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Lone Wolf & Cub Five: Or don’t try to pass off a girl as a boy. It could cost you your head.

This is the 5th in the Lone Wolf & Cub series.  It also marks the return of Director Kenji Misumi who directed the first three Baby Cart films.  It combines the films strong period feel, a convoluted affair and a fantastic amount of onscreen schematic violence.  Including some of the best death scenes in the series particularly the deaths of the messengers, each die a spectacular death.  For example, Itto slashes one of the poor saps who falls into Itto’s campfire’s red-hot coals living in agony only long enough to relay a complex message before finally he is finally engulfed in flames.

I guess I should explain the reference to the messengers in the preceding paragraph.  Ogami is being vetted by five messengers who all try to kill him.  That is some original job recruiting by an employer; I don’t think we would have an unemployment problem if more employers took these types of actions in while headhunting.  After defeating all the messengers, Ogami learns he must kill a young girl who is being raised as a boy to become heir of a local daimyo, while the real heir, a little boy, is kept locked away in a castle tower.  I have to ask wouldn’t someone notice along the way that the child is growing into a woman rather than a man?

The assassination assignment includes murdering the senile old lord, his concubine and the girl masquerading as a boy, plus Ogami must also stop a document revealing this sham from reaching the hands of his mortal enemy, Yagyū Retsudō.  While on the job, his son Daigoro is once again separated from his father and proves his courage and sense of honor as he refuses to admit the guilt of a woman pickpocket he promised not to rat on.  With his father looking on and giving his son ever so slight nods approving of Diagoro’s refusal rat on the woman, the boy is beaten, doesn’t talk and has taken his first major step to becoming a samurai.

For Itto it can be said that although Tomisaburo Wakayama plays a very stoic, virtually emotionless character, he does it very well.  This is perhaps due to his years of real martial arts training.  He handles his sword normally without any of over the top moves because of his skills, however, he can pull it off as his movements are focused and intimidating.

Now as a chambara fan, I must confess that the combination of stylized violence and the existential mystical look at both historical Japan and the genre conventions that form chambara, sure come through in this film.  It might not be as groundbreaking as the first two entries in the series; it is after all following well-tested tradition, but it is done with such conviction and deliberation that one has to give it its due.

As with other serialized characters of the chambara universe like Zatoichi or Nemuri Kiyoshiro, Baby Cart in the Land of Demons meets one’s expectations as a pure Lone Wolf movie that doesn’t frustrate one the way Hollywood sequels do.  Master film-maker Kenji Misumi breaks the traditional forms of the period drama that make even a fifth entry of this tried and tested recipe very palatable.

The idea of the five Samurai, each giving Ogami a part of his mission as their dying words is an imaginative one.  The fight scenes were excellent, particularly the underwater fight scene.  While the final battle was not as epic as some of the others in the series, Ogami still fights an entire army single-handedly, as fans have come to expect since the second film.

While some may say Baby Cart in the Land of Demons isn’t as enjoyable as some of its predecessors, I think otherwise.  It’s very solid from a technical standpoint and probably the most beautifully-filmed of the bunch.  The Spaghetti Western cinematic influences are present throughout in the form of tight Leone-esque camera shots and certain musical cues.  At times, there’s also a subtle otherworldly atmosphere, which may or may not be suggestive of Itto and son’s further descent into the depths of hell.  Even the supporting characters in the film are somewhat allegorical in a way: the clansmen of the Kuroda wear demon masks, and the initial five Kuroda representatives that Itto battles in the first act of the film wear veils that feature drawings of the “Beasts of Hell”.

As with anyone of the series see it, you won’t regret it.

 
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Posted by on April 22, 2012 in Movie Reviews

 

