BLIND SPOT: ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ — Introduction

Lone Wolf and CubThe Lone Wolf and Cub series of films is based upon one of the most famous of all manga series in Japan.  Created by Kazuo Koike in 1970, it follows disgraced shogunate executioner Ogami Itto, and his toddler son Daigoro, in his quest to avenge his wife’s murder and restore his clan’s name.  Immensely popular upon its release, the manga eventually covered 28 volumes and over 8,700 pages.

With Toho’s release of six films based upon these manga, Lone Wolf and Cub cemented itself as the granddaddy of samurai stories.  Though never making a huge splash in the United States on its own, the spectre of the franchise looms large over Western culture.  It’s routinely mentioned as a source of inspiration for directors like Quentin Tarantino and John Woo.

My only direct contact with the franchise thus far is, well, still pretty indirect.  In 1980, actor/producer Robert Houston cobbled together footage from the first two Lone Wolf and Cub films, Sword of Vengeance and Baby Cart at the River Styx, to make Shogun Assassin, a phantasmagoric display of samurai sweat and blood.  I can’t really remember how I saw Shogun Assassin—either on a really crappy VHS copy or on some woebegone cable channel in the quadruple digits—only that I saw it.

Lone Wolf and CubSo why Lone Wolf and Cub and why now?  Well, a few reasons, really.  I’ve seen it routinely mentioned in articles on Japanese culture and cinema, so I always felt I was missing out a bit.  Leonard Maltin’s capsule reviews of the films have intrigued me for nearly two decades.  I remember a flurry of name drops of the franchise when Kill Bill was released, so I was always curious.  There have been vague rumours of a Hollywood version, helmed either by Darren Aronofsky or Justin Lin, so of course I want to see the originals before the bastardised, sanitised remakes.

But the biggest reason for my decision to embark upon a Blind Spot article for the series is Criterion’s beautiful new Blu-ray version, released late last year.  I’m a sucker for Criterion boxed sets, and tend to buy them whether I know the films contained therein or not.  That’s what happens when you’re Miserably Obsessed With Film™.

Now, you may have noticed that Lone Wolf and Cub is a franchise of films, not just one.  It is for this reason that I am embarking on the most ambitious project I’ve yet attempted for Film Misery: a Blind Spot examination of an entire film series.  In effect, I’m going to combine Blind Spot essays with a Movie Marathon.

Lone Wolf and CubHere’s how this is going to work.  What you’re reading now is the Master Essay.  Tomorrow, I’ll begin with a review of Shogun Assassin, helpfully added to Criterion’s Blu-ray as a special feature, since it’s technically not a Blind Spot.  Then, every day thereafter, I’ll examine each film in the Lone Wolf and Cub series till I’ve gone through them all, then post some parting thoughts.  Unlike other Blind Spot essays, I won’t automatically assume everyone has seen the film, in an effort to avoid spoilers, since the franchise is only now getting its widest release.

If you’d like to follow along, you can buy Criterion’s incredible box set of the Lone Wolf and Cub series here, here, or here.  As far as I know, except for Shogun Assassin, all the films are also available on FilmStruck, Criterion’s new home for streaming content.

Here are links to each individual essay:

SHOGUN ASSASSIN (will post on 6 February 2017)

LONE WOLF AND CUB: SWORD OF VENGEANCE (will post on 7 February)

LONE WOLF AND CUB: BABY CART AT THE RIVER STYX (will post on 8 February)

LONE WOLF AND CUB: BABY CART TO HADES (will post on 9 February)

LONE WOLF AND CUB: BABY CART IN PERIL (will post on 10 February)

LONE WOLF AND CUB: BABY CART IN THE LAND OF DEMONS (will post on 11 February)

LONE WOLF AND CUB: WHITE HEAVEN IN HELL (will post on 12 February)

…and finally, my Parting Thoughts on the franchise. (will post on 13 February)

Well, I’m psyched!  I hope you are, too.

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