In darkness there is movement. It's difficult to determine what
we're seeing until the object breaks in two. It's a door sliding apart. Behind
it, there is dazzling white light.
Surrounded by the brilliance are a man and a child, nearly in silhouette. They enter, coming closer on a silent walkway. Slowly, we begin to hear men weeping. They kneel to the side of the walkway and bemoan the fate of the little boy, their Daimyo (Lord). How could the Shogun be so cruel as to sentence a boy to death?
Such is the way of the world in Japan at this time.
Yet, our concern is not to befall upon this man and child but another man and another child.
The diminutive Daimyo is taken into the execution chamber and instructed on how to signal that he is ready to enter the next world. Another door opens. Out of blackness steps the Kogi Kaishakunin, the official decapitator of the Shogun who aids the small samurai in his seppuku (seppuku is the posh word for hara - kiri by the way). He is expressionless: neither cruel nor caring. He does his job and he does it well.
He is Ogami Itto.
(sword fight by river)
His post is well respected in the hierarchy of his time. So much that men would kill for it. And they do.
When he returns from his day at work, he is welcomed by his bride, Azami, and baby boy, Daigoro. While he prays in his temple for the souls of those he's helped execute on behalf of the Shogun, ninjas enter his household. They slaughter his wife and plant "evidence" to support a conjectured plot that Ogami Itto means to kill the Shogun; a plot conceived by Lord Yagyu Retsudo, head of the Ura Yagyu clan, the sinister denizens of the Grey mountains. The power of the Shogun is tied to the Yagyu clan who acts as official spies and assassins and who wish to control Ogami Itto's post as well.Once confronted by the mechanisms of his undoing, Ogami Itto is quick to realize that he's being set up as a patsy. Soon he will be donning white death robes to plunge his short sword into his belly while Yagyu Retsudo stands behind him, waiting to help put the Ogami clan into the grave. Ogami Itto is no dummy and he is not a man to be fucked with.
"I'll make you pay with rivers of blood. I will dedicate my life to wreak vengeance. From now on, my path will be littered with bodies soaked in blood. I will be ruthless," he swears to Lord Retsudo after dispatching one of Retsudo's sons, Bizen, with Itto's renowned Suio Ryu Zambatto (Seagull Style-Horse Killing Slash).
Itto gives the infant Daigoro a choice between joining his father (as a merciless demon) or his mother (in the afterworld). His father places a ball and sword before him and, after much childish deliberation, the Daigoro places his chubby fingers on his father's weapon. Thus, they become Kozure Okami: (Lone Wolf and Cub), assassins for hire, living free outside of Edo (Tokyo) after a duel with Kurando, another of Retsudo's sons. They walk (well, Ogami Itto walks, Daigoro rides) Meifumado, the path between heaven and hell, always prepared to die.
Of course, Yagyu Retsudo has no intention of keeping his word and constantly plots to see the defiant Itto killed while he wanders Japan, pushing Daigoro in a large, wooden, souped-up, weapon-laden baby cart (see diagram) as a formidable killer.
All of the above occurs within the first forty minutes of Kenji Misumi's LONE WOLF & CUB: SWORD OF VENGEANCE (Original title: KOZURE OKAMI: KOWOKASHI UDEKASHI TSUKAMATSURU literally translated as LONE WOLF AND CUB: CHILD AND EXPERTISE FOR RENT), the first of a series of six films shot between 1972 and 1974 starring Wakayama Tomisaburo as Ogami Itto and Tomikawa Akihiro as Daigoro. The story's roots are in manga (comic books written by Kazuo Koike who penned the scripts for the first five LONE WOLF & CUB films) and spawned not only these films but also a 1993 remake, a made-for-Japanese-TV-movie and television series.
If the story sounds familiar, you might be recalling the culpable SHOGUN ASSASSIN,
the Roger Corman-produced splicing of LONE WOLF & CUB #1 with the second film of the series, BABY CART AT THE RIVER STYX. Even the bad dubbing, poor picture quality, and confused storyline are not enough to rob the films completely of their art, but they don't begin to represent the beauty of Kenji Misumi's work. Even when delving into incredible scenes of violence which border on Monty Pythonesque excess (Itto's vengeance does flow with, if not rivers, at least geysers of blood), the films are breathtakingly beautiful. Unfortunately, Kenji Misumi did not direct all six of the early theatrically released Kozure Okami films. His presence is missed in the fourth and sixth entries in the series.
