The Criterion Collection has always brought great Samurai films to the U.S. home video market. Partially, this is because they’ve released many of Akira Kurosawa’s films — his Seven Samurai is Criterion Spine #2 — but that is only part of the picture: they have released dozens of films in that genre, from Hiroshi Inagaki’s The Samurai Trilogy, about the legendary seventeenth-century warrior and artist Musashi Miyamoto played by Toshiro Mifune, to Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom, about a violent and demented swordsman played by Tatsuya Nakadai, to the long-running 25-film series Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman. However, most of these releases (but for a handful of the Zatoichi films) were for films made before the 1970s, and consequently Criterion’s releases began a large gap right at the beginning of a period when some particularly innovative and particularly violent films changed the landscape. Earlier this year, Criterion ventured in this direction with their release of Toshiya Fujita’s two-film series Lady Snowblood, that, while not exactly a Samurai film, was an extremely satisfying release and one of my favorite personal film discoveries of the year. Criterion has gone this direction again by releasing the six-film series Lone Wolf and Cub, and to me it’s even better than the Lady Snowblood set.
The Lone Wolf and Cub films, like Lady Snowblood, are adaptations from a series of manga created by author Kazuo Koike, first published in 1970. The series was popular and the film rights were seized almost immediately. The star of the show, Tomisaburo Wakayama (the brother, incidentally, of Shintaro Katsu, the star of the Zatoichi series and eventual producer of the Lone Wolf and Cub series) knew the part of Itto Ogami was important and worked hard to show that, despite appearances to the contrary (he was 42 years old and not slight of build), he was the natural choice for this brutal and efficient warrior. As told in Patrick Macias’s essay for the Criterion release, “Samurai and Son: The Lone Wolf and Cub Saga,” in 1971 Wakayama packed up a wooden samurai sword and went straight to Kazuo Koike’s home and showcased his acrobatic talents to ensure the creator of the story could visualize him in the role and offer up his support. It worked, and Wakayama spent the next several years in the role of Itto Ogami, a wronged swordsman seeking vengeance while toting his toddler son, Daigoro (played throughout by Akihiro Tomikawa).
When the film begins, Ogami is in a prime position of power and intimidation, if one that requires he do the unspeakable. He’s an executioner for the shogun, and there’s plenty of work. Bent on securing his rule, the shogun is even executing the young children who might one day assume positions of power. This is where we begin: a group of wailing subjects are about to watch their young ruler — he’s only around three, the same age as Ogami’s young son when we first meet him — be executed by Ogami.
It’s a startling, bleak, serious beginning. Our hero is capable of this terrible act, though it’s part of his profession, and the merciless execution of a child lets us know that no one — not even the young Daigoro.
After the opening scene, we meet Ogami again, though this time he’s obviously dropped down in the hierarchy. He’s rolling a baby cart along, and a sign above it reads: “Child and exerptise for hire.”
Through flashbacks we are shown just what has happened: months earlier, his wife was murdered and he found himself framed for treason. In the aftermath, Ogami offers his son the choice between a ball and sword. If he chooses the ball, Ogami will execute his son to send him to his mother, which is, honestly, what Ogami thinks best. If he chooses the sword, well then Ogami will allow Daigoro to join him on the road to hell to the land of demons. We already know what Daigoro goes for.
And so father and son set out on the road, seeking vengeance and any work that can be offered, including allowing women who have lost children to nurse and play with Daigoro, an effort to heal some wounds.
Most wounds inflicted in the Lone Wolf and Cub series don’t heal, though, and in his quest for vengeance the wandering Ogami, accepting whatever jobs he can find that utilize his skills as an assassin, finds that the world of demons is essentially everywhere. Each step is another step in hell.
It’s the wandering that most struck me this first time through the films. While we might expect each film to end with some real progress toward Ogami’s vengeance, that isn’t the case. Many times he finds himself working through tangeants that don’t end with another clue, say, and instead we are left with a grisly depiction of a violent time in Japanese history (one that is exaggerated here a bit, perhaps, sure):
Or, at least, Ogami’s skills at enacting violence, and the vibrant blood spurts he elicits, may be exaggerated. The motives, or lack of motives, the brutal whims, even the body count in battle, which is not limited to warriors, is still played seriously, even when the films start to get a bit more episodic and less interested in helping Ogami make it to the end of his quest. The violence doesn’t bring immediate resolution, doesn’t help Ogami get closer to his goal, doesn’t always rectify some wrong. It simply is all around and within the beautiful, natural world.
Yes, the films do start get a bit episodic. It’s clear that they were seen as ways to make money first, and as ways to explore Ogami’s vengeance second . . . or maybe third. It’s a weakness, though one that strangely works toward some unique strengths. They don’t end, and that emphasizes all of the things I liked most about the films: the aimless wayfaring, the futility of violence, the existential exhaustion. As the films move forward, the young actor playing Daigoro, though still young (these were all made within the span of just a few years), begins to look worn out and tough, a postcard for loss of innocence. He’s probably just exhausted by the production, but that plays nicely into the best moments of the series.