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Number 3 Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (1972) or, don’t go to bat for a prostitute unless you really need to.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (or, in Japanese:  Kozure Ôkami: Shinikazeni mukau ubaguruma, literally Wolf with Child in Tow: Perambulator Against the Winds of Death), is the third in a series of six Japanese martial arts films based on the long-running Lone Wolf and Cub comic book series about Ogami Ittō, the wandering assassin for hire who pushes his young son, Daigoro, around in a wooden baby carriage.  Ôgami Ittō (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is still following the ‘path to hell’ with his only son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) in order to avenge his wife’s death and clear his name.  On their way through 17th century Edo Japan, the father and son are again confronted with a colossal number of enemies (above all the Yagyu clan and their cronies), and the ‘Lone Wolf with child’ is once again hired as an assassin (as always for 500 ryo).  Ôgami Ittō, (after Raizo Ichakawa’s Nemuri Kyoshiro) is my personal favorite anti-hero and is, as always, completely fearless and almost invincible.  Unlike Nemuri Kyoshiro, not only is Ittō fearless in battle but he also follows a strict moral code.  Ittō appears more selfless in this film than in the other movies.  He voluntarily submits to torture in order to help out a prostitute and his son Daigoro, who is also of growing importance to the series, is developing an equally deep character progressing with each one of the movies, including even starting to engage in battles.  The baby cart, in which Daigoro sits most of the time, has even more secret weapons and gadgets than in the previous films.

We find Ittō and his son by a river getting on a boat.  The boat captain tells Ittō that he can’t take the baby carriage on a boat; Ittō was prepared for this eventuality and putts the wooden baby carriage into the water so it floats in tow with Daigoro in the cart.  A young woman at the front of the boat, clearly hysterical, drops a bundle holding all of her worldly possessions into the water, and Daigoro retrieves the bundle.

Ittō, meanwhile, draws his sword part way and notices in the reflection on the blade that some bamboo reeds are also trailing the boat.  The father and son assassination team is being followed by soldiers of his sworn enemy, the Yagyū Clan.  Their pursuit forces Ittō to constantly look over his shoulder and never let his guard down.  So much so that when Daigoro is relieving himself in a bamboo glade, Ittō slices into some bamboo stalks, causing several ninjas to fall from their perch — they don’t last long near Ittō’s blade.

In the next scene we find some of the lowest of the low-class of samurai termed watari-kashi – small bands of fighters who move from one daimyo to the next, depending on who’s hiring, and do the dirty work that most samurai would not touch with a ten-foot pole.  A group of four watari-kashi is idling at a rest stop next to the road.  Hot, bored and stupid, they spy an attractive young woman, her mother and their servant walking down the road.  Three of them run off to cause some mischief, but one of the band – Kanbei, the most honorable of the four – refuses to get involved.  The three stooges knock the servant out and summarily rape both the mother and daughter.  Once the servant regains consciousness, he attempts to beat them with his bamboo pole, but is slaughtered by Kanbei, who also slays the two women to insure their silence.  Kanbei then makes the three stooges draw straws informing them that the one who draws the short straw will be killed to take the blame for the rapes and murders of the group.

Ittō pushing the baby cart stumbles on to this grizzly scene just as Kanbei is slaying the watari-kashi who drew the short straw.  Ittō executes the other two rapists when they attempt to attack him.  Kanbei recognizes Ittō and requests a duel with the former shogun executioner.  Ittō accepts and they prepare, but at the last second Ittō lowers his sword and calls it a draw telling him “You are a true warrior, one I hope lives on.”

At an inn, it turns out that the young woman from the boat is to be sold into prostitution.  Her pimp tries to have his way with her, but she bites off his tongue, spitting the bloody appendage onto the floor.  The pimp dies from the injury.

The girl seeks refuge in Ittō’s room, and Ittō steps in to protect her from the local police.  Then the town’s real authorities show up – the yakuza, led by a woman named Torizo.  After some verbal sparring and defending himself against Torizo’s pistol, Ittō agrees to act as a substitute for the young woman and undergo the buri-buri torture that includes being hogtied and hung in the air and repeatedly dunked headfirst into a tub of water.  The subject is then beaten to unconsciousness by men wielding thick rattan canes and shouting “buri-buri.”  Ittō endures the torture without so much as a whimper, freeing the young woman from having to work as a prostitute.

But this miser Torizo claims that there is still the debt to pay for the death of the pimp, so Ittō agrees to take on an assassination for Torizo and her father, a one-armed man with whom Ittō is acquainted from his old days as the shogun’s executioner – when he acted as second during the execution of a daimyo who, fear-stricken, struggled dishonorably, and Torizo’s father got in the way of Ittō’s death blow and lost an arm.  At least Torizo does not get this assassination for free — Ittō charges her the full rate.

The target is a corrupt district deputy.  Initially Ittō is to face the deputy’s personal bodyguards, one of whom is a sharpshooter and quick-draw artist who wields a pair of revolvers.  Through cunning and guile (and the help of his young son Daigoro, who acts as a decoy), Ittō defeats the armed man and takes his guns.  The other is chopped up by Ittō in a sword duel.

