Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell

Certificate: 18
Running time: 83 mins
Director: Yoshiyuki Kuroda
Starring: Tomisaburo Wakayama, Akihiro Tomikawa, Junko Hitomi
Genre: Action, Drama
Country: Japan

Given enough time all good things come to an end, Lone Wolf and Cub is no exception having blazed through six feature films, three directors in two years with one stand-out star.  Director duties pass from Kenji Misumi (who directed four of the previous five films) to Yoshiyuki Kuroda of Yokai Monsters fame for the final chapter.  The change in director identifies a change in direction also, this might seem obvious to point out but it’s a requirement.  Gone are the almost canvas-like picturesque beauty of Misumi’s cinematography to be replaced by the epic celebration of “the supernatural” and the fantasmagoria of Kuroda’s cursed narrative as Itto (Wakayama) faces off against spirits who kill all who aid him and the last remaining child of Kaori Yagyu (head of the Yagyu clan).

Visually the film does not falter from the change of director.  Kuroda brings a freshness to the cinematic palette as he shoots the majority of the action in the crisp, white snow of the Japanese winter.  Over the course of the Lone Wolf and Cub journey there has been several heavy comparisons and associations to the “Western” genre and again Kuroda’s use of the virginal white of winter carries connotations of The Great Silence which having been directed by Sergio Corbucci is, like Misumi and Kuroda, is an outsider subverting the “great American genre”. 

Kuroda handles the supernatural elements of the narrative sensitively and with understanding and an Baby Cart in the Land of the Demons introduced the idea but dealt with it in a half in/half out kind of way that altered the balance of the film leaving it in limbo a lot of the time.  White Heaven in Hell commits to the premise and in doing so delivers.  Narratively the film has the most to offer as Yagyu has exhausted all of his genetic resources in his attempts to kill Itto but it’s not without frustration.  Like Land of the Demons there’s the opportunity here to showcase Daigoro and his gradual transformation into his father’s son.  He holds the screen wonderfully, he even manages to capture Wakayama’s gesturality but it never pushes this aspect, and it’s one that is incredibly interesting.

Wakayama is, as usual, a powerful performer.  He’s capable of holding and delivering any narrative, no matter how tried and tested the road is.  His growing rivalry with Junko Hitomi, who has a striking persona in his own right, is one that all fans of LWAC have been looking forward to.  Hitomi’s presence, and his stillness is a match for that of his rival but it’s never fully actualised.  The combative sequences, including the (by now) standard conclusion battle are always impressive.  Kuroda’s understanding of the landscape, the mise en shot and how to create a rich visual is a match for any but the film lands flat and it’s a frustrating end to what is one of the most impressive and consistent film franchises ever.


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