Every shot is wonderfully composed and skillfully executed. Witness the death of Retsudo's son, Bizen, in which we see the skill of Ogami Itto as a swordsman and Kenji Misumi as a director. Standing in a river, his sword lowered beneath the surface, Itto's weapon emerges from the water; the action repeated via editing (similar to what would be done decades later in John Woo's THE KILLER). Silence emphasizes the gravity of the moment. The lack of the roar of the water seems to tell us that this story is far greater than Nature itself. Or, perhaps, Nature knows the importance of Itto's fate and silences itself in anticipation. Finally, the quiet is broken with the rough slash of Itto's sword as it cuts through Bizen.
Despite the ever-present Yagyu threats and assassination contracts, no formulaic "typical Kozure Okami film" ever develops in the series. One never knows what one might get when viewing these films, except for the sleepy-eyed, low voiced Ogami Itto, the cute-as-a-button Daigoro, and some unbelievable action scenes.
The necessity for backstory makes the first film the slowest paced with the film's narrative thrust falling by the wayside in comparison to the flashbacks to Ogami Itto's past wherein we witness the events that set him on the path of Meifumado.
In the second film, LONE WOLF & CUB: BABY CART AT THE RIVER STYX (KOZURE OKAMI: SANZU NO KAWA UBAGURUMA translated as PREAMBULATOR OF THE RIVER OF SANZU), the Yagyu clan is hot on Ogami Itto's trail, sending Sayaka of the Ashaki Yagyu and her band of female assassins to kill him. The scene in which we first see Ozuno, leader of the Kurokawa clan, contact Sayaka is classic. He expresses doubt in her Kunoichi warriors. To this challenge, she asks for his best warrior to simply attempt to leave the room.
"With my ninja skill it's a simple task," the warrior blithely replies. Don't count on it, brother.
One has to give the guy credit, though, for even as a limbless stump, he's still trying to crawl outside before the Kunoichi deliver their death blow(s).When he's not dealing with Sayaka and her Kunoichi (who like to implement razor-sharp hats and deadly daikon radishes as weapons), Ogami is attempting to track down Makuya, the Awa clan's Headmaster of the blue-dyeing process who threatens to reveal his clan's indigo secret to the Shogun, thus ruining his clan's economy. In order to assure his arrival, the Shogun has put Makayu under the protection of the Hidari brothers, Ben, Ten and Rai, fearsome foes who fight with clawed hands, spiked gloves, and an iron bat. The desert showdown between the Brothers Hidari and Ogami Itto is truly breathtaking.
Whenever I try to turn someone on to the Kozure Okami films, it's always the second film that I show first, simply providing a sketchy outline of Ogami's past. The frenetic pace of the film along with the intricate, ambitious plot and gory, well-choreographed action scenes make this my favorite of the series. Invariably it draws viewers in and leaves them hungry for more of Ogami Itto's adventures.
The third film, LONE WOLF & CUB: BABY CART TO HADES (KOZURE OKAMI: SHINIKAZENI MUKAU UBAGURUMA translated as PERAMBULATOR AGAINST THE WINDS OF DEATH) was dubbed and released as LIGHTNING SWORDS OF DEATH and can be found on video with the redundant title LUPINE WOLF. More than previous entries, this film deals with human relationships.
Ogami Itto saves the life of a young girl who has been sold by the House of Koshio, a yakuza group. The girl bites off her betrothed's tongue as he wantonly molests her. Apparently, this surprises the lecherous fellow so much that he dies from his wound. In order to save the girl's life and her virtue, Ogami Itto strikes a bargain with the yakuza gang's boss, the lovely Torizo. He strikes a deal where he'll be tortured instead of the girl as well as will perform an assassination for Torizo.
The man to be killed is an underhanded governor, Sawatari Gemba. Scared stiff of the dreadful Ogami Itto, he calls for back-up. Roughly, three hundred men come to his aid and Ogami Itto has to fight every last one of them. This is where those special modifications to Daigoro's baby cart really come in handy.
One of my favorite aspects of the this, the third Lone Wolf & Cub film, is the subplot involving Magomura Kanbei, the former Chief Palanquin Guard for the Maruoka Clan, who has been reduced to being a ronin due to a heroic action that was against the word (but not necessarily the spirit) of Bushido (the Way of the Samurai). Kanbei risked his life and saved his liege when his palanquin was attacked by marauders.
