The Lone Wolf and Cub series of six films came out in the space of only three years, from 1972 to 1974. The films were based on the long-running Manga of the same name and in turn, are some of the earliest films based on Manga (which is the Japanese word for a comic book, basically.) The Japanese were making comic book films at a fast rate well before the Americans.
All of the films follow a pretty routine formula. Ogami Ittō is an assassin who has his son Daigorō who has a baby cart that is fitted out with numerous weapons. It’s a tale of revenge after his wife is killed by a ninja assassin and he refuses to commit harakiri (ritual suicide) when commanded to do so. They wander through the landscape of the Edo period, taking jobs as assassins for various clans for 500 Ryo a kill—it’s never more or less. It’s all told with decidedly anti-moralistic bent: it’s just relentless violence throughout the six films.
The first three films and the fifth were directed by Kenji Misumi, who also was responsible for many of the Zatoichi films, which are similar to the Lone Wolf and Cub series. He sadly would die only two years after his last entry in the series. He took obvious influences from the samurai films that came before, the Spaghetti Westerns that were coming out at an equally rapid rate, and of course manga.
There are numerous moments, especially in the fight scenes, that seem like they were literally ripped straight out of the original manga, and this was years before Robert Rodriguez did that with Sin City. It certainly helped that the first five films were written by the manga’s creator, Kazuo Koike.
The first two films came out in a bastardized American version called Shogun Assassin, which is how Tarantino and many others were first introduced to the series. He famously referenced it in Kill Bill, which sparked a renewed interest in the films. It may be sacrilege, but I kind of prefer the even more surreal Shogun Assassin edit than the original films. The other four films have also been dubbed into American sequels, but these dubbed versions are not included in the set.
Shogun Assassin was conceived of by David Weisman and Robert Houston, who cut together the first two films for the American market at the behest of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. When it came out over here in the UK, it got caught up in nonsense that was the ‘Video Nasties’ panic. In reality, while it is absurdly violent, the film a dreamlike quality that is certainly helped by the narration, which owes more than a bit to Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.
The narration is done from the point of view little Daigorō, who of course probably couldn’t remember or even comprehend the violence that occurs during the course of the film. It’s a radical rethinking of the two original films, and even with the dub it might be better viewing for many viewers (and it does have an awesome ’80s synth score to go with the action.) Throughout the series viewers are assaulted with the best blood-spurts I’ve ever seen—including a scene where he cuts someone’s head open with a samurai sword, there’s a best, and then the head breaks in half with a bloody explosion.
The cast were veteran Japanese actors, and Tomisaburo Wakayama is perfect in the lead role. Like many Japanese actors at that time, he had an extensive background in the theatre as well as doing tons of samurai films. He later had a small American film career, but the Lone Wolf and Cub series remained his best-known part. The acting is slightly exaggerated, as is typical in the genre.
The three-disc set from Criterion features remastered versions of all six Lone Wolf and Cub films in HD and Shogun Assassin (although Shogun Assassin somehow looks worse than the rest, possibly because it was remastered from a duplicate of a copy), a 2005 French documentary about the series, and a 1939 documentary about samurai swords. There’s a newly filmed interview with Kazuo Koike, another about the sword techniques used in the film, and one with the director’s biographer, Kazuma Nozawa. Rounding off the collection is all of the film trailers and a fat booklet about the films by Patrick Macias.