For this week’s post, I’m digging into a set of movies that I had no idea existed. But once I learned they existed, I just had to check them out. This week’s films are:
Kenji Misumi – Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance
Kenji Misumi – Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx
These are both from a series called Lone Wolf and Cub, and my first exposure to them was from a Bob’s Burgers episode in which Bob and Louise are a fan of a series of Japanese movies called Hawk and Chick, in which a samurai warrior must fight battles, and carry his infant daughter around with him. In the episode, they meet the actor that played Hawk, and discover that he is estranged from his daughter, who played Chick. They develop a wacky plan to screen one of the films at a midnight showing, and reunite the two. Unfortunately, the copy they get isn’t dubbed, and doesn’t have subtitles, so the family has to dub the move themselves live, with predictably hilarious results.
I assumed that it was a parody of the entire genre of Japanese samurai films, but then I ran across the Criterion Lone Wolf And Cub box set I realized that it was actually a direct parody of a specific set of films. 6 of them in all. And this week, I’m digging into the first two films.
And since both films have very similar casts, and the same director, rather than talk about them separately, I’m going to talk about them together. In fact, the two films were edited together and dubbed in English as Shogun Assassin in 1980, and they really fit together nicely.
Let’s get into it.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance and Baby Cart at the River Styx(1972)
Itto Ogami is the head executioner of the Shogunate, the group that rules feudal Japan. It is a position of great honor, and Ogami does it well. But the Yagyu shadow clan, led by Retsudo, frames him for a crime whose punishment is death, killing his wife in the process. Ogami goes on the run, selling his services as an assassin, with his young son Daigoro in tow. He must complete his jobs while protecting his son and hunting down those responsible for his wife’s death.
The film is directed by Kenji Misumi, who directed several of the films in the series, along with a lot of samurai films, including some in the long running Zatoichi series. Tomisaburo Wakayama plays Itto Ogami in all of the films. He’s an actor who had an extensive career in Japan, and even popped up in a few American movies.
The films are based on a manga(comic book or graphic novel) of the same title written by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima. I have no experience with the manga, but the two also wrote several of the films, so I assume that they’ve been fairly faithful to the manga. Doing some research, there were 28 volumes of the manga, and they are translated and available in the US.
The film starts out with a long preamble about the political realities of the world we are entering. The Shogunate is the ruthless ruling party, and they wield their power through spies, assassins, and the executioner, a role performed by Ogami himself. It is portrayed as a position of great power and responsibility. When a lesser lord is forced to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) he is there to behead them so they don’t simply bleed out from their self-inflicted wounds. He is also allowed to wear the symbol of the Shogunate, another great honor.
In the opening scene of the film, we see how serious this role is, as Ogami is called upon to execute a small child, who is the last heir to a particular lordship. He does his duty without hesitation.
The structure of the film is set up so that we begin with Ogami already on the run with his son, pushing him in a baby cart, with a sign that reads “Sword for hire, son for hire”. The film does an amazing job of leading us back into the flashbacks with various elements of the environment. For example, after Ogami allows a woman who lost her own child to nurse his son, it begins to rain. He sets up the cart to protect his son from the rain, and then we flashback to the last day he had with his wife and son, when it was also raining.
We see how he was framed, as a group of ninjas sneak into his home, killing all of his servants. He is sitting with his son in the family temple, praying to his ancestors. When he hears the screams, he runs out, giving the infiltrators time to place the seal of the shogunate in his temple.
This is a bit obscure for American audiences, but it’s explained that by putting the seal of the shogunate in his family temple, a place for the dead, it is assumed that he is praying for the death of the shogunate. This is a serious crime. The next day, the Inspector comes with a letter from three samurai who committed suicide in order to deliver the letter. It claims that Ogami is guilty of some crime, and having no idea of what has been done, Ogami welcomes the search, knowing he is innocent.