After a strange turn of events, Bushido dictates that Ogami Itto and Magomura Kanbei must duel. With swords raised, Itto cancels the match in order to let a bushi (true) samurai live. You have to love how cocky Ogami Itto can be! Often, he's confident enough to put his sword away before the fools who have challenged him fall dead to the ground. That is, when his sword isn't embedded in the skull of his last victim—as has been known to happen.
Kanbei meets up with Itto again on the battlefield as one of Gemba's army. Their final confrontation is astounding. The sequence ranks among the best in the series and shows Kenji Misumi as a master of his craft.
On a sour note, LONE WOLF & CUB #3, is one of the first of the films to contain a musical number. Luckily, the melodramatic medley is thrown in right before the end title card and is blissfully short.
Until the fourth installment of the Kozure Okami films, subplots of Yagyu aggression, flashbacks of past treachery, and the main narrative thrust have been intricately intertwined. However, director Saito Buichi's LONE WOLF & CUB: BABY CART IN PERIL (KOZURE OKAMI: OYA NO KOKORO KO NO KOKORO) feels episodic in its construction.
In this film, Ogami Itto almost plays the role of a private detective. He is hired, for reasons not explained until later, to kill Oyuki, an expert swordswoman with a torso riddled with tattoos: on her back, a sea hag and on her front, an imp that grasps her breast.
Daigoro plays a major role in the beginning of the film. He becomes separated from his father and wanders alone, searching for him at temples across Japan, accompanied by a maudlin tune with a refrain of "it freezes the poor child's heart, as he seeks, day after day, trying to find his father, the man people call assassin." Eventually Daigoro finds someone in the temples he frequents – none other than Yagyu Gunbei, son of Lord Retsudo Yagyu who (as we learn in a flashback) has been outcast from his clan and forced to live as a dead man.
It's here, in the fourth entry in the series, that we learn more of the origins of Lord Retsudo's plot against Ogami Itto. In a duel for the post of Kogi Kaishakunin, Gunbei faced off against Itto and quickly disarmed him! However, Ogami Itto was saved (and rewarded) for his knowledge of Bushido, for he quickly positioned himself, unarmed, between Gunbei's naked blade and the Shogun, as if to act as he were protecting the Shogun with his life.
After losing the match, Lord Retsudo (played by a different actor than the previous films and doesn't quite have the gravelly delivery down) determines that Gunbei must commit hara-kiri in order to prevent a loss of face for the clan. Instead of allowing his son to kill himself, Retsudo banishes his son and kills the clan's make-up artist instead. By allowing his son to live and delivering the make-up artist's head to the Shogun, Retsudo shows his blatant disregard for Bushido.
Presently, the wandering Yagyu Gunbei takes stock of the strange child. He sees that Daigoro has the eyes of one who has killed hundreds of men. Just as Gunbei begins to test Daigoro's mettle, we hear the now-familiar horn section of composer Sakurai Hieoki, signaling Ogami Itto's triumphant return. Instead of taking care of unfinished business, Ogami determines that one can not kill the dead for a second time and merely liberates Gunbei of his sword arm; an appropriate wound, considering Ogami's plight during their initial encounter.
Oddly enough, we are never to see the one-armed Gunbei again. He is never to make good on his promise; "I will kill you. Not any other Yagyu or Kurokawa." This is one of the unresolved items in LONE WOLF & CUB #4 that leaves one scratching one's head.
Eyes and fire are two of the major motifs of KOZURE OKAMI #4. Oyuki uses her tattoos to distract the eyes of her opponents, Gunbei comments that Daigoro has the eyes of a master swordsman, and Goomune Jindayo (Oyuki's father) is without use of his eyes. His daughter's downfall (and subsequent need for revenge) comes from her being hypnotized by her former Daimyo's top man, Kozuka Enki. As Oykuki and Enki duel in a flashback, (this film is rife with them), Enki commands her to look into his eyes. This is to distract her from the fire the surrounds his sword.
