Friday, May 28, 2004

Lone Wolf and Cub

DVD - Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance

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This is a weird but beautiful Japanese movie based on the long-running Lone Wolf and Cub manga series (Amazon has 18 volumes available, but I believe there are many more in total).

Ogami Itto is the official Shogunate Executioner (the man who decapitates Samurai who perform seppuku). After his wife is killed and he is sentenced to death (for what are probably very simple reasons but feudal Japan is not my area of expertise - simply put, he pissed off the Yagyu clan who in turn framed him for treason), he chooses to walk the path of evil as an assassin for hire. He gives his infant son a choice between joining his mother and walking the path with his father. Daigoro chooses his father's sword over his own toy and the two of them set out on a path of revenge and solitude.

This first film in the series of six is burdened with flashbacks and explanations, which are probably necessary but made it difficult for me to follow. Originally released in 1972, it is violent without apology but the gore is rather silly - in one shot you may think that you see the tube from which copious amounts of bright red "blood" shoot out of a man's wound. There is another rather distressing scene in which a group of outlaws literally rape a young woman to death as her father watches, protesting. In fact, I don't recommend this one for anyone with tender sensibilities regarding women, as every one who appears in the film ends up dead (his wife, the raped peasant woman), crazy (in the beginning of the film a young woman, mad from the loss of her own son, mistakenly claims Daigoro and nurses him while her family explains to Ogami her circumstances and asks to pay him for the "rental" of his son; he refuses money, saying that Daigoro was hungry anyway), or...well, I'll get to the whore.

Honor is one of the primary staples of Japanese culture, and never moreso than in the time period during which this film takes place (the first half of the 17th century). When Ogami and Daigoro wind up in a small village populated by outlaws, the men threaten to kill a whore (and presumably Ogami as well) if he does not have sex with her. He lies with her in an utterly passionless scene, after which she praises his ability to get it up under such pressure and his willingness to cast aside his honor to save her life (there is no doubt that he could save his own, with or without his sword...the weapon, that is).

As I said, this movie is difficult to follow and the flashbacks and convoluted plot make it feel longer than it is. Nevertheless, I do recommend it.

DVD - Lone Wolf and Cub 2: Baby Cart at the River Styx

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In the second movie, there is far less to keep track of and the storytelling is more linear. There are two basic plots: the leader of the Shadow-Yagyu hires a small, female branch of the clan to assassinate Ogami; men from the Awa clan hire Ogami to kill a man who is being escorted to another village to sell their secrets of indigo dyes (the escorts are, of course, three renowned brothers called the Gods of Death - more on them later).

There is a ridiculously comical scene in which the women prove that they need no backup from men: they literally chop the strongest male ninja to bits as he attempts to get past them. I just about laughed my head off, which, if I meant that literally, would have been appropriate.

To my delight, Daigoro is a little bit older in this film (though not more than 2) and participates a good deal more. We learn that his perambulator is not just a wooden cart. We rewound three times to see the look on his face as he flipped the 'switch' to release one of the many blades hidden in it as an assassin rushes him. In a tender scene when Ogami has been injured, Daigoro runs to the river and tries to bring his father water by making a bowl with his hands. Of course he fails, but he doesn't give up and his solution is clever and adorable. It is a lovely bit of insight into how self-sufficient he is, as well as the true bond between father and son. When he is later kidnapped by the Yagyu he is perfectly calm as Ogami tells them that he will go be with his mother, and follows an imperceptible direction from his father to help save his own life.

When we get back to the Gods of Death, they are on a boat headed to the meeting point from which they will escort the Awa traitor. The boat is filled with bumbling assassins as well as the one surviving woman, still bent on killing Ogami. The three brothers use unique weapons including a set of claws that fit over the (I presume) eldest brother's hands and are just wicked cool. They too follow a strict code of honor, fighting only those who attack them first or stand in the way of their tasks. One of the assassins onboard sets the boat on fire, and we learn that the baby cart floats. The woman, whose name I wish I knew as it would be easier to refer to her that way, attempts to kill Ogami as he is pushing the cart toward land, but he disarms her and winds up saving her life. There follows a very interesting scene in which it appears that he is going to rape her.

The final confrontation with the three brothers takes place in the desert (I need to study Japan's geography - I had no idea there were desert areas) and contains one of the absolute coolest ambushes I have ever seen.

I liked this one far more than the first - it even kept me awake! Having seen them in order myself, I can't say whether it would work to come into the series at this point, so I'd advise watching the first one first. Besides, you just might love Sword of Vengeance.

The rest of the series

Lone Wolf and Cub 3: Baby Cart to Hades

Lone Wolf and Cub - Baby Cart in Peril

Lone Wolf and Cub - Baby in the Land of Demons
Also available at DeepDiscountDVD

Lone Wolf and Cub White Heaven in Hel


The DVD treatment of these films is astounding. The transfer is so beautiful that the movies could have been shot yesterday. The cinematography is outstanding, making the crisp, clean transfer all the more enjoyable. There are two subtitle options; the full subtitles include explanations of select words to help the viewer understand what is going on and, to some extent, how the society was set up. The liner notes, available both in the traditional form and onscreen, explain the class system in great detail and reference sources that were used for the notes as well as in the translation. I can't say how the sound is, other than clean, because we have lousy speakers.

These are short movies - under 90 minutes. And they are really freakin' neat (if disgusting in places). Go! Rent or buy them! That's an order.