But the Inspector, Bizen Yagyu, goes immediately to the temple, discovering the symbol. Ogami immediately assumes that something is up, and explains his suspicions in excruciating detail. This is something that seemed super clunky and forced to me, but I was also a little thankful for it. Since I’m not completely familiar with the culture, it helped to get some extended explanation. But the method he uses is to explain his deductions like he’s Sherlock Holmes while his enemies are threatening his life. He explains that there must be a shadow clan of Yagyu’s, and that their house symbol, two hats overlapping each other, must be a clue to the shadow clan. He also gives the family tree and figures out which of the Yagyu’s runs the shadow clan, and that their plan must be to take over the executioner job for themselves.
It’s a whirlwind of dialogue, and thankfully, it’s the only time it happens. Ogami decides to fight for his life, and easily dispatches all of the guards Bizen has brought with him, then defeats Bizen in single combat. The swordplay in the film is standard samurai style. It’s very fast and imprecise, but it’s exciting and get the jobs done. In many cases, when taking a sword hit, a spray of blood erupts from the body of the victim, coating the area in the thick, bright red blood. It’s an iconic aspect of these films.
Let’s take a moment to discuss the violence of these films. The special effects and makeup effects aren’t particularly realistic, but the violence inherent in the film is brutal. Ogami is a trained killer, and a ruthless one at that. When he sees an enemy, he will kill them with impunity. Limbs and heads fly off, and Ogami ends many fight scenes covered in blood. In some fight scenes, he’s carrying his son, Daigoro, and the baby also ends up covered in blood.
If this is starting to sound like an exploitation film, that’s because it is. I’m not sure who insipired who, but this film feels exactly like the kind of exploitation films that came out in the 1970s in the US. I’m not an expert on Japanese film history, so I’m not entirely sure when this kind of film started getting made, but I covered two Japanese horror films with similar makeup effects, so it must have been a part of Japanese cinema previous to these films.
After the initial flashback seeing his framing, we see Ogami get his first mercenary job. When taking a job he asks for only two things. 500 ryo (which seems to be a large amount of money), and all of the reasons and secrets behind the assassination. It is unclear if any specific reasons would prevent him from performing the job, but in the two films I saw, he didn’t object.
He is asked to kill an usurper to a lordship along with his three bodyguards. He must go to a hot spring where the victim is visiting, and the man hiring him assumes the assassins are lying in wait.
As he walks, we see another flashback, this time to the moment when he chose to meet with officials from the shogunate. As he waits in a room with his son, both of them in white robes, which in Japan is a traditional color of death, he makes his son choose between a ball and a sword. If he chooses the ball, he tells his son he will kill him immediately, and send him to be with his mother. But if he chooses the sword, he will join his father on what he calls the Demon Path. His plan is to reject his humanity, and along with his son and live as a demon. It’s a shocking statement, but it really puts us in the mindset of this man. He realizes his son is too young to understand the choices, but he assumes that the blood of his ancestors will ensure that he makes the right choice. His son crawls over and picks the sword.
In another great action scene, Ogami cuts his way out of the compound after receiving a death sentence, holding his son in his off hand.
One of the hallmarks of American exploitation films is that they’re cheaply made, poorly acted, and done with a minimum of talent. They were designed to be cheap stock for low-rent cinemas who needed new things to screen every couple of weeks. But because they generally worked outside of the Hollywood system, and weren’t concerned with things like the ratings board, they were able to push boundaries and really reflect some of the darker aspects of society that many Hollywood films just couldn’t touch.
But this film isn’t cheaply made at all. The cinematography is exceptional, taking on the beauty and precision of Ozu and Kurosawa. The acting is solid, if a little overdone. The writing is also surprisingly competent. Short of the mystery solving scene mentioned earlier, the writing is fairly to the point. My only real complaint is that the characters are a bit too verbose about what they are doing and why. This likely comes from the translation from a manga into a film, as a manga author needs to use more inner dialogue in order to reveal thoughts their characters are having. But a film shouldn’t need to do this.
But much like American exploitation films, in addition to the gratuitous violence, there’s gratuitous nudity and sex as well. Once Ogami arrives at the hot spring, he is taken prisoner by the assassins who have already taken over the spring and imprisoned all the travelers, which consists of a prostitute, gamblers a young samurai, and others.
