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Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance – Review

by Dane Benko

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The story of a Ronin who wanders the countryside of Japan with his small child, having various adventures. The first installment of Kenji Misumi’s Lone Wolf and Cub series sets out to establish the world and the character of the manga in two large narratives stitched together with episodic transition sequences. The primary narrative is the backstory of Ogami Itto, executioner for the Shogunate, introduced from the deepest of black at the execution of the young emperor of the Yagyu Clan. His wife and household is killed save for his one-year-old son Daigoro while the two pray at a temple dedicated to the souls of those Ogami has executed. Shortly thereafter Inspector Bizen shows up to investigate, and Ogami readily recognizes the Yagyu Shadow Clan has set him up in an attempted coup. After Ogami kills Bizen in a duel, the Yagyu’s clan’s conspiracy is sanctioned by the Shogunate, forcing Ogami to take to the road with his infant son, a ronin with vengeance on his mind. The second narrative features the duo’s first conscription for service. Ichige Gyobin, Edo Chamberlain of the Oyamada Clan, asks for Ogami’s help in protecting his Daimyo (Lord) Noriyuki from assassination by a group of thugs lead by the traitors Sugito and the Oyaadi Three. Ogami travels to the Gounimori Hot Springs and finds a town terrorized into submission by these ronin rapists and thieves, and has to find away to defeat them while protecting his son, a collected group of imprisoned travelers, and the townsfolk. The origin narrative is told predominantly in a series of flashbacks that are elegantly introduced by visual cues from the world around Ogami as he travels.  A delusional woman reminds him of his wife’s feverish predictions of her upcoming doom, children playing with a ball on a mountainside reminds him of the city guard come to deliver the Shogunate’s orders of seppuku. These transition sequences also do double-service in showcasing the chaos and impoverishment of the Shogunate era, as every character Ogami and Daigoro pass is in rags, wandering, and helpless. The only realm of social order shown in the movie are the white palace of the young emperor and Ogami’s own household, both of which are destroyed in short order. Stylistically the movie revels in contrasts. Ogami is introduced in a block of pitch black in the middle of a white palace; his monologue to seek vengeance is defined by the image of Daigoro and him traveling a white road between fire and water. Later on the Gounimori Hot Springs are renamed Koumari for ‘bat’, “a creature with wings that is not a bird, and fangs that is not a beast.” This motif features in dialog and imagery alike, as well as in a minimalist sound design that fades back and forth between silence and ambience, screams and the swipes of blades. The visuals themselves are compositional feasts, with crisp clean cinematography often splattered with geysers of bright red blood. Unfortunately the movie also glories in moments of nudity in a movie lacking a real love interest, which means it features topless demented women (plural) and rape victims (plural), which is pretty typical of cult movies of this time not only in Japan, but in several other countries as well. The almost psychedelic editing and similar visual diversions place it clearly in its time. The overlapped narratives give the beginning of the movie a stuttering start, and several flashback sequences result in lengthy expository dialog, but otherwise this first episode couldn’t be a more exciting start to a long journey into justice as Ogami hunts down the Yagyu Clan and protects the innocent and bullied along the way. These two sides of his character and his stoic demeanor immediately set the tone for good adventures to come.

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Author: Dane Benko

Dane is an independent filmmaker and freelancer in Albuquerque, NM. Japanese cinema is a particular fascination of his.

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