The Shogun Assassin Movies
by John Robert Dodd (1996)
The BABY CART
SWORD OF VENGEANCE
LONE WOLF WITH CHILD
LONE WOLF AND CUB
(and all other aka's)
film series is one of the greatest achievements of cinema.
BABY CART/SWORD OF VENGEANCE/LONE WOLF WITH CHILD/LONE WOLF AND CUB #1:
LEND A HAND, LEND A ARM/SWORD OF VENGEANCE
Itto Ogami (Wakayama) is hired by a clan to kill a group planning an assassination. Ogami is to wait in a small village for the potential hit to arrive. During the trip we get a flashback that explains the story of Ogami and Daigoro (ie: the Yagyu's treachery causing Ogami to leave Ito disgraced).
After a half hour of background, Father and son arrive at the village to find that it has been taken over by a gang of criminals (in a very Spaghetti Western fashion). Awaiting his hit, Ogami can't reveal who he is. The gang humiliates Ogami, but still he doesn't fight back.
There is an interesting bond with a prostitute that is formed and a clear portrait of the hellishness of the times. The finale action sequences are exhilarating and breath taking (even if the make up isn't always the best). The duel between Ogami and the Yagyu man at dawn is stunning. The use of light and shadow is perfect. This scene has been remade (It can be seen in FUGITIVE SAMURAI and HANDFUL OF SAND) but never was it better realized than here.
My personal favorite scene is right before the finale. The leader of the criminals knows he has seen Ogami somewhere before but can't remember where. As the criminals prepare to leave, the leader orders the trouble makers executed. An ill samurai prepares to commit seppuku. He says "I need a decapitator." The leader pauses a moment and mutters, "Decapitator? Decapitator? Decap?...." Then stares in horror at Ogami's sword which the leader took away from Ogami in the film's beginning. He realizes now, too late, who Ogami is.
Criticism of the feudal system is also present here in the very first scene (pre-credit) as Ogami prepares to assist a young boy who the shogun has ordered to die. Stunning.
- BABY CART/SWORD OF VENGEANCE/LONE WOLF WITH CHILD/LONE WOLF AND CUB #2:
|Tomisaburo Wakayama, Akihiro Tomikawa, Kashiro Matsuo.|
|dir: Kenji Misumi.|
Ogami is hired by a clan that specializes in dyes for clothes. Their secret of the dye is in jeopardy because an informer plans to tell Lord Retsudo Yagyu (Ogami's nemesis). Meanwhile, Lord Yagyu sends out a gang of female ninja's to kill Ogami. One female ninja ends up betraying her orders when she sees the relationship that exists between father and son. Also the three Hidari brothers, experts in fighting and killing, have been sent to escort the informer.
More action than the first film (which reminds me of YOJIMBO). By far the most expressionistic fight is Ogami's showdown with the three brothers in the desert. Very much like a Spaghetti Western: Daigoro standing in the middle of the desert and points to his father standing on a dune in the distance, waiting. There is a highly memorable bit where Ogami kills an unseen, hidden listener during the hiring scene. The female assassins who attack while disguised as performers are also a memorable encounter.
Besides action, this film also offers an interesting personal conflict as the female ninja has to come to terms with her would be vicitim. Great stuff!
|Tomisaburo Wakayama, Akirhiro Tomikawa, Go Kato, Ichiro Nakatani.|
|dir: Kenji Misumi.|
Possibly my favorite of the entire series. There is a lot going on in this film. But instead of seeming fragmented every encounter makes the film that much tighter. Three brutes and Kanbei, a former samurai, are to become mercenaries for a lord. In the meantime they wait. The ruffians are looking for fun. They attack a family on the road, beating the man and raping the two women. The three bungle the job badly and end up being beaten by the man. In the confusion, the three spill the name of the lord that hired them. Kanbei shows up and kills the man and the two women. Kanbei then takes three branches and forces each ruffian to draw one. Whoever has the smallest branch will be held entirely responsible for the act and executed. This way there will be no official investigation and their lord spared embarrassment. Ogami and Daigoro stumble onto the scene just as the samurai is performing the execution. The other two ruffians try to attack Ogami and die. Kanbei isn't sure if Ogami heard the lord's name and challenges Ogami to a duel. Kanbei says he will look after Daigoro if Ogami looses. Ogami stops the duel saying he would like there to be one samurai left in the world. Ogami and Daigoro exit. This is just the begining.
There is a remarkable sequence where Ogami saves a prostitute. This is one of the best scenes of any of the BABY CART films, revealing Ogami's humanity and perhaps a sentimental nature underneath the stoicism.
The main plot has Ogami hired by Toizo, a female yakuza (crime boss). Toizo's father was a member of a clan destroyed by an informant named Gamba who told of the mental illness of the clan's leader. Gamba is now wealthy and powerful. Ironically, Gamba soon seeks Ogami out to have him kill the person he informed about the clan to. Ogami refuses and Gamba concludes that Ogami is hired to kill him. What follows is an interesting collection of cat and mouse games between Ogami and Gamba's men. Of these the most memorable being an ecounter with a pistol toting shootist.
Everything builds to a giant final battle as Ogami takes on what appears to be an army. Then afterwards faces Kanbei in a private duel on the blood drenched battlefield. This finale is one of the most emotionally intense and cathartic of action sequences. Very much like the best of John Woo. There are even some of Woo's themes present. Even though Ogami and Kanbei fight on oppossite sides they are very much alike. Emotionally draining and heartening the conclusion to this film is the perfect finish to a perfect film.
|Tomisaburo Wakayama, Akihiro Tomikawa, Yoichi Hayashi.|
|Dir: Buichi Saito.|
Itto Ogami is hired by a group of widows to kill their husband's murderer. They were killed by a female assassin with tatoo's scarring her breasts. The best sequence in the film occurs before Ogami meets up with the female asassin. Daigoro gets seperated from his father and lost. He encounters a wandering swordsman with a grudge against Ogami. Phenomenal scene! The rest of the film is very good as Ogami tracks down his hit by going to her father (the leader of a troupe of performers). The father views his daughter as a disgrace and is more than willing to help Ogami with his hunt.
What is interesting is the moral ambiguance here. The female assassin is revealed to have been wronged and is far from evil. The thin line of good and evil presented here reminds one a little of Clint Eastwood's UNFORGIVEN, with it's view of Western assassins (Eastwood's a fan of the BABY CART films). Even though not by the visual stylist Kenji Misumi this is another solid entry in the series.
There is a final battle with some Yagyu men. The battle is decent though anti-climatic after the finale of movie #3. But the duel between Ogami and Lord Yagyu is excellently coreographed. This duel is the only time in the original six films that Ogami and Lord Yagyu ever crossed swords. And it's certainly memorable.
|Tomisaburo Wakayama, Akihiro Tomikawa, Minoru Oki, Michiyo Yasuda.|
|Dir: Kenji Misumi.|
The most mystical of all of the series openings. Ogami stops at a waterfall and is approached by a mysterious, face covered, swordsman who challenges him. Ogami accepts and wins. As he is dying the swordsman explains that four other challengers await on the road. Each has part of the 500 ryo payment Ogami requires. Ogami must first prove he is capable of fullfilling the job, hence the tests. Each, brilliantly filmed, test is presented with an emphasis on a natural element (water and fire). With each challenger Ogami learns a little more about his mission.
Later, Ogami gets yet another job involving the same mission. The film reveals itself to be a bitter condemnation against feudal codes. This is the darkest entry in the series and the most complex in terms of story. The twists in the story are definitely part of the film's greatness and have only been highlighted here. This is one of the very best in the series. The action set pieces are excellent as always with the standout being an execution/battle by (and in) a water body to be crossed.
Also, the structure is fascinating. After the challengers, there is a simple little scene in which Daigoro is again seperated from his father. This is a quiet scene that reveals much about the relationship between father and son. It's a delicate scene. One that is in direct contrast to the brutal violence of the film's finale. Brilliant in every way.
|Tomisaburo Wakayama, Akihiro Tomikawa, Isao Kimura, Minoru Oki.|
|Dir: Yoshiyuki Kuroda.|
The last of the original six is a good film but not up there with the others in the series. This film starts promising. Retsudo Yagyu has had enough of Ogami and wants him dead at all costs. But most of the Yagyu immediate family are already dead (killed by Ogami). There only remains two: a granddaughter who is an expert in the lethal art of knives, and an illegitamate, rejected son who practices the black arts. Ogami's encounter with each assassin are memorable and there is a dark, supernatural mood that gives the film a creepy ambiance.
The problem comes after Ogami defeats the two challengers (about the halfway mark). There are a trio of left over zombies that don't do much. And finally just seem rather silly. The final battle is also problematic. Don't get me wrong, the action scenes are as breathtaking as always and the violence extreme. In fact this may be the goriest fight in the BABY CART series (it takes place on the pure white snow). But there isn't much emotional impact: samurai assassin's on ski's; Lord Yagyu's final "we will get you one day Ogami" ending; etc. Not a bad film and well worth watching. If your and action fan the final battle will be a delight. But the film's sort of an unfulfilled promise.
In the mid 70's attendance in Japanese movie houses was plumeting for almost all genres. So the BABY CART series was taken to TV. This was with a different cast and creative team. To my knowledge Kozuo Koike was not involved with the TV show. In the 1980's feature films were released that were made from compiling some of these episodes. I have seen one of these.
|Kinnosuke Yorozuya, Katzutaka Nishikawa.|
|dir: Ryugi Tanaka.|
From what I can figure out there are two episodes edited together here. One of these involves a violent clan seeking vengeance on Ogami for killing several of it's members and family. The other story involves Gunbei Yagyu (seen in BC #4), the estranged Yagyu, who is sent out to kill Ogami. Ogami won a match from Gunbei and got the job of the shogun's decapitator. Gunbei feels he has been cheated and wants a fair duel.
The two storylines are cut together pretty well with the seams sewed up nicely. The stories are both well told and while the action scenes lack the extravaganza quality of the orginal series, they are entertaining. The standout is the Gunbei/Ogami rematch which benefits from excellent cinematography. A decent film.
Somewhere in here there was a 1979 adaptation made for TV. I don't know if this came before the TV series or in between the TV series and the movies made from them. Either way this is the complete Ogami story in just about 2 and a half hours.
|Hideki Takahashi, Koji Aeba, Meiko Kaji, Tomisaburo Wakayama.|
This TV special often plays like little adaptations of the comic books. The film has many vinettes that have the feel of the original Koike stories (they may be from them). For example Ogami (Takashi) is hired by a woman to kill her husband who is an important messanger. In the best, Ogami faces a lord who Ogami had taught his sword style to. The former teacher and student square off. There are a few others, many of whom are excellent.
The big problem is comparison. The mysterious challengers are from BC #5, the female yakuza and the prostitute from #3, etc. These were probably all adapted from the comic book, but the comparison is still there. And BABY CART IN PURGATORY always comes up short lacking the visual style, cathartic release, and emotional impact of these scenes as presented in the original six films. Another complaint is the final duel between Ogami and Yagyu. It might thematically be interesting (two honor bound warriors in compliance with the samurai code) but it's not very entertaining.
BABY CART IN PURGATORY is far from bad however, and is well worth watching. It is interesting to see Tomisaburo the most famous Itto Ogami, here playing Retsudo Yagyu. This film stands as a decent companion piece to the original series. But it is ultimately only a companion piece.
Finally, in 1992 a big budgeted film adaptation was made that again would have a self contained story.
|Masakazu Tamura, Yushi Shibata, Tatsuya Nakadai.|
|Dir: Shou Inoue|
This is a revisionist relook at the Kaizo Koike/Goskei Kojima source. Much of Koike's themes are still present. But gone is the Leoneesq backdrop of Gods and myths. In their place is a sense of humanity and loss that is stunning.
Some have been outraged. How dare they say the filmmakers turn Ogami into a sniveling wimp (their words not mine). How dare the filmmakers get rid of the baby cart. The critics say the filmmakers have no understanding of the source and should have left well enough alone.
They are wrong. The filmmakers have a respect for this story that is reverent. There is not one missed opportunity. There is not one compromise. The filmmakers approach the story without a shred of condescendence. This film is treated the same as if it had been Ingmar Bergman. This is drama at its most potent and heartening.
Never before has Ogami been so human (that's human not a wimp). Never has Diagoro been so innocent (so much like a child which is what he is). Never before has Retsudo Yagyu been such a well defined character. Never has the love between father and son been so genuine. And lastly, never has the acting been this good. Wakayama is so associated with the role of Ogami that all who have came since have suffered in comparison. Tamura bares absolutely no resemblence to Wakayama but his interpretation is flawless, trading in the stoicism for sadness, Godness for humanity. He is equal to Wakayama. Tatsuya Nakadai has appeared in many films and is an actor listed alongside Toshiro Mifune, here one can easily see why. His is the definitive Retsudo Yagyu portrayal.
This is a perfect film. The action scenes are as poetic as they are exciting. The story filled with little moments of emotional perfection. The characters and relationships leap off the screen. Lastly the theme of the futility of violence is expertly realized. The final battle is a masterwork. The best duel I have ever seen. It's tense, cathartic, visually stimulating, and emotionally devastating. A final statement in one of the best works of world cinema.
There is also one other film that sometimes pops up: LONE WOLF COP: THE SEX DOLL CASE. Some video sources have called this an updating of the Itto Ogami story so I will review it.
|Yoshiio Umeyani, Chiko Ishimura, Seiya Komastu, Chikra Yasucka.|
|Dir: Noeuhiro Sato (or is it Masao Ito -some discrepency exits)|
A police officer (Umeyani) is recruited to a special agency and given a license to kill. He is given a dozen or so young policemen and a bar as a front. Meanwhile, girls are dissapearing and the friend of one girl is searching for her. It turns out the girls are being kidnapped and sold into bizarre kinky sex games to rich industrialists by a meganolical corporation. One of the young debuties becomes involved and finds a friend of his (the boyfriend of the searching woman) is involved.
From this plot discription one can see that this is hardly an adaptation of Kozuo Koike's comic. There is no Daigoro character, there is no Yagyu like clan that the officer is seeking vengeance against. There is little in common with the stoy.
The film itself however is a fun film. On one hand a tight, technically excellent, film noir style cop film. On the other hand unrepently sleazy (S&M outtakes from video are included from God knows what source). Umeyani is great. The way he plays the gay, jestery sort of bar owner undercover is wildly contradicted by the ending which has him in war paint and a headband blowing away the villains. A good movie, though it could have used a few more action scenes in the middle, but not really an adaptation of the Koike comic book.
Another set of companion pieces to the BABY CART films are the two LADY SNOWBLOOD films. The first LADY SNOWBLOOD was made in 1973. The second, LADY SNOWBLOOD -WEB OF TREACHERY / LOVE SONGS OF RESENTMENTS was made in 1974. Both were directed by Toshiya Fujita. At least the first was written by Kazuo Koike (with Kuzuo Vemura). Both starred Meiko Kaji as a woman seeking revenge for her dead parents in the 1920's.
|Meiko Kaji, Toshiro Kurosawa, Eiji Okada, Ko Nishimura.|
|Dir: Toshiya Fujita. |
Since Kazuo Koike co-wrote the script (with Kuzuo Vemura), and after reading favorable reviews from Max Allen Collins and Chris D, I had high hopes for this film. But the verdict, to my astonishment, is: not very good.
Meiko Kaji plays Yuki, a woman seeking revenge against a gang that murdered her parents. Yuki's father (not biologically), mother, and brother moved to a small town where the father was to begin his career as teacher. Once they arrive they are set upon by four thugs who kill the father and son, then rape the mother. The mother is kept by one of the thugs until she finally kills him. The mother is then sentenced to prison, where she becomes a "prison slut" for the guards. This is done so that she might conceive and the child will avenge the parents. Yuki is the child. The mother dies in childbirth and Yuki is given to a master swordsman to be trained in the art of killing. Now, Yuki is grown and taking vengeance on the four and any other flunky that gets in her way.
This could have been interesting. The story had potential, particularly in the relationship between parent and child in regard to one of the thug's relationship with his daughter. This is the best part of the film as Yuki finds her quarry to be a drunken, washed up loser. But a loser deeply loved by his daughter. Much could have been said about family honor and the cycle of violence. But this film fumbles badly. Or rather it just doesn't care.
LADY SNOWBLOOD is the Japanese equivalent of a third rate modern day 70's Hong Kong Chop Sockey film (there is even a similar disco style soundtrack used). Anyone expecting the depth in emotional, narrative, or thematic content of the BABY CART films is going to be left unfulfilled. LADY SNOWBLOOD is only interested in cheap thrills. This wouldn't isn't necessarily bad in itself (though it is still a disappointment considering the BC films). I have nothing against exploitation films (see LONE WOLF COP review). But this film doesn't even work as mindless action. The action scenes are nothing special. The blood sprays that seemed poetic in the BC films are just plain silly here. One laughs (I was) at the extreme excessiveness of them. Also the film seems A LOT slower paced than it's ninety some odd minute running time would suggest. The reason for this is probably that there isn't anything here. The story is uninvolving, the training scenes silly, and the action subpar. A disappointment all the way round. I haven't seen the manga so I can't comment on how close the film is to the comic.
- LADY SNOWBLOOD: WEB OF TREACHERY / LOVE SONGS OF RESENTMENTS
Don't know if Kazuo Koike had anything to do with this film or not.
This takes care of all of the Japanese sources. All are available as dub offs in various mail order catalogs. However only three versions of the BABY CART/SWORD OF VENGEANCE/LONE WOLF AND CHILD/LONE WOLF AND CUB series are available in domestic United States video label.
This is an edited, simplified, dubbed combination of the first two films. The American producers were obviously trying to lesson the "Japaneseness" of the production. The story is more linear than the originals. Lord Yagyu is made out to be a crazy shogun. Daigoro has narration which occasionally does work (the last line of the film). Unfortunately much of the child's narration is to provide a humorous (albeit blackly) tinge to the film.
Though vastly inferior to the original two films, SHOGUN ASSASSIN has plenty of breathtaking action scenes and gives hints to the greatness the Japanese filmmakers had originally intended. Since this film is one of the few easily available for rental in the United States I would recommend it as a decent introduction. But bare in mind: the originals are MUCH better.
LUPINE WOLF (aka LIGHTNING SWORDS OF DEATH)
The third film in the series released dubbed but I'm not sure if edited. Haven't seen this one (not available locally at my video stores), but since BC #3 is one of my very favorites I'm almost afraid to.
A version from TV. I believe this is the series pilot, some of this (the interesting parts) were included in THROUGH A CHILD'S EYES. Basically a retelling of how Itto Ogami became shogun decapitator and how the Yagyu's plotted against him. Seen it all before and much better. This is TV and it shows: the fight scenes for the most part aren't very well filmed, the cinematography is only occasionally on the mark, etc. Slow paced and hard to watch, recommended only for the most die hard BC fans and only for completism.
Anyway that wraps up the films made from the Kazuo Koike / Goseki Kojima comic book. There are probably other 80's films but I don't know them. Much more could be written about the series: it's visual poetry (watch the way the scenes are framed), the constant conflict of beauty and horror, the equally co-dependent relationship of Ogami and Daigoro (in every film Daigoro saves his father), and so forth. But this is not the place for an indepth breakdown of the series. This is a fan's introduction. Not a critique, not high criticism, but fanship. So to finish I have included my own personal list of favorites of the Japanese films. Definitely seek these films out.
1 - (three way tie)
I just couldn't decide which was the best so I included all three. All are worthy of the best films of John Woo/Sam Peckinpah/Tsui Hark/ Sergio Leone in terms of both action and emotion. HADES for it's examination of two fallen samurai's opposite and yet the same. DEMONS for it's bitter and angry indictment of a world without emotion and without honor; For the complex and ever changing plot; And for it's mystical sort of beginning. Lastly SAND which takes a new look at the material and finds a large heart and a beautiful soul.
2 - BABY CART #2
These three represent the runners up. All of these films are excellent, with phenomenal action scenes, heartfelt stories, and visual poetry.
5 - THROUGH A CHILD'S EYES
Not quite up to the standard of the others but two very good films in their own right.
7 - BABY CART IN PURGATORY
Inferior, but worth watching.
8 - FUGTIVE SAMURAI
Those looking for more information on these films can find it in:
I owe a great deal of thanks to these sources.
Availability of the Movies
A question that I've been answering for a while now is where can one get these
In the United States, SHOGUN ASSASSIN, LIGHTNING SWORDS OF DEATH (aka LUPINE WOLF), and FUGITIVE SAMURAI are available on video tape and might be found in stores. But these are a far cry from the original films. The original versions have never been released on video tape in the U.S., and I understand Europe also shares this problem.
The films can be viewed, if one is willing to shell out the money for them, through
|Japanese import is the first option. All of these films have been released in Japan and there are places that import video tapes and maybe laser disc (I'm not sure if these films have been released on laser disc in Japan). They will of course be in Japanese without subtitles. Also these films will be NTSC format. I know very little about import places since I've never done it. The one place I do know about is SIGHT & SOUND. They ONLY handle laser discs, so if the BABY CART films haven't been released on LD then forget about them getting it for you. Don't know anything about the company (have never ordered from them). As far as import places for video tape, their probably out there, I just don't know about them.|
|The other option is public domain places. The way American copyright law works, if a
film has never been released in the U.S. (or released in another version ie- SHOGUN
ASSASSIN) then the title is public domain. What mail order companies will do is dub off a
foreign print of a film and then make copies of it for their customers. The customer, of
course, gets a dub off copy (not the originals like one would with the import method) of
the film they are looking for. Although, there are probably many places that carry the
BABY CART/SWORD OF VENGEANCE/LONE WOLF AND CHILD films only two subtitle these films.|
There are three essential formats world wide:
|NTSC (North America and Japan)|
|PAL (almost all of Europe)|
|SeCAM (? -I'm not really sure what countries use this system) A VCR from one system
WILL NOT play a video tape from another system. |
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