Ogami is essentially undercover, and doesn’t object when his sword is taken and he is imprisoned along with the other travelers. One of the main three assassins sees the high end sword he has, and challenges him to a duel. But Ogami isn’t ready to make his move, and refuses. The assassin then demands that instead, he have sex with the prostitute in front of everyone, or he will kill her.
Ogami agrees, and we get an extended, gratuitous sex scene. In a lot of American exploitation films, this would have just existed to allow the filmmakers to show some skin. But here, the film uses it as a plot point.
The other imprisoned travelers assume that Ogami is weak, but the prostitute realizes he must be laying low, waiting to make his move, as he was able to perform sexually while being threatened and watched. It’s an interesting little bit of story that kind of, sort of justifies the bizarre sex scene.
At the end of the film, the assassins threaten the local villagers, and prepare to kill the travelers, so no one will know they are there. There has been a plot point throughout that one of the assassins is trying to remember where he’s met Ogami before. But here, in the final scene, the assassin remembers, and immediately gets scared.
Ogami shows that he lives up to the hype, even without his sword. He reveals that his baby carriage is actually filled with weapons. He produces a small knife, and a bladed staff which he uses to kill everyone of the bandits that have taken over the camp. Once it is done, he silently walks out of the village with his son in the cart. The prostitute attempts to follow him, but he silently threatens her as he crosses a bridge, by placing his sword next to the ropes holding it up, and she relents.
In the second film, Baby Cart at the River Styx, we pick up with Ogami being hunted by the Yagyu clan. He is attacked by two men, and as one is dying, he is told that the Yagyu clan will never give up until he is dead.
In this film, Ogami is contracted to kill an indigo artisan who is planning to sell the secrets of indigo production to the shogunate, decimating the economy of the group hiring him. He is defended by three brothers, Benma, Tenma, and Kuruma, who all use different weapons. These three are classic villains. In their scenes, they seem as invincible as the portrayal of Ogami himself.
But in addition to this threat, Ogami must face a group of female samurai who have been contracted to kill him lead by Lady Sayaka. They are built up quite strongly, but he dispatches almost all of them in a single scene, walking down the road, as they wear various disguises to trick him. He succeeds, but not without taking his licks, Sayaka gets away.
He is then attacked by another group of assassins. Here Daigoro assists in the fight, as Ogami shoves the baby cart towards the assassins. As it rolls, Daigoro hits a switch on his own which releases blades from the wheels, and cuts the legs off of two separate fighters.
At the end of this fight, Ogami is victorious, but badly wounded. He makes it to a small shed, and hides. Meanwhile, the assassins contracted to kill him decide to kidnap his son to distract Ogami, hoping this will let them kill him.
Sayaka objects, considering it cowardly to kidnap his son, but the others go along with it. Daigoro is kidnapped while Ogami recovers, and he is then lead to a well, with Daigoro suspended above it. Rather than submit, Ogami simply tells Daigoro that he will enjoy meeting his mother, and again reiterates that he and his son are no longer human, but they live the demon path.
Taking advantage of their shock, he attacks, and while Daigoro is dropped into the well, Ogami manages to step on the rope, holding it, and when he wins the fight, he pulls Daigoro back up, who is wet, but otherwise unharmed.
There’s a great moment here as Ogami wrings out Daigoro’s clothing. As he does, he stares down Sayaka, who was with the attackers, but didn’t participate in the battle. It reads as an incredibly threatening act, but it really works.
After these scenes, the fight with the three brothers seems almost an afterthought. We see a scene with them on a boat, traveling to pick up the indigo artisan, and murdering most of the passengers who attempted to attack them. This reveals their skill. Ogami is on the boat as well, and they recognize him. The boat is set on fire in another attempt on their lives, and as they leave, the give Ogami their entire travel itinerary, and tell him that as long as they don’t see him again, they won’t kill him.
Ogami gets away with his son, rescuing Lady Sayaka in the process, and there’s a strikingly intimate scene where they all remove their wet clothes and huddle together for warmth. Sayaka has been chasing Ogami during this part of the film, assuming she must kill him to keep the honor of her clan. But here, we see her give up a little, softening towards Ogami.
