WOLF AND CUB: SWORD OF VENGEANCE (1971)
Shintaro Katsu, the actor who played the blind swordsman in the ZATOICHI series, produced all the hyper-violent Lone Wolf and Cub films, based on Kazuo Koike’s influential manga. Katsu enlisted the directorial talents of associate Kenji Masume, who is no stranger to Japanese historical epics, having directed films like RAZOR: SWORD OF JUSTICE, ZATOICHI CHALLENGED, and RETURN OF DAIMAJIN. The original Lone Wolf and Cub movie, SWORD OF VENGEANCE attracted audiences in Japan, and Toho released five sequels in the ensuing years. The Lone Wolf and Cub films totally reconstructs the Samurai genre--they are so different from the traditional, honorable Samurai epics like the ZATOCIHI series. The dark cinematic world of Lone Wolf and Cub is graphically violent, and owes more to the Spaghetti Western than it does to the Akira Kurosawa Samurai classics.
In 1980, the original SHOGUN mini-series brought historical Japanese culture into the living rooms of America. Ninjas, Samurai, and the Japanese martial arts became more popular then ever. It was at this time that New World Pictures acquired the rights to the first two Lone Wolf and Cub films, SWORD OF VENGEANCE and BABYCART AT THE RIVER STYX and subsequently went about re-editing and dubbing them together for an American feature. Though the film, SHOGUN ASSASSIN, had limited appeal, it left an impression on the minds of those who saw it. For better or for worse, many credit SHOGUN ASSASSIN for turning them on to Japanese cinema. The Japanese animation company Animeigo (who released a series of popular Chambara films on VHS and LaserDisc) made their intentions known a long time ago that they planned on releasing their Samurai backlog on DVD, including the popular Lone Wolf and Cub, Zatoichi, and Sleepy Eyes of Death series. However, due to Animeigo’s high standards and a lack of quality source prints, it took the company literally years to remaster their highly sought after titles. Now, forget about those bootleg DVDs, because Animeigo really went all-out with their initial release of LONE WOLF AND CUB: SWORD OF VENGEANCE.
LONE WOLF AND CUB: SWORD OF VENGEANCE is not just action and violence. Director Kenji Masume maintains a grim tone and an aura of doom. He uses advanced editing and slow-motion techniques to dictate the violent clashes and arterial spray. Contrasting all this ugliness, Masume produces some artful widescreen compositions that capture these dances of death with artistic splendor. Many scenes are gloriously played out against the setting sun, and the director shows his mastery of shadows and light. Like John Woo’s slow motion bullet ballet’s, the violence in LONE WOLF AND CUB: SWORD OF VENGEANCE is equally surreal and poetic. The battle scenes are the exact opposite of the graceful fight choreography from Chinese historical efforts. These fight scenes are just as thrilling, only a lot quicker and more brutal. Ogami kills opponents with one swift slash of his blade, then turns to take out the next attacker. No matter how weak the blow of the sword, the victim gushes blood like water from a hydrant; then is dead in an instant. This graphical overkill takes LONE WOLF AND CUB: SWORD OF VENGEANCE into a sublime alternative territory that leaves the audience primed for more.
The powerful performance of Tomisaburo Wakaya is one of the reasons why LONE WOLF AND CUB: SWORD OF VENGEANCE(or the entire Lone Wolf series for that matter) is a cut above the rest. Wakaya is quite a physical presence, sort of like the Charles Bronson of Japan. You can clearly read the emotional scars in his delivery and mannerisms. Ogami Itto is a character very unlike Shintaro Katsu’s Zatoichi or any of Toshiro Mifune’s samurai characters. Ogami is the biggest and fastest swordsman we’ve ever seen, and clearly the most dangerous. It takes an actor like Wakaya to bring Ogami to life, and just looking into his eyes, you feel the vengeance and hatred radiating off this man. Then in the next scene, you see him give his son a bath, contrasting the sensitive side of Ogami. His son brings out the nurturing side of his father, courtesy of a fine performance of Akihiro Tomikawa, who plays Daigoro through the entire film series. Tomikawa is clearly way too young when this was filmed (perhaps 4 or 5 years old), and its hard to imagine how seeing the decapitated heads and spraying arteries didn’t affect the poor kid’s mental state for the rest of his life.
LONE WOLF AND CUB: SWORD OF VENGEANCE was filmed in TohoScope 2.35.1 ratio. Animeigo has gone through the trouble and expense of remastering the source print and incorporating 16x9 enhancement. The result is a jaw-dropping transfer that matches the best restoration efforts of Celestial Pictures. The only other Chambara films that look this good are the Akira Kurosawa discs from Criterion. Director Kenji Masume cleverly manipulates shadow and light, and the transfer delivers the extravagant photography. The action is perfectly rendered in widescreen, with all the mayhem capably preserved. The spurting arteries are recreated with bright crimson hues. The over-the-top special effects are realistically executed and guaranteed to make even the most jaded gore fan wince. The newly translated English subtitles are presented in white and greenish hues and set a new standard for readability. Though the image has a couple minor flaws, this is a truly astounding transfer that is destined to set a new standard for Chambara on DVD.
This is a superior Dolby Digital Mono 2.0 mix that at recreates the acoustic thrills of ancient Japan. The frequency range exhibits plenty of depth, but not much bass. The sound effects are crystal clear, and you can hear Itto Ogami’s sword slice through the air and into the flesh of his victims (it sounds like someone slicing up a watermelon!). The death screams mount as the film progresses. The Japanese dialog is surprisingly clear and natural. Tomisaburo Wakaya’s ominous voice takes center stage and is guaranteed to make the hair on your back stand up. Composer Sakurai Hideaki’s minimalistic score is forceful and genuine. The music works perfectly with the action and melodrama, and actually makes LONE WOLF AND CUB: SWORD OF VENGEANCE seem even more authentic.
Extras include a 26 page essay on Japan’s Tokugawa period. Though this article is very informative and well written, it sheds no light at all on the production of LONE WOLF AND CUB: SWORD OF VENGEANCE, nor all the talents associated with the film. Thankfully, Animeigo includes four remastered trailers (in widescreen and with subtitles) for these Samurai epics coming soon:
Animeigo’s LONE WOLF AND CUB: SWORD OF VENGEANCE sets a new standard for the genre. Just as the restored Celestial Pictures Shaw Brothers discs have set the standard for viewing Chinese martial arts films, so too will Animeigo’s new line of Samurai Cinema DVDs. The quality of this LONE WOLF AND CUB transfer is nothing short of amazing. This DVD is exceptional in every way; except in the area of extra features. Though the trailers here are much appreciated, you would think that with their connections to Toho, Daiei, and the other Japanese studios that Animeigo would include more film related supplements or perhaps a commentary.
-- Tony Mustafa