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Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell – Review

by Dane Benko

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In White Heaven to Hell, Retsudo conscripts his remaining children, most notably his estranged son Hyoei of the Tsuchigumo, to aide in his attempts to kill Ogami and Daigoro as the two head on their way to the Shogunate.

As mentioned in my previous reviews to this series, many of the Lone Wolf and Cub episodes follow variations of other cult film genres. White Heaven in Hell is the Lone Wolf and Cub horror movie, where Ogami becomes the object of a spiritual attrition as the result of being targeted by Hyoei, the son of Retsudo and a concubine who was abandoned at the age of five to become a part of the Tsuchigumo Tribe, a mountain dwelling group right out of a pre-Romero zombie movie.

The Tsuchigumos have amongst their arsenal three undead warriors named Mujo, Muga, and Mumon, the ability to crawl under the ground to attack like earthworms, and various illusionary abilities appear and even float around like ghosts. With these tactics, the Tsuchigumos become something of a curse that follows Ogami with the promise that any innocent bystander he interacts with will be killed, resulting in Ogami becoming even more isolated from the Japanese countryside he traverses than ever before.

However, the course of political intrigue within the movie is not so simple, as Hyoei’s targeting of Ogami is not motivated by Retsudo’s request so much as an attempt to undermine Retsudo’s stature as Head Executioner to the Shogunate in revenge for his abandonment at youth. Meanwhile, Retsudo is driven to new extremes after Ogami dispatches Retsudo’s daughter Kaori, last remaining legitimate heir to the Yagyu clan. Also, political pressure is exerted on Retsudo and Ogami both as the Bakufu (high officials of the Shogunate) grow impatient with the long running cat and mouse game and appeal to the Shogun for a sanctioned manhunt for the Lone Wolf and Cub assassin.

With such a build-up, White Heaven in Hell is surprisingly anticlimactic and in fact as the final feature length of the series, lacks closure. Whereas thematically Ogami and Daigoro are pushed further along, narratively the movie ends with little more accomplished than in any previous episodes save the fourth, which again sticks out from the series due to having a different director and what seems to be a more fatally final ending. Viewers eager for closure here are either on their own or invited to continue with the television series.

As such it’s more interesting to look at White Heaven in Hell as an opportunity to appraise the series as a whole. I feel the series is best viewed as a serial homage to popular cult genres, while Ogami himself stands as a morality tale. His character is through politics and through conspiracy set at the margin of a lost and chaotic Japanese society, where he decides to live as a ‘demon.’ However, despite that constant claim of his enemies and his own, at every turn he intervenes in Japanese life to remind viewers of the good and appropriate social traditions of Japanese culture, as well as in combat he represents the height of Bushido.

Because of the changing stylistic approaches in each episode and the cliffhanger ending, the series is not necessarily completely coherent or self-contained. A lot of that can be fixed by the relatively simple procedure of putting episode 4 after episode 6. That way there is closure and only one minor continuity error in the damage done to Retsudo’s eye. Luckily, since each movie mostly stands alone in terms of separate characters, it isn’t necessary to watch the series in exact order save that White Heaven in Hell needs to come either last or second to last, as the motivations of Retsudo do not make any sense without much of what has happened in the series previously.

A note on translation: the Japanese title for “White Heaven in Hell” translates more closely to “Daigoro!  We are off to Hell!”

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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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