Opening with an execution and closing with an extended, balletic and bloody sword fight, the complete series of Lone Wolf and Cub films (plus “composite” film Shogun Assassin) collected in this gorgeous new box set could never be described as tame.
Sword of Vengeance (1971) begins the series in style, director Kenji Misumi deciding to ignore the inherently pulpy nature of the stories by offering a glorious assault on the senses with as a series of blood soaked fight sequences accompany our heroes on their escape from Shogun ways.
Wakayama makes for a stoic lead, barely uttering a word of dialogue throughout the series, his skill with a sword matched by Misumi (who would remain as director until the third film) and his ever-watchful camera.
The rest of the series, made over a two year period, maintains the high standard of the original, each film opening and closing with scenes of Lone Wolf and his son meandering through some new part of Japan.
Whether its dusty streets, golden desert sand dunes or, in the case of White Heaven in Hell (1974), mountains capped with thick snow, the pair trundle on indefinitely, taking on various enemies as they try to kill them with ever more ingenious techniques.
Pointing out that the basic plot of each film is basically the same would be to miss the point of these films, the joy coming from seeing Ogami get out of each new scrape armed only with his sword and his wits…and the tooled up baby cart which his son travels in, equipped with various knives, swords and other weapons which make James Bond’s Aston Martin pale in comparison.
There’s also undeniable tragedy in the life thrust upon the pair, seemingly destined to be wanderers forever, Ogami’s constant declaration that he and his son “live at the crossroads to hell, existing at the gateway to the netherworld” a sign that he’d happily die in battle if it meant escaping from his purgatory.
As mentioned above, the set also includes the infamous Shogun Assassin from 1980, the film which inspired Tarantino’s Kill Bill films and brought Lone Wolf to the West.
It’s a decent enough film, created by chopping up some of the others and lashing them back together again, but now there’s no need to settle for second best.
Each of the film transfers looks crystal clear on DVD thanks to recent remastering licenced by production company Toho, while the newly translated subtitles add to the feeling that this is the definitive release of these much undervalued films.
Though lacking the extras of some recent Eureka! sets, in this case the films speak for themselves, the glossy packaging, trailers and liner notes enough making this yet another exceptional release with which to end 2009 following the recent Doctor Mabuse set.
Update: Through email correspondence with the producers of this set I’ve recently learnt that this is in fact a limited edition boxset, something not clear on any of the press material sent to me with the original review discs. What this in effect means is that once it’s gone we’re unlikely to see it again, certainly not on Region 2…a word of warning if you’re debating whether or not to buy this title.