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Lone Wolf & Cub Five: Or don’t try to pass off a girl as a boy. It could cost you your head.

This is the 5th in the Lone Wolf & Cub series.  It also marks the return of Director Kenji Misumi who directed the first three Baby Cart films.  It combines the films strong period feel, a convoluted affair and a fantastic amount of onscreen schematic violence.  Including some of the best death scenes in the series particularly the deaths of the messengers, each die a spectacular death.  For example, Itto slashes one of the poor saps who falls into Itto’s campfire’s red-hot coals living in agony only long enough to relay a complex message before finally he is finally engulfed in flames.

I guess I should explain the reference to the messengers in the preceding paragraph.  Ogami is being vetted by five messengers who all try to kill him.  That is some original job recruiting by an employer; I don’t think we would have an unemployment problem if more employers took these types of actions in while headhunting.  After defeating all the messengers, Ogami learns he must kill a young girl who is being raised as a boy to become heir of a local daimyo, while the real heir, a little boy, is kept locked away in a castle tower.  I have to ask wouldn’t someone notice along the way that the child is growing into a woman rather than a man?

The assassination assignment includes murdering the senile old lord, his concubine and the girl masquerading as a boy, plus Ogami must also stop a document revealing this sham from reaching the hands of his mortal enemy, Yagyū Retsudō.  While on the job, his son Daigoro is once again separated from his father and proves his courage and sense of honor as he refuses to admit the guilt of a woman pickpocket he promised not to rat on.  With his father looking on and giving his son ever so slight nods approving of Diagoro’s refusal rat on the woman, the boy is beaten, doesn’t talk and has taken his first major step to becoming a samurai.

For Itto it can be said that although Tomisaburo Wakayama plays a very stoic, virtually emotionless character, he does it very well.  This is perhaps due to his years of real martial arts training.  He handles his sword normally without any of over the top moves because of his skills, however, he can pull it off as his movements are focused and intimidating.

Now as a chambara fan, I must confess that the combination of stylized violence and the existential mystical look at both historical Japan and the genre conventions that form chambara, sure come through in this film.  It might not be as groundbreaking as the first two entries in the series; it is after all following well-tested tradition, but it is done with such conviction and deliberation that one has to give it its due.

As with other serialized characters of the chambara universe like Zatoichi or Nemuri Kiyoshiro, Baby Cart in the Land of Demons meets one’s expectations as a pure Lone Wolf movie that doesn’t frustrate one the way Hollywood sequels do.  Master film-maker Kenji Misumi breaks the traditional forms of the period drama that make even a fifth entry of this tried and tested recipe very palatable.

The idea of the five Samurai, each giving Ogami a part of his mission as their dying words is an imaginative one.  The fight scenes were excellent, particularly the underwater fight scene.  While the final battle was not as epic as some of the others in the series, Ogami still fights an entire army single-handedly, as fans have come to expect since the second film.

While some may say Baby Cart in the Land of Demons isn’t as enjoyable as some of its predecessors, I think otherwise.  It’s very solid from a technical standpoint and probably the most beautifully-filmed of the bunch.  The Spaghetti Western cinematic influences are present throughout in the form of tight Leone-esque camera shots and certain musical cues.  At times, there’s also a subtle otherworldly atmosphere, which may or may not be suggestive of Itto and son’s further descent into the depths of hell.  Even the supporting characters in the film are somewhat allegorical in a way: the clansmen of the Kuroda wear demon masks, and the initial five Kuroda representatives that Itto battles in the first act of the film wear veils that feature drawings of the “Beasts of Hell”.

As with anyone of the series see it, you won’t regret it.

 
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Posted by on April 22, 2012 in Movie Reviews

 

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We are nearing the end here is number 4–Baby Cart In Peril. Or Tattoo wasn’t just a midget on Fantasy Island.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril or Kozure Ōkami: Oya no kokoro ko no kokoro (literally Wolf with Child in Tow: The Heart of a Parent, the Heart of a Child) is the fourth of in our look at the Lone Wolf and Cub series about Ogami Ittō, the wandering assassin for hire who keeps his young son, Daigoro, in tow.  This film has also been released as Shogun Assassin 3: Slashing Blades of Carnage, the second sequel to Shogun Assassin.

