This is the first in a series of BLIND SPOT essays on the Lone Wolf and Cub series. The master list, with links to the other films, is here.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance is the first film in the Lone Wolf and Cub series, and it’s cannily structured like a pilot episode. Toho surely planned its string of films, based upon the manga series of the same name, at once. What does a good pilot episode accomplish? Well, the best ones provide an origin story for its dramatis personae, whilst simultaneously showing us what a typical episode would play like. Sword of Vengeance certainly does both of these things well, even if its origin story outshines the rest.
Through a quick bit of exposition, we learn that the current Japanese shogunate rules with an iron fist. To ensure power is not challenged the shogun created three agencies: a network of ninja spies, a network of assassins tasked with removing any who might obstruct the shogun’s will, and an executioner to help any errant lords commit seppuku. When we meet him, well before he becomes the Lone Wolf and Cub, Ogami Ittō is the executioner, tasked with decapitating a toddler daimyō.
It’s a convoluted series of events that leads to Ogami’s fall from samurai to ronin. Briefly, he was framed a traitor by the Yagyu clan, the leaders of the aforementioned assassins. They wanted even greater power over the shogun, I think, so murdered Ogami’s wife and arranged to kill him, too. In all honesty, the film presents so much information so quickly, heavy on jargon and unfamiliar proper nouns, that I had to watch a couple sequences twice to work it all out.
So this is Ogami’s origin story, and it’s quickly apparent that Sword of Vengeance is nothing like Shogun Assassin. There’s no hint of the surrealistic, zetetic style pervading the American version. That film’s tone is thoroughly playful, joyous in its nonsensical reveries. It’s a horse of a different colour and, being its own beast, I shan’t mention it again. Here, director Kenji Misumi assumes a more serious, if not-quite-somber, tone.
Okay, I do need to mention Shogun Assassin again to compare a specific scene: when Ogami presents his infant son with a sword and a ball. This is, in effect, Daigoro’s origin story. In both films, if the child picks the ball, Ogami will kill him so he may spend eternity with his mother. Choosing the sword, however, results in Daigoro accompanying his father on his difficult path as a ronin. In Shogun Assassin, this choice is kinda presented as though Ogami were a heartless ass, as if his son would be a burden to him. In Sword of Vengeance, it’s clear that Ogami believes the path of a ronin to be somewhat wicked, lacking the honour of his previous station. A road to hell, as it were. In choosing the ball, Daigoro would be saving his soul, preserving his innocence. In this film, when the young baby finally grabs the sword, Ogami weeps, knowing his son has chosen a path of damnation.
But once Daigoro chooses the sword, he’s all in. The very first scene we see of the two has Ogami iconically pushing the baby cart down a well-trod highway. He displays a sign: ‘Sword for Hire, Son for Hire.’ A shrieking woman approaches the pair, clearly somewhat touched. She believes the infant to be her own son, and plucks him from the cart to offer him her breast. The woman’s mother soon appears, asking to hire the baby out. The woman has lost her own baby, you see, and so would benefit from a few moments of nursing one. Ogami allows it. Daigoro, after all, has chosen the Path of the Sword, and must expect such things from now on, if it results in payment.
All this exposition leads to a bit of a choppy start. It’s complicated by the fact that the non-origin part of the story—the ‘regular episode’ material, if you will—is also rife with exposition and exotic proper nouns. After adopting his ronin persona, a chamberlain hires Ogami to assassinate a clan threatening his lord. The ne’er-do-wells are in a remote hot springs called Go-no-Mori. Once Lone Wolf and Cub arrive here, the pace of the film slows way down, and the film spins its wheels a little. Until the climactic fight, that is.
It’s stunning how Misumi handles violence. Sword of Vengeance features a plethora of decapitations and severed limbs, replete with pools of blood and injury detail. But these flashes of graphic savagery are notably unrealistic. The blood is bright tomato red, the blood sprays are uniform, without pulsation from a still-beating heart. The cleaved heads, arms, and legs look almost deliberately fake. Could it be that Misumi fell victim to a limited budget, hindered by the unsophisticated special effects available at the time?
It’s possible, but I’m fairly uninterested in this line of thinking. We might as well divorce the effect of these crude injury details from whatever workaday reason lies behind their use. Intentionally or not, they introduce an important theme in the work: that these flickers of brutality are not the norm. Ogami chose the path of executioner, then ronin; the violence is intensified, because his is a demonic path. He, and those like him, sense the intimations of hell endemic in these wicked acts of murderousness. There is also the sense that he does not quite sense them in the same manner as do his foes. The audience sees violence as heightened and abstract because this is how our hero senses it. Just as synaesthetics may ‘see’ colours in musical notes or letters, Ogami experiences violence in an analogously intensified, underlined way. This helps make him such a powerful ronin.
I won’t go too deep down this rabbit hole, as frankly I’m not convinced that there’s tons of thematic depth here. It might be true that there is in the series as a whole, but obviously, at the time of this writing, I’ve only seen Sword of Vengeance. And what I do see in the film is a stellar origin story that whets my appetite for more.