This is the sixth 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: White Heaven in Hell was initially released in the United States as Shogun Assassin 5: Cold Road to Hell. This continues the trend of the Lone Wolf and Cub series’s initial English titles being more accurate than the later ones. For this, the last entry in the beautiful, bloody franchise, is by far the darkest. There is no hint of heaven here. It is, quite figuratively, a long and winding, parky road to a place so demonic, it may as well be the Hades mentioned in the third film’s title.
White Heaven in Hell begins on the ice-planet Hoth, as our hero Ogami Itto sleds his baby cart through a frigid landscape of imposing snow sculptures. Okay, it’s not really the ice-planet Hoth, but if George Lucas didn’t take some inspiration here for The Empire Strikes Back, I’ll eat my hat. It’s just as desolate and foreboding, and, like Empire, sets the stage for the darkest film of its franchise.
The film begins in this icy landscape and ends there as well, but the body of it, like the others, takes place in the countryside. There is an apocalyptic air to the proceedings right from the very beginning. Ogami’s perpetual nemesis Yagyu Retsudo, who murdered his wife and disgraced him to the shogunate, decides to kill him once and for all. His daughter, Kaori, is a swell knife-juggler. She practices her assassination techniques on Yagyu’s men, felling them one by one as Retsudo gives her notes. Unlike the other films in the series, the deaths here are acknowledged, as Yagyu prepares a solemn memorial for them, thanking them for their service.
However, even Kaori is no match for Ogami’s preternatural instinct and prowess with the blade. Desperate after the loss of his daughter, Yagyu calls upon his illegitimate son, Hyouei, for help. (Geez—he really doesn’t want to dispatch Ogami personally, does he?) He’s some kind of mountain man who works some serious black magic. Hyouei summons three pseudo-zombies, capable of burrowing into the ground and travelling places like Bugs Bunny heading to Albuquerque. Except, scary, not funny.
The black magic goes deeper. Ogami and Daigoro stop by an inn to rest for the night. Within minutes of their arrival, almost everyone at the hotel, certainly anyone who showed kindness or even acknowledgement to Ogami, is dead. Hyouei ensures that the Lone Wolf and Cub will receive no solace, no rest, no peace. It’s about at this point that I realised this entry would completely lack the strong sense of frivolity in the other movies. This, here, is the demonic path Ogami has talked about over five films.
Okay, it’s not all bleak. The final confrontation on Hoth features another phalanx of Yagyu’s men slaloming down a snowy hillside to greet Ogami’s blade. There is something deliciously absurd about watching dozens, if not hundreds of samurai ski themselves to death.
I was very worried before I began White Heaven in Hell, as this is the second Lone Wolf and Cub film without Kenji Misumi at the helm. Thankfully, newcomer Yoshiyuki Kuroda doesn’t overblow the style the way that Buichi Saitô did in Baby Cart in Peril. Kuroda actually matches Misumi pretty well, in his staging of the fight scenes and slower, more thoughtful moments. Cinematographer Chishi Makiura crafts his most striking images since Baby Cart to Hades. Note the closing fight scene in the hotel sequence: the moon and fog at the top of the frame, the water reflecting the light below, and Ogami in the centre. It’s practically Josef von Sternbergian.
The film does have a few debits. There is a lengthy build-up as the pseudo-zombies approach Ogami, creeping ahead very slowly. Since this is well before the end of the film, our hero’s life is still pretty safe, robbing the sequence of suspense; it just becomes draggy. Ultimately, and most damningly, White Heaven in Hell is anti-climactic. Steel yourselves: the ending does not wrap the narrative up. It does provide a nice little thematic punctuation for the series, however. (Since it’s a spoiler as to why, I’ll talk briefly about it in tomorrow’s Parting Thoughts for the franchise.)
Ultimately, White Heaven in Hell is the cap on one of the best, most consistently entertaining franchises I’ve ever seen. Bravo.