Ittō’s battle culminates in his facing the deputy’s army – perhaps 200 men – singlehandedly.  For the first time we are treated to the gadgets in the baby cart, which holds an entire array of weapons, including spears, daggers, a bullet-proof shield, and a small battery of guns.  Ittō personally takes out the henchmen not killed by the guns with his sword and other weapons from the baby cart, even employing Musashi’s two-sword technique.

In the last battle the ronin Kanbei shows up just after Ittō has slain the scrubs and makes his demand again for a duel.  The fight is over in an instant.  Ittō is sliced across his back, but Kanbei is mortally wounded, impaled on Ittō’s Dotanuki battle sword.

Kanbei seeks some sort of reassurance by telling Ittō the reason why he was expelled from his clan and then asks the former shogun’s executioner to act as his “second” in the act of seppuku. This Ittō does with honor.

As Ittō walks away and Torizo begins to runs after him obviously taken over by her true animal instinct, but is stopped by her men who beg her not to go to him, saying he is not human, but a monster.

The entire “Kozure Ôkami” (“Lone Wolf & Cub”) cycle starring Tomisaburo Wakayama is magnificent cinema for its genre, and it is films like these that make me a diverse cinema lover.  The third entry to cycle, “Kozure Ôkami: Shinikazeni mukau ubaguruma” aka “Lone Wolf And Cub: Baby Cart To Hades” is not my favorite of the Ôkami films, more precisely it is probably my least of the six, and yet it is an utterly clever film, that I couldn’t possibly bear to give it a rating lower than a well-deserved 9 out of 10.  Apart from the stunning violent bloodshed, fascinating philosophy, beautiful photography and countless other ingenious qualities, arguably most brilliant aspect of the “Ôkami” films is the portrayal of the father-son relationship between Ôgami Ittō and his son Daigoro, and its depiction once again deepens in this film foreshadowing the movies to come.

Keep up with the series and if you have not seen them start for gods sakes.

Also, some have requested that I make the clips bigger to accommodate the subtitles so forgive the questionable quality.

 
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Posted by on March 15, 2012 in Movie Reviews

 

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As Promised Here is Number 2 of our LW&C Extravaganza: Baby Cart at the River Styx.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx literally Wolf with Child in Tow: Perambulator of the River of Sanzu) is the second in the series of Japanese martial arts films based on the long-running Lone Wolf and Cub manga series about Ogami Ittō, our wandering assassin for hire who is accompanied by his young son.

The disgraced former Kaishakunin to the shogun, Ogami Ittō is now living off the land pushing his son in the wooden baby carriage as a hired killer.  When he arrives in a small town looking for a room, food and a bath he is eagerly welcomed in by a young woman to their inn.  The manager of the inn sees Ittō as a dirty vagrant and scolds the young woman for letting him stay.  Overhearing this, Ittō calmly goes to his baby cart and hands a bundle of 500 ryo to the manager for safekeeping – probably more money than the manager has seen in one place in his life.  Naturally, the overall level of service quickly changes, but just to tweak him a bit, when the manager tries to wash Daigoro’s feet, the boy kicks water in his face and leaves wet footprints all over the floor.

Ittō’s activities are being watched by the Kurokawa spy clan of shinobi-class ninja, which have fallen in with Ittō’s nemesis, the Shadow Yagyū. They report on his activities to Sayaka, head of Akari Yagyū clan of female assassins. But the Kurokawa are unsure that the women are up to the task of killing Ittō. Sayaka laughs confidently and tells the Kurokawas’ leader to send their best man into the room. She then orders the man to try to exit the room.  He tries to do so by grappling onto the ceiling, but the female assassins set upon him and start hacking off his ears, fingers, arms and legs, leaving a stump of a man (just a torso and head) before he is cruelly finished off.

Ittō, meanwhile, is hired by a clan that has a secret process to make indigo dye.  This secret has let the clan get away with being undervalued for years (saving on taxes et. cetera).  One of the clan plans to sell his comrades out to the shogun and Ittō must kill him.  The turncoat is to be escorted by the feared Hidari brothers, each a master of a deadly weapon – the iron claw, the flying mace and a pair of armored gloves and they all wear enormous hats.