Baby Cart in Peril is the first of the series that was not directed by Kenji Misumi, who directed the first three, and the fourth entry to this samurai series.  Instead, relatively unknown director Buichi Saito pulls off a unique atmosphere of elegance in an otherwise series of bloody conflicts.  As I have stated in the past, the Lone Wolf and Cub series should be seen in chronological order since each one of the movies has its own particular features.

Baby Car in Peril starts with a tattooed female assassin, Oyuki, who is a renegade member of a daimyo’s personal bodyguard detail.  She is killing all the flunkies who are sent up against her.  Along with her deadly use of the short blade, she strips to the waist while fighting to reveal elaborate tattoos on her chest and back. On her front is a kintarō grasping her left breast. A portrait of a mountain witch covers her back.  She then cuts off her victims’ topknots, which is particularly shameful to the dead man and his family.  Oyuki has had her breasts and back tattooed specifically to distract her enemies. That means she frequently fights with her upper torso exposed. This could have been a simple exploitation gimmick with poorly choreographed moves but Saito and his fight coordinator Eiichi Kusumoto do not waste an opportunity to show a different style of fighting that is every bit as interesting as Ogami’s Suio-ryu sword fighting techniques. Because of her short blade, Oyama fights close in to her enemies where their long swords are ineffective. She’s able to do this by dodging attacks and spinning in close or ensnaring her enemy’s weapons with an object such as a basket.

Ogami Ittō  is hired to kill Oyuki with little fan fair by the families she has disgraced via the topknot removal.  Ittō begins at the source and tracks down the tattoo artist, who explains that she was a “fine” woman who did not scream as he dug into her flesh with his needles and that she must have been involved in the martial arts.

 

While waiting for his father, Daigoro needs a little fun and goes exploring and finds a pair of performing clowns on the street. When the clowns finish their act, Daigoro follows them, hoping to see more, but is told that it’s time to go home.  Now, Daigoro has wandered too far. He is lost, and has become separated from his father.

 

A procession of Ittō’s mortal enemies is not far and a group of them are near. Accompanied by the sound of gongs and loud shrieks, Daigoro darts into hiding.  Ittō must give up the search for his son rather than risk an entanglement with the men, so he travels on alone.

 

Daigoro spends several days looking for his father, searching in every temple in the countryside. He enters one temple and sees a figure at the altar praying, but it is not his father. Rather, it is a man whom Daigoro immediately recognizes as someone who is unfriendly.  The man follows Daigoro, who wanders into a grass field as it is being lit on fire by farmers to fertilize the soil.  Daigoro is surrounded by the flames, but he proves his prowess by burying himself to hide from the fire and surviving.

 

The man then turns his sword on Daigoro, who raises a stick to defend himself in the same manner and style as his father does, and in that instant the man realizes who Daigoro is.  Ittō enters the scene and the two recognize each other. The man, it turns out, is Gunbei Yagyū, the outcast son of Retsudo Yagyū. Gunbei and Ittō had competed for the post of shogun’s executioner, and Gunbei’s fierce swordsmanship surely would have won him the post, but in his over zealousness, he ends up pointing his sword at the shogun – a taboo movement that costs him the job and makes him an outcast.

 

A note on Gunbei: we are treated to a flashback when he lost the job to Ittō and Retsudo goes ballistic.  To save face, he has one of his minions who is an expert at disguise make himself up to look like Gunbei and has him beheaded and put on display so the world thinks that Gunbei has been killed for his failure.

 

Ittō and Gunbei now have a rematch, but Ittō is much improved and is ready for Gunbei. With a swift stroke, he chops off Gunbei’s right arm. Gunbei then begs Ittō to kill him, but Ittō refuses, saying there is nothing to be gained from slaying a man who is already dead.  Looks like Ittō got the last laugh on that one.