Flames are visible throughout the film. During Daigoro's little adventure, he is trapped in a field of fire. When the tattoo artist describes the process of marking Oyuki (where she wore a mask that only revealed her eyes), a candle appears on the left side of the screen. Later, when Oyuki has her flashback, another candle appears on the right side of the screen, burning brightly initially and shown smoldering after she has been beguiled by Enki's "flaming sword" (in more ways than one—as with a few of the other Kozure Okami films, there is a rape motivating the action)
Lord Retsudo's presence is strong in this entry in the series. Instead of working behind the scenes, he personally makes moves against Ogami Itto, enlisting the help of the Owari clan in order to throw another army at Ogami Itto. This time around, the former Kogi Kaishakunin doesn't come away as unscathed – in fact, he looks a bit worse for wear at the end of the film – but does manage to give Lord Retsudo a wound he won't soon forget. Instead of liberating Retsudo of an arm as he did Gunbei, the Yagyu lord is minus an eye after savagely battling Ogami Itto—punctuating the film's eye motif.
LONE WOLF & CUB: BABY CART IN THE LAND OF DEMONS (KOZURE OKAMI: MEIFUMADO translated as CROSSROADS TO HELL) saw the return of Kenji Misumi to the director's chair. It was to be his last Kozure Okami film and the second to last film he directed before his death.
The film begins with an interesting conceit of Ogami Itto (alive and well, despite his condition after fighting Retsudo's army in the previous film) being tested by five men in his journeys. Each gives him 100 Ryo and part of the reason for their need of him.
Despite its strong beginning, lack of a musical number, brilliant set pieces, and copious bloodshed, Kenji Misumi's final effort in the Kozure Okami series, while still a good film, doesn't begin to compare to his previous entries.
The need for a seventh Kozure Okami film is obvious after watching the sixth, Kuroda Yoshiyuki's LONE WOLF & CUB: WHITE HEAVEN IN HELL (KOZURE OKAMI: JIGOKU E IKUZO! DAIGORO also known as GO TO HELL, DAIGORO!), the final theatrically released Kozure Okami film with Wakayama Tomisaburo as Ogami Itto.
The film centers around the fact that by this point in Lord Yagyu Retsudo's life, he is low on heirs to kill Ogami Itto and carry on the Yagyu name. Retsudo finds himself in dire need to be rid of Ogami Itto whose presence (after so many plots to eliminate him) has become a subject of ridicule among other Daimyo who demand an Omote (overt) attack by Shogunate troops; such a move would mean a loss of face for the Yagyu clan. Retsudo makes reference to Ogami Itto being responsible for the deaths of his three sons. The audience has seen two young Yagyu's, Kurando and Bizen, perish by Ogami Itto's Suio Ryu Zambatto and Gunbei lose an arm. However, as I mentioned previously, apart from the loss of Lord Yagyu's eye, not much of the fourth Kozure Okami film carries through to subsequent entries—Gunbei, for example, is now listed among the dead. Retsudo is thus forced to employ the skills of his daughter, the cute but creepy Kaori, whose "finishing move" is the planting of a short sword deep in her opponent's skull.
The pacing of the film is quite odd. Though we see Ogami Itto and Daigoro during the credit sequence, the beginning of the movie is primarily concerned with Retsudo and his daughter. The credits are odd—not just for the wah-wah music of Murai Kunkonko which owes more to Curtis Mayfield, Modest Mussorgsky, and John Barry (complete with a 007 refrain) than Sakurai Hieoki, but also for the fact that they are not integrated with the film.
The film meanders. Characters appear and are quickly eliminated. After quickly killing Kurando, Retsudo rushes to the mountains to beg for help from Hyoé, his bastard son who was abandoned at five and lives as a sorcerer in the Tsujigumo clan. Having no allegiance to the Yagyu clan and knowing of his father's precarious position, Hyoé decides that the Tsujigumo clan will gain glory by disposing of Ogami Itto. He goes about this with a unique tact by resurrecting Mujo, Mugo and Mumon, three of the Tsujigumo's best warriors who have been dead some forty-two years (but have the funked out hairdos that go well with the film's score).
Will zombies be
able to stop the man and child on the path of Meifumado? Will the threats of
the undead to kill any innocents that Ogami Itto encounters slow our heroes'
trip to Edo? Will the burrowing bugaboos bother the former official decapitator
with their touting of the Tsujigumo 5 Wheel sword style?
Don't count on it.
"The Tsujigumo style is pitiful," says Ogami Itto.
The wintry wonderland of the opening credits and film's conclusion provides Ogami Itto with an effective defense against Mujo, Mugo, and Mumon. Moreover, it feels like a poor counterpoint to the desert setting (and face-off against three killers) in the second film and a good excuse to have an Omote attack take place on skis and toboggans. Yet, after having seen Ogami Itto take care of two armies of warriors, a third feels tiresome.
After slicing, chopping, and hacking his way through Retsudo's forces, Ogami Itto, and the audience are robbed of a final duel. Instead, Lord Yagyu sleds away, muttering "I will kill you someday." Huh? When?
It was years before Wakayama Tomisaburo returned to act in a Kozure Okami film. In the meantime, Japanese audiences were treated to seventy-eight episodes of the television series—two of which were cut together in order to produce FUGITIVE SAMURAI (available at select video stores )Instead of being an incoherent hack job like SHOGUN ASSASSIN, FUGITIVE SAMURAI is definitely worth a watch. While not peppering speech with real terms as much as the subtitles of Jacques Klein in the Kozure Okami films, the explanative voice-over of FUGITIVE SAMURAI shows real reverence to its source material.
The backstory of Gunbei and Itto's initial fateful duel for the post of Kogi Kaishakunin from the fourth Kozure Okami film provides the jumping off plot point of FUGITIVE SAMURAI. This time around, the post of Kogi Kaishakunin is called "High Constable" and after Gunbei's seppuku is staged, Yagyu Retsudo calls for a rematch in order to prove whose school of swordplay is superior.
The Lord Retsudo of FUGITIVE SAMURAI is much spryer than any of the actors who have portrayed him before. This Lord Yagyu is also more cunning. During his match with Ogami Itto (Yorozuya Kinnosuke), Retsudo loses, but not before his blade "accidentally" takes out a member of the Shogunate aware of the Yagyu plot to control all messages passing between clans and, with this information, create a shadow government greater than the Shogunate (this idea shows up in a different form in LONE WOLF & CUB #7).
After Ogami is rewarded the post of High Constable, the film continues linearly (while within a lengthy flashback), showing the destruction of the Ogami household. While the direction of FUGITIVE SAMURAI does not begin to compare with the panache of Kenji Misumi's interpretation, the events are filmed with enough difference in order to avoid being merely a rehash of the first Kozure Okami film.
Kinnosuke makes a good Ogami Itto but lacks the heavy-lidded, wild-haired looks
and deep, menacing voice of Wakayama Tomisaburo.
Nishikawa Kazutaka plays an older, chubbier, and far less cute Daigoro than Tomikawa Akihiro. One very interesting casting choice is Lord Yagyu, played by a very eurasian actor. It seems that something not explored in the Kozure Okami films is that Lord Yagyu is a "half-breed."
The Kozure Okami television series lasted three seasons. Later, Wakayama Tomisaburo returned to "finish" the Kozure Okami film series in a made-for-TV production, LONE WOLF & CUB: BABY CART IN PURGATORY. This time around, however, he donned a long beard and thick mane of white hair to portray the evil Lord Retsudo Yagyu. Though his face is relatively discreet and his eyes are aflame with the mad thirst for power, it is rather disconcerting to see Tomisaburo playing the enemy of the character he made famous on the silver screen. He adopts the gravelly delivery of the first Retsudo from the early Kozure Okami films, but his voice is unmistakable when he says Daigoro's name.
BABY CART IN PURGATORY includes some familiar characters and situations, often putting a new spin on them. The action is neatly broken down into segments of length to not be harshly interrupted by commercial breaks. The lighting is often flat and the direction leaves much to be desired. BABY CART IN PURGATORY is often painful to watch when seeing shaky camera pans or faltering zooms.
The film begins with the tests of five warriors from LONE WOLF & CUB #5. However, when Ogami Itto arrives (sans Daigoro) to dispose of his prey, he finds Gunbei and Bizen Yagyu waiting for him.
Itto escapes the trap and wanders, wounded, through the wilderness where he recalls how the Yagyu clan has wronged him. In the tradition of the Kozure Okami films (except for the fifth and sixth), we're witness to a flashback. Herein, we see the events that put Ogami Itto on the road to Meifumado. Oddly, the Daigoro of this version of the Kozure Okami tale can walk to his father's sword when given his life-or-death choice, lessening the need for a baby cart.Back in the present, Daigoro waits for his father "knowing he would survive any battle." He wanders from temple to temple, seeking his father. Along his travels he meets with a pretty orphan girl, Osato, who takes a shine to the boy.
He follows the servant girl like a lost puppy and is caught sneaking into her Lord and Lady's home. Thinking him a thief, he is captured and tortured. His eyes and lack of fear reveal him to be the son of the Lone Wolf and, thus, a valuable prize to be turned over to the Yagyu clan.
It's with great luck that as Daigoro escapes; Ogami Itto happens to be walking by the compound. Seeing men chasing after his boy with swords drawn, Ogami states, "I don't know the situation but there seems to be no need for words" before proceeding to wipe them out. Ogami saves Osato (whom Daigoro has come to call "Sis") and sends her back to her village.
Eventually, the movie finds a central idea to wind the rest of the plot around. The Yagyu clan has perfected a secret code that allows them to pass innocuous-looking messages to one another across great distances. These missives are carried by shichiri (seven league) messengers from Daimyos to the shogunate. The shichiri had license to kill anyone who stood in their path—the mail must go through, as it were. Thus, people went to great lengths to avoid being anywhere near a shichiri as they hauled ass through town.
Leaving Ogami Itto at the side of the road for a while, the film concentrates on Otoshi, ex-wife of Jinza, a shichiri messenger to Kishuu. Otoshi lives now as a prostitute as Jinza divorced her after her baby died. Now she carries a blank memorial tablet, trying to get Jinza to give her baby a name so that it can rest in peace. After relating her sad tale to Ogami Itto, trying to get him to kill Jinza, the shichiri is ironically attacked at that moment by Yagyu agents attempting to steal away his message box. Realizing the importance that the missive must have to the Yagyu clan, Ogami takes it from them and begins his quest to crack the code. Upon news of Ogami Itto's possession of the Yagyu message, Kurokuwa agents are sent to find him.
At this point, Osato re-enters the film now playing the role of the young girl who bit off her husband's tongue in the third Kozure Okami film. The two films run parallel for a while, introducing us to a less pretty and more catatonic Torizo. Ogami Itto undergoes buri buri cane torture and wins freedom for Osato.Taking leave of Torizo and Osato, Ogami is waylaid by Kurokuwa Sayomaru, a cross-dressing assassin who, with his dying words, gives a clue to deciphering the Yagyu code, "Go to the silk province." Here Ogami discovers that the message he intercepted has been treated with mulberry juice, a delicious treat for silkworms that eat the message out of the paper, allowing Ogami Itto to see the Yagyu secret.
Ogami Itto's path to Edo (Tokyo) is littered with bodies. Word has gone out and he is a wanted man. After several Daimyos have failed, the Yagyus finally take matters into their own hands, attacking Ogami Itto with a small army including Gunbei and Retsudo Yagyu (who gets a short sword in the eye).In this movie, not only does Ogami Itto reach Edo but also is given a chance to duel Retsudo Yagyu. However, they pause in their fighting after Daigoro passes out from being in the sun. On his way to see if his son is alright, a shot rings out and Ogami falls wounded into a nearby river and floats away. Yagyu Bizen makes his way out of nearby undergrowth and excitedly runs to his father, overjoyed with his luck.
"Bizen, as of this moment you are disinherited," proclaims Retsudo. "Our duel just now was not out of personal hate. It was a duel between two samurai warriors."
Knowing his duty, Retsudo brings Daigoro to his home and takes care of him. Waking in Retsudo's home, Daigoro sees his old pal Osato and learns that she is none other than the granddaughter of Yagyu Retsudo. The old tyrant acts as a kindly grandfather to Daigoro, even when telling him that if his father dies that he will die too.
When Ogami Itto and Retsudo Yagyu meet again, the former Kogi Kaishakunin tears up the secret Yagyu message and the two men agree that they are not fighting for personal reasons any longer but to preserve Bushido. Their fight lasts for hours, perhaps days. As they duel on the beach, word reaches the Shogun who, along with vassals and Daimyo, visits the battle sight to witness the historic fight. They watch solemnly while the two men fight like elemental beasts, not mortals.
Though the filmmaking was wanting, the acting of Takashi Hideki and Wakayama Tomisaburo is superb and the ending is highly satisfying. This conclusion is echoed in the 1993 theatrical revision of the Kozure Okami tale, KOZURE OKAMI: SONO CHISAKI TE NI (A Child's Hand Reaches Up). Unsubtitled, I'll refer to this as LW&C93 for the sake of brevity.
LW&C93 is a beautiful film. Each shot is wonderfully framed and if the camera moves at all the beginning, middle and end of each move reveals a beautifully composed mise en scene. Strangely, even Ogami Itto himself is handsome. The actor portraying the man who comes to walk the road of Meifumado, Tamura Masakuza, has rich, soulful eyes with a deep furrow between them. Unfortunately, his comeliness is unbefitting his demonic character.
The film begins
with Ogami and Azami living their idyllic life with their new son, Daigoro
while Retsudo Yagyu plots to take the post of Kogi Kaishakunin.
The Yagyu conspiracy in this film does not include the assassination of Ogami Itto's wife and servants but merely the placement of the Shogun's crest in his temple. LW&C93 is the first film where Azami has been given any significant screen time and where the audience is witness to her death. She is butchered by a Yagyu warrior as she tries to defend her husband's honor, giving Ogami even more impetus to hate the Yagyu clan. After spending a few quiet moments with his wife's body, Ogami proceeds to dispatch the clansmen who would dare accuse him of treason.
This Ogami Itto doesn't give Daigoro a chance to choose his path. Instead, he is unable to kill his young son. Ogami also doesn't provide his infant with a baby cart as they make their way out into the world as Kozure Okami.
Ogami Itto's nemesis is a much younger Retsudo Yagyu than we've seen before—with no beard he appears to be more of a brother to Gunbei, Kurando, and Bizen than a wizened patriarch. With his dark features he would have made a better choice to play Ogami Itto.
After Ogami Itto bests Yagyu Kurando in a duel, he and Daigoro spend years outside of Edo. When we next see them, Daigoro is walking and talking. They appear to be living a life of tranquil contemplation briefly broken when news of Yagyu activity wakes Ogami Itto from his somnambulistic existence.
As the film progresses, I often lose track of the action with all of the normal Kozure Okami intrigue. Familiar terms like "Kogi Kaishakunin" "Ogami Itto" "Suio Ryu" and "Kozure Okami" stick out among the Japanese but, otherwise, I try to rely on the other films for cues. However, this is made difficult by the fact that this nice-looking Ogami Itto doesn't push a baby cart, can be found riding on horseback at times, and lives among friends.
While Ogami Itto goes off to find his nemesis, Daigoro runs away from his new home and is found by none other than Retsudo Yagyu! Of course, their paths finally cross. It's here where Ogami Itto appears to kill Retsudo's wife. The two part and after some more wandering by Ogami Itto, they meet again on a beach.
Each man thinks back on their individual losses as the waves crash around them. They privately duel on the secluded stretch of beach. However, despite the similar settings, the outcome is vastly different in this version's battle.
Despite the beauty of Kenji Misumi's direction, Inoue Akira's LW&C93 can be considered much more an "art film" than any interpretations that have come before it. While aesthetically pleasing, it satisfies neither my thirst for blood nor vengeance. Ogami Itto's struggle is shown to be infinitesimal, like a grain on sand upon the beach where he stands instead acting as one of nature's elements – like blazing Fire surrounded by Air, Water, and Earth.
The original six KOZURE OKAMI films are cinematic gems. Exploring universal themes of filial responsibility, honor, and duty; they translate well to the American screen while giving audiences a fascinating look at the cinema of the samurai. The on-screen carnage in the films is at once both audacious and aesthetic, presenting violence with a beauty that is unrivaled by filmmakers in the West. I can not praise enough Kenji Misumi's ability to paint such beautiful scenes, dappling his canvas with unnaturally bright red blood.
Of all the actors to play Ogami Itto, only Takahashi Hideki comes close to capturing the imposing form and dark features that Wakayama Tomisaburo made necessary for the character. Wakayama's performance and swordsmanship is superb. If Wakayama Tomisaburo looks familiar, it could be that he's the brother of Katsu Shintaro, one of the most popular stars of the cinema in Japan (and producer of the LONE WOLF & CUB film series), having played Zatoichi, the blind masseur in over twenty films and on television. Or, it could be that you're recalling him as Coach Shimizu from THE BAD NEWS BEARS GO TO JAPAN or Sugai in Ridley Scott's BLACK RAIN. - MW
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