As he travels to his job, Ittō encounters the famed female assassins and has no problem killing them all—unlike that unfortunate ninja.

Then he meets Sayaka, who catches him, his son and the baby cart in a steel net. Ittō cuts his way out of the net and engages in a sword duel with her.  He delivers what should be a disabling blow to her ankles, but the woman fighter jumps straight up out of her kimono to reveal a fishnet body suit and then runs away backwards.

Next, the Kurokawa clan is waiting for Ittō, who puts together his naginata (disguised as railing on the baby cart) and gives the baby cart a shove toward the waiting enemies.  Daigoro, still in the baby cart then activates blades located in the axles of the cart, which cut off the feet of several men.  The battle that ensues between Ittō and the Kurokawas is fierce and Ittō is seriously injured before he has killed them all.

Weary from the endless fighting, Ittō struggles along the road and eventually finds shelter in a shack.  Daigoro, seeing that his father needs his help, must do what he can.  Unable to carry water in his tiny hands, Daigoro carries water from the river in the only vessel available – his mouth.  He spits the few drops he could carry between his father’s parched lips much like a mother bird feeding her hatching.  For food, Daigoro finds some rice cakes given as an offering to a Buddha statue and takes them for his father, leaving his vest in exchange.

Ittō recovers and finds that his son is missing.  Daigoro has been taken by the Kurokawa and Sayaka, tied up and suspended over a well.  If Ittō attacks, they will surely let go of the rope and Daigoro will plunge to his death. Daigoro lets his sandal drop into the well, giving Ittō a gauge of how deep it is.  Itto makes his move as the rope is released, stopping it just in time to save his son.

Sayaka watches silently and makes no move to engage the swordsman, realizing Itto’s technique far outstrips her own and perhaps also out of a sense of honor for the devotion of the father to his child.

Ittō then finds himself aboard a ship, carrying the three Hidari brothers who recognize him and offer a détente in that if one party does not interfere with the other party there will be no need for any superfluous deaths and bloodshed.

The final showdown takes place on a vast desert. The Hidari bodyguards are at the head of a caravan of men carrying a palanquin with the indigo expert inside.  The brother with the iron claw runs forward and thrusts his claw into the sand, which boils up with blood.  There are men hiding in the sand.  He stabs his claw into the sand several times, each time pulling up a hiding warrior by his head.  The rest of the hidden men in the sand emerge and fight, but are destroyed by the bodyguards.

Client Eastwood style, Ittō awaits, alone, at the top of a large dune.  As each brother attacks they are killed by Itto in a grandiose style with fountains of blood and the last one killed in one lethal stroke along his throat, a cut that sprays blood in a fine mist while making a sound like the “howling of the wind.”  The last of the Hidari brothers comments that he wanted to hear the effects such a precise stroke from one of his victims instead hearing it from his own neck as his life slowly flies away.

Ittō approaches the palanquin with the traitorous indigo expert inside, finishing him before gathering Daigoro and again setting off.

Many argue that Baby Cart at the River Styx is the best and most entertaining movie out of all the Lone Wolf and Cub series.  That is merely a matter of personal taste since I think each of the films has their moments.  Because of Tomisaburo Wakayama’s martial arts talents, the scenes are greatly choreographed and very over-the-top.  It’s amazing the inventiveness they came up with at times.  Of course, there is still is plenty of blood in this one that sprays like a garden hose sometimes.  However, it looks like red paint!

If you are only going to watch one of the LW&C series, this is probably the one to watch.

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2012 in Movie Reviews

 

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It has been too long since we did a series. Well here is a real blast from the past Lone Wolf and Cub.

The Lone Wolf & Cub series has a cult following (including me).  All but one of the movies was made in 2 years:

Sword of Vengeance (1972)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (1972)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (1972)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973)

Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (1974)

A total of seven Lone Wolf and Cub films featuring Tomisaburo Wakayama as “Ogami Ittō” have been produced based on the comic. They are also known as the Sword of Vengeance series, based on the English-language title of the first film, and later as the Baby Cart series, because Itto’s young son Daigoro travels in a wooded baby carriage pushed by his father.

The first three films were directed by Kenji Misumi, released in 1972 and produced by Shintaro Katsu, Tomisaburo Wakayama’s brother and the star of the legendary 26 part Zatoichi (the blind swordsman) film series.  The next three films were produced by Wakayama and directed by Buichi Saito, Kenji Misumi and Yoshiyuki Kuroda, released in 1972, 1973, and 1974 respectively.