With Gunbei rendered ineffective and father and son reunited, the action then turns on finding the prey, tattooed killer Oyuki.  Ittō stops at a settlement of street actors that Oyuki was said to be a part of. He talks to the elder and hears more of her story, and it happens that the elder is Oyuki’s father, who is appalled by her actions, and cooperates with Ittō to end her reign of terror.

 

Ittō finally locates Oyuki at a hot spring resort and witnesses her skills in action against more vassals-fools who have come to try to kill her. Then her arch nemesis, her former instructor who raped her and set her on this bloody vendetta, shows up with his flaming sword and blazing eyes. But she is no longer in his sway, and when he sees her tattoos, he is distracted and killed.

Finally, Ittō has a job to do and he makes quick work of her. She dies a splendid death, as Ittō says, without having to disrobe.

Retsudo Yagyū, meanwhile, has been playing politics. He manipulates a local daimyo into bringing in Ittō, but Ittō is able to use the baby cart and its weapons to escape from the daimyo’s palace and take the man hostage. As Ittō is leaving the area with the daimyo along for safety, he is attacked by the Yagyū. The daimyo is killed by some musketeers and Ittō goes headlong into battle, telling his son Daigoro that he is entering the “crossroads to hell.” It is a fierce battle, ending with Ittō and Retsudo in combat. They trade blows – Retsudo gets a blade in his right eye and Ittō a sword in his back. Ittō kills the swordsman who stabs him, but Retsudo gets away.

 

Daigoro finds his father and with great effort, pulls the sword from his father’s back. Despite being severely wounded, Ittō carries Daigoro to the cart and slowly pushes it away, seeking medical treatment for himself. Watching over the scene is the now one-armed Gunbei, who is happy to see Ittō live to fight another day.

 

The story works well in spite of some weaknesses. O-Yuki’s tattoos are provocative but the idea of men ready to cut a woman to ribbons – men who likely have some experience with rape and murder – getting distracted by a little skin art just never rang true to me.

 

The world of Lone Wolf & Cub is brutal and unforgiving, and children are not immune to its cruelty. Even the bond between parent and child – of particular relevance considering Lone Wolf & Cub’s premise – is given little consideration in the face of violently enforced standards of duty and honor. Though it seems like the connection is coincidental, all three films leading up to Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 4 share the similar threads of either violence befalling children or parents aiding in the bloody ends of sons and daughters.  In volume 4, the father must sell out his daughter to comply with his perceptions of duty and honor owed to society as a whole.

 
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Posted by on March 25, 2012 in Movie Reviews

 

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It has been too long since we did a series. Well here is a real blast from the past Lone Wolf and Cub.

The Lone Wolf & Cub series has a cult following (including me).  All but one of the movies was made in 2 years:

Sword of Vengeance (1972)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (1972)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (1972)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973)

Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (1974)

A total of seven Lone Wolf and Cub films featuring Tomisaburo Wakayama as “Ogami Ittō” have been produced based on the comic. They are also known as the Sword of Vengeance series, based on the English-language title of the first film, and later as the Baby Cart series, because Itto’s young son Daigoro travels in a wooded baby carriage pushed by his father.

The first three films were directed by Kenji Misumi, released in 1972 and produced by Shintaro Katsu, Tomisaburo Wakayama’s brother and the star of the legendary 26 part Zatoichi (the blind swordsman) film series.  The next three films were produced by Wakayama and directed by Buichi Saito, Kenji Misumi and Yoshiyuki Kuroda, released in 1972, 1973, and 1974 respectively.

