Framed for treason, Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama), official executioner of the Shogunate, loses his wife to assassins and is stripped of his prestigious title. Swearing vengeance upon those responsible, Itto offers his infant son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) a choice between a samurai sword or a ball. Life or death. Childhood innocence or the path of violence, which most likely leads straight to hell. Little Daigoro crawls towards the sword. So Ogami loads his son into a baby cart, marked with the words: “Child and Expertise For Rent”, as they travel Japan as hired assassins, waging war against the Lord Retsudo Yagyu (Tokio Oki), leader of the Yagyu Shadow Clan who secretly control the Shogunate. The pair share many misadventures along the way, which makes it fortunate that Daigoro’s cart is tricked out with more death-dealing gadgets than James Bond’s Aston Martin.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance was the first in a series of six chanbara (the Japanese term for samurai films, named after the sound effects used in fight scenes) produced by Toho Studios. A few years later the film gained international notoriety when its opening twelve minutes were edited into a re-dubbed, re-edited, re-scored version of the second entry, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972), that was released as Shogun Assassin (1980), and briefly banned as a video nasty in the U.K. Although quite possibly the bloodiest, most outrageous martial arts movies ever made, they were based on a manga written by Kazuo Koike and drawn Goseki Kojima that Japanese scholars rated a serious work of literature.
Koike himself wrote the screenplays for each entry. His stories are rich in historical detail drawn from painstaking research (yes, there really was a Yagyu clan) and express a twisted, yet somehow poetic philosophy through artful symbolism. All sorts of atrocities happen inches away from Daigoro’s angelic face and the action is wild, gory and unsettling enough to be considered a horror movie. But the films are often as beautiful and moving as they are disturbing. Itto Ogami’s tearful declaration to his son (“You would’ve been happier if you’d chosen to join your mother, my poor child”) haunts the series as it becomes obvious that, with the Yagyu clan inextricably bound with the Shogunate, our heroes are pursuing a path towards mutual, indeed societal destruction. In terms of plot, the first movie is not too dissimilar from a western, with a small town beleagured by bandits, rapists and thieves until a hero wanders along. Sword of Vengeance is lacking in complexity compared to later entries but still leaves a lasting impact.
Of course, it’s the violence that hits hardest with most viewers, with blood that doesn’t spill so much as spray the screen into a Jackson Pollock canvas. Kenji Misumi uses beautiful photography, near-subliminal editing, ambient sound effects and ingenious split-screen and slow-motion flourishes to almost hallucinatory effect, although undoubtedly influenced by the manga. An unforgettably eerie - yet somehow still quite funky - drum and fuzz guitar theme music provides the perfect accompaniment to the onscreen mayhem. There is also a soft-core element to the series as Itto Ogami often finds himself in various erotic encounters. Here a gang of ronin (masterless samurai) force him to perform a live sex show with comely whore-with-a-heart-of-gold O-Sen (Tomoko Mayama). Humiliating perhaps, but hardly the most arduous ordeal Ogami has ever had to endure.
Star Tomisaburo Wakayama was born into a family of kabuki performers, but while his younger brother Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi himself and one of Japan’s biggest superstars) followed their father into theatre, he became a character actor in movies. Wakayama struggled for years, occasionally landing choice roles in the Gokudo (1968-1970), Wicked Priest (1968-70) and Red Peony (1968-1972) series of movies produced at Toei Studios, until Katsu produced the Lone Wolf and Cub films that finally made people recognise his big brother as a major talent. After that Wakayama got to work with big league directors like Masahiro Shinoda (Under the Cherry Blossoms (1975) - widely considered his best role) and Kon Ichikawa (The Phoenix (1978) - a memorable part-live action, part anime fantasy), with occasional Hollywood roles such as a baseball coach in The Bad News Bears Go To Japan (1978) and a yakuza boss in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain (1989). He passed away in 1992.
Yet despite all the talent involved, if it weren’t for the acclaim they enjoy in the west, the Toho series would be almost forgotten. In Japan actor Kinnosuke Yorozuya is considered the definitive Lone Wolf, having starred in a hugely popular television series that spun off four movies in the 1980s. Tomisaburo Wakayama returned to the fold, this time as the villainous Lord Yagyu opposite Hideki Takahashi as Itto Ogami in the movie Lone Wolf and Cub: An Assassin on the Road to Hell (1989) directed by veteran Tokuzo Tanaka. The last adaptation to date came from celebrated samurai auteur Akira Inoue. His Lone Wolf and Cub: The Final Chapter (1992) is considered one of the finest entries in the series, although for some reason it doesn’t feature the baby cart…