Chances are, even if you’ve never even heard of the Lone Wolf & Cub series, you’ve still most likely come across it in some form. Watch the Mandalorian, do you? Well, there’s a major influence right there as Pedro Pascal’s helmeted warrior escorts his adorable, green, infant charge from one end of the galaxy to the other – but Kenji Misumi’s stoic slice-fest has even turned up in such things as diverse as Bob’s Burgers for crying out loud (look no further than the Hawk & Chick film series Bob and youngest daughter Louise are obsessed with). But in many ways, the series feels very much like the Samurai movie answer to Spaghetti Westerns – which is exceedingly ironic considering that they themselves are a direct offshoot of the samurai cinema of Akira Kurosawa. However, regardless of who influenced who, the result of this adaptation of of the 1970’s Manga by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, is incredibly violent, stunningly stylish and agonisingly cool.
A haggard looking middle-aged man pushes a wooden cart containing his cheerful, infant son along a road seemingly without direction with a constantly grim expression fixed on his face. Copious flashbacks reveal that this is Ogami Itto, a former executioner to the Shogun who has now become a Ronin after falling foul of a complicated plot to implicate him in an act of treason. The plot was the plan of the Yagyū clan who normally oversees the shogun’s spies and assassins and wanted to install one of their own in the role of High Executioner and their act saw Ogami’s wife slaughtered by their agents and Ogami and his son, Daigoro, left to wander the land in search of revenge.
Wearing a sign that let’s people that both he and his son are for hire (as seen when Daigoro is enlisted to suckle at the breast of an insane woman who has lost her child), Itto virtually dices anyone who gives him trouble despite his deceptively doughy physique thanks to his superior katana skills and he is eventually hired by a Chamberlain to thwart an assassination of the sickly, local lord of that region in order to supplant a successor.
Heading into the hot-sping town, Ogami discovers that the town is overrun with grimy Ronin who have been hired by the conspirators and have been indulging in their past time of raping and pillaging and the gang repeatedly try and goad the stranger into violent altercations only for this Ronin with a rug rat to remain firm.
But as the saying goes, it’s all about timing and soon he will make his move and unleash his devastating skills upon these evil doers as he continues on his road to the crossroads of hell.
One of the first thoughts I had while absorbing the multitudes of pleasure Sword Of Vengeance had to offer was fairly simple: why the hell wasn’t this series more well known? Oh sure, I was aware of its existence, but that was mostly down to watching the utterly insane American recut known as Shogun Assassin that popped up in Grindhouses in America and absurdly landed on the video nasties list in England.
The first film (of six) has its iconic duo take on a mostly minor mission while trundling into town after taking a job to halt an assassination, but what Sword Of Vengeance is really about is establishing the origin of Ogami Itto and Daigoro through a succession of memorable flashbacks as they slowly make their way to the A-plot. As a result, the opening movie feels very much like a two-on-one deal that gives you a detailed explanation as who this stony faced dude is and why he takes his goggle-eyed child with him literally everywhere he goes (he even wears the kid in a pouch on his back during a one on one duel!), but then it switches into a Sergio Leone style infiltration mission as the flashbacks give way to a more, standard adventure. Thankfully, both are great.
Of the two, the flashbacks hold the most interest as we get immersed in the laughably complicated plot that leads to Ogami being disgraced to begin with and then are repeatedly blessed with scene after scene of unforgettable stylish Samurai action that blends the visual flare of Anime with the brutal intelligence of Eastwood’s Man With No Name. Watch Ogami slice his way through dozens of men with his flashing sword in one arm and his unflappable child in the other as he stains his snow white robes red as blood erupts from the severed arteries of his victims like a burst water main. Later, knowing he is dueling with a man of equal skill who has the advantage of having the sun at his back, Ogami, who has his son at his back, cheats by strapping a mirror to the tot’s head and decapitates his opponent while they’re dazzled. Make no mistake, this is a cruel world our characters operate in where honor and duty lead people to perform inhuman acts and we are initially introduced to our “hero” as he is tasked by the Shogun to execute an infant Daimyo. Later, after his wife has been murdered and the plot moves against him, Ogami, determined to start on this road of death and revenge, gives little clueless Daigoro the option of crawling toward his sword (an indication that the nipper will join him in his quest) or a brightly coloured ball meaning that his father will dispatch him to the afterlife to be with his mother – talk about heaping responsibilities on the young!
Throughout it all, the movie is held chiefly by the steely gaze of Tomisaburõ Wakayama, whose double chin, whispy bedhead and obvious dad bod somehow makes Ogami all the more intimidating, but the juxtaposition between him and his impossibly cheerful son, who clearly seems oblivious to all the violent carnage going on all around him, make the emotionless samurai stand out from his equally vengence-obsessed peers.
Director Kenji Misumi deftly handles the tale, laying on oppressive moments of silence as characters weigh up their leaden fates that is soon punctuated by the clanging of blades and the liquid gush of spurting lifeblood as the intense atmosphere becomes so thick, you could slice it with a samurai sword. The fighting scenes are quick and brutal with the finale seeing Ogami rushing through the village, hacking the arms and legs off villains like a butcher on PCP while also beginning the running thread that Daigoro’s pram has some hidden features that may violate one or two child safety laws.
Brutally exhilarating, darkly humourous and cool as hell, the only thing that makes Lone Wolf And Cub: Sword Of Vengeance even better is that there’s five more of these beautiful bastards to watch and I can’t wait to see where this father/son trip to Hell is going to go next.