A word or two should be said about Tomisaburo Wakayama.  While he is known best for his role as the Lone Wolf, he, like his brother, were prolific actors.  Wakayama was also an excellent martial artist obtaining his 4th degree black belt in Judo as well as other martial art disciplines including Kenpo, Iaido, Kendo and Bojutsu, usually learning them when he prepared for filming.  He and his brother came from a family of Kabuki actors that toured Asia and the west.  After a two year tour in the U.S., Wakayama had enough and left his family’s acting troupe to take up the martial arts.  He was subsequently hired by Toei as an actor and the rest is history.  He has had roles in over two hundred films, including a famous scene in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain (1989) starring Andy Garcia and Michael Douglas take a look http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jC46eTGpf1M.

Some background & the first movie Sword of Vengeance. 

Ogami Ittō, formidable warrior and a master of the suiō-ryū swordsmanship, functions as the Kaishakunin (the Shōgun’s executioner), a position of high power in the Shogunate.  Ogami Ittō is the Shogun’s enforcer over the daimyō of Japan (lesser domain lords).  When the Shogun ordered samurai and lords to commit seppuku, the Kaishakunin had the “privilege” of assisting in the deaths by decapitating the subject to stop the self-inflicted torture of disembowelment; in this role, Itto is entitled to brandish the crest of the Shogunate, by law acting in the Shogun’s place.  So you can’t screw with him.  I can only imagine what coming home from work every day was like “hi honey I am home . . . long day at the office decapitated three people” and the like—interesting dinner conversation.

Shortly after Ogami Ittō’s wife Azami gives birth to their son, Daigorō, he returns from work to find everyone viciously murdered except his newborn son.  The patsy’s are three samurai from an abolished clan trying to take revenge of their lord against Ittō for his “assistance” with the lords death.  Itto’s knows that this is a scam planned by Ura-Yagyū (Shadow Yagyu) Yagyū Retsudō, leader of the Ura-Yagyū clan, to seize Ogami’s powerful position.  Somebody planted a funeral tablet with the shogun’s crest on it inside the Ogami family shrine, supposedly signifying a wish for the shogun’s death.  When the planted tablet is “discovered” its presence dooms Ittō to traitor status and he relinquishes his post.

The 1-year-old Daigorō is given a choice a ball or the sword (see clip).  If the kid chose the ball, his father would kill him and himself, sending him to be with his mother.  Luckily the child crawls toward the sword.  Itto has now become one of many rōnin wandering the country as the assassin-for-hire team that becomes known as Lone Wolf and Cub, vowing to destroy the Yagyū clan to avenge Azami’s death and Ittō’s disgrace.

While cruising the country Itto does a little advertising by hanging a banner off his back “Ogami: Suiouryo technique” (Child and expertise for rent).  His marketing plan works when he lands a job from a Chamberlain to kill a rival and his gang of henchmen who are out to kill chamberlain’s lord.  The chamberlain decides to test Ittō, but he makes quick work of the chamberlain’s two best swordsmen.  His targets are in a remote mountain village that is host a number of natural hot-spring spa pools.

When Ittō reaches the hot-spring village, he finds that the rival chamberlain and his men have hired a band of ronin that have taken over the town and are doing your usual raping, looting and pillaging.

The ronin discuss killing Ittō, but decide to let him live if he will have sex with the town’s remaining prostitute while they watch.  The prostitute refuses to have any part in it, but then she’s threatened by one of the men, a knife expert, and in order to save the woman, Ittō steps forward and disrobes, saying he will oblige them.

The episode takes one more trip back to the past, for the dramatic beheading and blood-spurting scene in which Ittō defeats one of Yagyū Retsudo’s best swordsman, with the aid of a mirror on Daigoro’s forehead to reflect the sun into the swordsman’s eyes.  To the disgrace of Retsudo.

Then we have the big showdown.  It is revealed that the baby cart has some James Bond type of secrets – several edged weapons, including a spear that Ittō uses to take out the evil chamberlain’s men, chopping one off at his ankles, leaving the bloody stumps of his feet still standing on the ground.  (See Clip).

The movie ends.  Don’t worry folks this is just part one of the series we are going to look at each of them.  Up next, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972).

 
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Posted by on March 8, 2012 in Movie Reviews

 

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