In the final showdown, the three brothers are walking with a caravan through the desert, with the indigo artisan in tow, along with another group of fighters. There’s a neat action scene here where the brothers sniff out hidden fighters there to kill them. They begin stabbing at the ground, and the thick red blood seeps up through the sand, and they pull the hidden men out of their secret compartments. Suddenly another group of men jumps out from farther off. The three brothers defeat them easily.
Finally, they come across Daigoro, standing in the middle of the desert. He simply points. They look and see Ogami, standing and waiting.
The final fight is exciting and quick. Ogami has no equals in combat, and he kills them without much challenge.
In the final scene, he pushes his baby cart through the woods. He suddenly stops and holds out his sword, as a warning. We see that Sayaka has been following him.
This perfectly mirrors the scene in the first film, and becomes a nice book end. I’d be interested to see if this scene is mirrored in future films.
The Double Feature
I called these exploitation films before, but it feels reductive to call them that. American exploitation films are often poorly made, but have a charm to them that shines through, making them watchable. But these films are far beyond just watchable. They’re really good. I really enjoyed watching both of these films. The steel of Ogami, and his unwavering bond with his son is so interesting. The enemies and allies he makes along the way also make for a compelling group of characters.
Even in the absurdity of a lot of the plotlines and the action scenes, a sincerity comes through. The humanity of the characters holds the entire film together.
It somehow is a brutal action movie about a father raising his son. It’s not exactly devotion we see from Ogami, but it’s more a responsibility. His infant son isn’t a burden, but a partner. His responsibility isn’t to keep him alive, it’s to teach him how to survive in this harsh world. But at the same time, he has a mission to complete, and he can’t do that if he’s dead. Nothing can get in his way, including the life of his son. In the showdown at the well, I didn’t see a man who was trying to put on a front to get an advantage in the fight. He was hoping to save his son, but he was also comfortable letting his son drown in the well if it meant he could continue his mission.
All in all, I really loved these films, and I’ll watch the other four, and I might even buy some of the translated manga books. I don’t know if I’ll cover them on the blog, as I imagine the rest of the films have a similar structure, but I’ll be watching.
I made a pretty big decision this week. I decided to leave academics behind me when I finish my PhD. A few months ago, I finished what I think is the best paper I ever wrote. In academics, you have to write in a specific language, so that the other people in your field can understand what you mean. I’ve worked for the last two years reading papers and studying, trying to get into that mindset so that I could write this paper.
But the week before Thanksgiving, I got the reviews back. They were the worst reviews I’ve ever received. The reviewers except for one gave me the lowest score possible, and they explained that all of my conclusions were completely obvious, and that I had ignored 200 years of research on my topic.
And I’ve been told by a lot of people that I shouldn’t let it get to me, that leaving because of that review gives too much power to those reviewers over my life. But here’s the problem: I don’t really know if they’re being totally fair, or completely ridiculous. I don’t have the slightest idea if all the work I did really was in reality completely obvious, or if these reviewers are just out for blood. And that’s why I have to leave academics. Because I clearly don’t fit in here. It’s just a bad place for me overall. Ever since I started this program, my life has been worse. My health, both physical and mental have deteriorated greatly, and I don’t think I’ll ever dig myself out of the financial hole that my loans have put me in.
It’s time to stop banging my head against the wall, and trying to figure out how to fit in here. It’s clear I don’t. And I’ll be better off elsewhere.
So what shall we do for next week’s films?
I wanted to cover something more modern, and then I thought about things that must have seemed super modern at the time, but now might seem dated. There were two films on my shelf that fit the bill:
Steven Lisberger – TRON (1982)
Nick Castle – The Last Starfighter (1984)
Both of these were earlier uses of computer graphics in film. In TRON, the backgrounds and environments were computer generated, and in The Last Starfighter, the ships and space environments were computer generated. It would be a long time before we would get to fully-realized 3D characters, but these were important milestones.
See you then.