishes Itto's conflict with what will prove to be many strands of the treacherous Yagyu clan. Sword of Vengeance emphasizes mood and establishes character, periodically breaking out into outré blood-spewing ultraviolence, with selective use of sound to put greater focus on the violent acts as the rest of the world drops away. Itto's origin story also emphasizes the contradictions of this ronin's compromised bushido ("the way of the warrior"). Between the river of greed and the flaming river of fury, he swears, "I'll walk on the white path of righteousness...I shall have my vengeance," later adding, "I'll abandon the way of the warrior and live on the Demon Way in Hell...walk the path of blood and death."
The five subsequent entries largely dispense with subtleties and multiply the creative gore. Misumi stayed at the helm for the next two films: Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972) pits Itto and Daigoro against striking supervillains: the Akashi-Yagyu clan of female assassins and the BenTenRai brothers, a.k.a. the Monks of Death, while Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (1972) finds Itto taking on the yakuza in the noble defense of a prostitute.
Buichi Saito takes over directing duties for Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (1972), in which Itto and Daigoro run afoul of an enemy samurai while Itto is executing his contract to kill a tattooed female assassin. Misumi returns to direct the cleverly plotted Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973), which lays a path of five duels to the death between Itto and his ultimate kill: a deranged clan leader. The series came to an end with Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (1974), directed by Yoshiyuki Kuroda, a no-holds-barred series of fights with representatives of the Yagyu clan. With an American remake in development, it's clear we haven't seen the last of this graphically arresting action franchise.
Criterion's three-disc set of the complete Lone Wolf and Cub is the definitive package American fans have long awaited. The colorful package contains high-definition presentations of all six films, as well as Shogun Assassin, the 1980 English-dubbed reedit of the first two Lone Wolf and Cub films. The films look terrific, with their natural film grain intact but also yielding a surprising amount of depth. The detail of the picture quality captures all the subtleties of each film's original photography, with faithful color and contrast, and careful but unobtrusive digital cleanup to scrub away age-related imperfections and dust and dirt. Although the LPCM Mono tracks don't evince as much depth as their accompanying imagery, their faithful presentation maximizes the original elements by providing similar digital cleanup for clean and crisp audio.
Disc One houses the first three films, Disc Two the next three films, and Disc Three Shogun Assassin (1:25:05, HD) and the rest of the extensive bonus features. Each film is accompanied by its "Trailer" (2:20, 2:55, 2:47, 2:58, 2:54, 2:34, 2:33, HD). First up among the extras is the feature-length 2005 making-of doc Lame d’un père, l’âme d’un sabre (52:24, HD), including interviews with director Buichi Saito, producer Masanori Sanada, cinematographer Fujio Morita, and more.
Next up: a 2015 interview with "Kazuo Koike" (11:39, HD), writer of the Lone Wolf and Cub manga series and screenwriter on five of the films and a 2016 interview with biographer Kazuma Nozawa about director "Kenji Misumi" (12:28, HD), both produced for Criterion.
"On Suio-Ryu" (13:34, HD) allows Sensei Yoshimitsu Katsuse to explain and demonstrates samurai swordsmanship.
Criterion also includes the 1939 silent documentary short "Sword of the Samurai" (30:37, HD) about the making of samurai swords, with an optional ambient score by Ryan Francis of the Metropolis Ensemble that Criterion commissioned for this release.
Included in the boxed digipack is a 36-page booklet of extensive liner notes, with an essay and film synopses by Japanese pop-culture writer Patrick Macias, as well as tech specs, credits, photos and illustrations.
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer