On The Demon Path in Hell: Criterion’s ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ Blu-Ray Set

The best father-son stories don’t usually involve mass murder, but the Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima legendary manga series Lone Wolf and Cub is just that. Itto Ogami and his son, Daigoro, are on the Demon Path in Hell after the Yagyu clan kills his wife and he’s out for bloodthirsty revenge. But in the meantime, he takes up the job of assassin-for-hire, insisting that his clients divulge every secret about his target. He uses his mastery of the sword technique Suio-ryu and his ingenious baby cart to kill his targets and enemies.

lone-wolf-and-cub
Art by Paul Pope for the Criterion Collection

In the span of just three years – from 1972 to 1974 – Tomisaburō Wakayama brought Itto Ogami to life in six films, along with Akihiro Tomikawa as Daigoro. The first three films and the fifth were directed by Kenji Misumi, while Buichi Saito helmed the fourth and Yoshiyuki Kuroda directed the sixth. The films were also produced by Wakayama’s brother, the famous Shintaro Katsu, who also played Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman.

Back in November 2016, Criterion released all six Lone Wold And Cub films in one, three-disc Blu-Ray box set. The six films are:

  1. Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance
  2. Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx
  3. Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades
  4. Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril
  5. Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons
  6. Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell

Unlike the Zatochi movies, which can get very repetitive over time, the Lone Wolf and Cub movies have to be seen in sequence. Itto and his son show character development over time, and the stories are linked to each other. Koike, who wrote the first five films, clearly didn’t want to put audiences through the same format in each movie. Plus, unlike the random town bosses that Zatoichi fights, Itto gets to face progressively more interesting and unforgettable adversaries. How could anyone forget the topless, tattooed female assassin in Baby Cart in Peril? Or the trio of assassins who each have a different weapon Itto faces in River Styx?

The films also find new ways to kill people and shows complete disregard for the laws of physics. Don’t expect any realism here. Itto not only kills people with his sword, but with a Gatling gun in the baby cart. His villains come at him on skis. When he cuts people in half, the top half of the body slloooooowwwlllllyyyy slides off the waist. It’s glorious violence that can make even the biggest Quentin Tarantino fan squirm.

But alongside the violence, there is a great father-son story in the Lone Wolf and Cub films. Daigoro is not just an accessory for Itto to carry around. He’s a full character himself – he even gets a sad song when he gets separated from his father in one film. Tomikawa’s wide-eyed wonder is as important to the series’ success as Wakayama’s performance.

Thankfully the series was short, because by the time the sixth film rolled around, it was clear that it had run its course. White Heaven In Hell is an appropriate ending to the series, but it’s clear that Kuroda is no Misumi. (By the way, Misumi directed the first Zatoichi film.) There’s only so many times an audience can see one man defeat an army of hundreds, after all.


The Blu-Ray

The six films are presented on the first two discs of the set, with three on each disc. Since the films all run 89 minutes or less, that’s not a problem. Trailers for each film are also included on the discs with the films.

Here’s a look at Disc 3:

  • Shogun Assassin – This is the 1980, English-language edit of the first two Lone Wolf and Cub films. It’s also the version that introduced most Americans to the series.
  • Shogun Assassin Trailer
  • L’ame d’un Pere, L’ame d’un Sabre – Even Japanese films get a French-made program (although this one is mostly in Japanese, of course)! This runs nearly an hour and is a more in-depth look at the making of the franchise.
  • Kazuo Koike – Thankfully, Koike is still alive to provide this fun, 13-minute interview. He provides a fascinating look at the birth of the series and how it compares to today’s action franchises.
  • Kenji Misumi Misumi died in 1975 at age 54, so biographer Kazuma Nozawa looks at the director’s life and his style. This interview also runs 15 minutes.
  • On Suio-ryu – This is the kind of program only Criterion would think of making. It’s an interview with Suio-ryu headmaster Sensei Yoshimitsu about the swordfighting style Itto uses in the films. But as the Sensei explains, Suio-ryu is much more than just fancy swordplay.
  • Sword of the Samurai – This is another “Only Criterion Would Do This” supplement. They dug up a silent 1939, half-hour short film about the making of swords, rather than try to make a whole new program about the making of swords. Criterion hired Ryan Francis of the Metropolis Ensemble to write a score for the film.
  • Samurai and Son: The Lone Wolf And Cub Saga – Japanese pop culture writer Patrick Macias wrote this essay and film descriptions for the booklet.

This is a fantastic collection. Sure, the violence might be a bit more than some can take, but this is a group of samurai movies that have a heart. The father-son relationship is the key to the Lone Wolf and Cub saga and what makes it unique. Without it, the series is just another samurai franchise.

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