A word or two should be said about Tomisaburo Wakayama.  While he is known best for his role as the Lone Wolf, he, like his brother, were prolific actors.  Wakayama was also an excellent martial artist obtaining his 4th degree black belt in Judo as well as other martial art disciplines including Kenpo, Iaido, Kendo and Bojutsu, usually learning them when he prepared for filming.  He and his brother came from a family of Kabuki actors that toured Asia and the west.  After a two year tour in the U.S., Wakayama had enough and left his family’s acting troupe to take up the martial arts.  He was subsequently hired by Toei as an actor and the rest is history.  He has had roles in over two hundred films, including a famous scene in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain (1989) starring Andy Garcia and Michael Douglas take a look http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jC46eTGpf1M.

Some background & the first movie Sword of Vengeance. 

Ogami Ittō, formidable warrior and a master of the suiō-ryū swordsmanship, functions as the Kaishakunin (the Shōgun’s executioner), a position of high power in the Shogunate.  Ogami Ittō is the Shogun’s enforcer over the daimyō of Japan (lesser domain lords).  When the Shogun ordered samurai and lords to commit seppuku, the Kaishakunin had the “privilege” of assisting in the deaths by decapitating the subject to stop the self-inflicted torture of disembowelment; in this role, Itto is entitled to brandish the crest of the Shogunate, by law acting in the Shogun’s place.  So you can’t screw with him.  I can only imagine what coming home from work every day was like “hi honey I am home . . . long day at the office decapitated three people” and the like—interesting dinner conversation.

Shortly after Ogami Ittō’s wife Azami gives birth to their son, Daigorō, he returns from work to find everyone viciously murdered except his newborn son.  The patsy’s are three samurai from an abolished clan trying to take revenge of their lord against Ittō for his “assistance” with the lords death.  Itto’s knows that this is a scam planned by Ura-Yagyū (Shadow Yagyu) Yagyū Retsudō, leader of the Ura-Yagyū clan, to seize Ogami’s powerful position.  Somebody planted a funeral tablet with the shogun’s crest on it inside the Ogami family shrine, supposedly signifying a wish for the shogun’s death.  When the planted tablet is “discovered” its presence dooms Ittō to traitor status and he relinquishes his post.

The 1-year-old Daigorō is given a choice a ball or the sword (see clip).  If the kid chose the ball, his father would kill him and himself, sending him to be with his mother.  Luckily the child crawls toward the sword.  Itto has now become one of many rōnin wandering the country as the assassin-for-hire team that becomes known as Lone Wolf and Cub, vowing to destroy the Yagyū clan to avenge Azami’s death and Ittō’s disgrace.

While cruising the country Itto does a little advertising by hanging a banner off his back “Ogami: Suiouryo technique” (Child and expertise for rent).  His marketing plan works when he lands a job from a Chamberlain to kill a rival and his gang of henchmen who are out to kill chamberlain’s lord.  The chamberlain decides to test Ittō, but he makes quick work of the chamberlain’s two best swordsmen.  His targets are in a remote mountain village that is host a number of natural hot-spring spa pools.

When Ittō reaches the hot-spring village, he finds that the rival chamberlain and his men have hired a band of ronin that have taken over the town and are doing your usual raping, looting and pillaging.

The ronin discuss killing Ittō, but decide to let him live if he will have sex with the town’s remaining prostitute while they watch.  The prostitute refuses to have any part in it, but then she’s threatened by one of the men, a knife expert, and in order to save the woman, Ittō steps forward and disrobes, saying he will oblige them.

The episode takes one more trip back to the past, for the dramatic beheading and blood-spurting scene in which Ittō defeats one of Yagyū Retsudo’s best swordsman, with the aid of a mirror on Daigoro’s forehead to reflect the sun into the swordsman’s eyes.  To the disgrace of Retsudo.

Then we have the big showdown.  It is revealed that the baby cart has some James Bond type of secrets – several edged weapons, including a spear that Ittō uses to take out the evil chamberlain’s men, chopping one off at his ankles, leaving the bloody stumps of his feet still standing on the ground.  (See Clip).

The movie ends.  Don’t worry folks this is just part one of the series we are going to look at each of them.  Up next, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972).

 
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Posted by on March 8, 2012 in Movie Reviews

 

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