Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance

Certificate: 18
Running Time: 83 minutes
Director: Kenji Misumi
Starring: Tomisaburo Wakayama, Fumio Watanabe, Tomoko Mayama
Genre: Action, Drama
Country: Japan

Kenji Misumi steps behind the camera for the first cinematic adaptation of the Kazuo Koike manga series Lone Wolf and Cub with Tomisaburo Wakayama as Ogami Itto the Shogunate samurai who is betrayed by the Yagyu clan and forced out into the Japanese countryside on a quest for vengeance along with his infant son, Daigoro.

If proof was required of the universal power of narrative then Lone Wolf and Cub provides it.  Before, and indeed after, it there have been many samurai films that have transcended culture to find their way into the heart of the Western world; Seven Samurai and Yojimbo to name but two, but none seem to encapsulate a common story quite as well as Lone Wolf and Cub.  The vengeance narrative is one that all of us can understand and relate to but how the film (some 41 years later) is not only still relevant but also still fresh and powerful is a testament not just to the source material but also Misumi’s direction.  As a piece of cinema LW&C is beautiful, striking and poetic.  Alarmingly it’s at it’s most beautiful when it’s striving to be it’s most combative or destructive.  The sword fight between Itto and the five samurai at the waterfall is wonderfully shot as Misumi plays with death and nature, vengeance and the symbolic meaning of water and the slower paced the action gets the better it becomes.  Intuitively directors lean towards making a sequence like this as fast paced and frantic as possible in order to jump-start the audiences' heartbeat and get them inching towards the edge of the seat but Misumi fights this instinct and what he creates is unbearable tension.  As the (would be) assailants line up to face the disgraced shogun they become statuesque and unflinching which creates an amazing calmness on screen that magnifies the cinematic tension in a way that “high octane” shenanigans could never achieve.  Contrarily the climatic showdown that not only channels Kurosawa but also his Hollywood (western) counterparts the action is fast, measured and beautifully graphic.  Much of the violence results in degrees of amputation which still looks great.  The scene in which Itto uses the sunlight to throw off his opponent before decapitating him (again set against a beautiful, natural location) is awe inspiring in it’s simplicity and cinematography alike.

All round the performances are top drawer, granted there are one or two “evil swordsmen” that come across a little pantomime but it’s almost required, and most certainly expected in this genre.  Wakayama carries himself with a quiet dignity that’s amazing, he draws you in.  You want him to be angry, to be the aggressor, to be as outraged as you would be and it’s perfect that he’s not.  He has a decency and yet a quiet menace that attracts you and forces you to find him on screen whenever we’re in long shot.  Similarly Tomoko Mayama (as Osen – the prostitute) is very strong, she arrives on screen quite late-on but is deserving of acknowledgement because of what she does with the character but also how she draws out even more of the character of Itto.  They are a lot alike, both disgraced yet both admirable, respectful and incredibly dignified human beings.  Whether Misumi was trying to say something about traditional versus modern day Japan is a question for another day but the classic western device of the “hooker with a heart of gold” is taken on board as Misumi attempts to reclaim the hijacked genre for the Eastern world and Mayama carries all of these sensibilities in her elegant performance.

Lone Wolf and Cub – Sword of Vengeance is not just a great “comic book” film, it’s not just a great samurai film but it’s a great film.  It’s textually plentiful, visually beautiful, incredibly enjoyable and so close to perfect.


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