The Lone Wolf and Cub film series is based on the manga with the same title that ran from 1970 to 1976. Writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima created the characters and situations but it was actor Tomasiburu Wakayama, half brother of Shintaro Katsu, who put a real face on the franchise as ronin Ogami Itto.
Sword of Vengeance (SOV) is the first of six films made with the character at Toho studios and it serves as the origin story for Itto and his young son, Daigoro. Itto is set up by a rival clan to look like he was planning a move against the shogun he serves. He’s ordered to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) but instead, he takes his child and goes on the run vowing revenge against the Yagyu clan who framed him. It may sound like a simple tale of revenge, but the addition of the child and the excellent work of prolific director Kenji Misumi really set it apart.
Here in the states, some of this film was seen in a recut of the first two movies titled Samurai Assassin. While I enjoyed that film for its kitsch, it really does a disservice to the original film. Unlike subsequent installments, SOV has a more serious approach to the material. Misumi effectively uses nonlinear storytelling to fill us in on the details as we plow forward with Itto and son. The influx of over the top Hong Kong films in the 70s eventually pushed the Lone Wolf and Cub series toward more silliness, but most of SOV’s villains are rapists and murderers who pose a serious threat to the renegade Itto.
Itto isn’t without his own set of skills. Equipped with a legendary katana and the ability to take on multiple foes at once, he certainly holds his own in a fight. To give him an extra edge, pun intended, he crafts a baby carriage that’s loaded with hidden weapons. It’s the Aston Martin of perambulators and it gets him out of more than a few scrapes.
The only issue I have with the Itto character as he’s played by Wakayama is his dour countenance. The character has one facial expression–a frown. That really sets him apart from his brother’s jolly Zatoichi character. In a way, the man and his son form two halves of a single character. One jaded and world-weary, the other happy as a clam. Neither one says very much, preferring to let their actions speak for them.
There is a little Shaw Bothers goofiness here, mainly in the character of the head of the Yagyu clan. His look has become such an anime stereotype, it’s hard not to laugh every time he shows up. You have to remember that the archetype for that sort of character came from Noh and Kabuki plays. The image has just found such a fertile home in the anime world that it now seems ridiculous.
Overall, I found this to be one of the most entertaining Japanese films of the 1970s. As the decade wore on, the studios found themselves in a struggle for their very existence, so it’s a miracle that anything this good was actually produced in such an environment. Very highly recommended.