The six Lone Wolf and Cub films are, without a doubt, six of my favorite films of all time. Based on the notably cinematic 1970's manga, and starring the glorious Tomisaburo Wakayama as Ogami Itto, the series depicts the nihilistic exploits of a father-and-child death machine, as they wander the Japanese countryside accepting assassin commissions and meting out utterly merciless revenge.
Because of their cartoonish nature and outrageous violence-- the constant challenge to top themselves by inventing increasingly bizarre ways to depict sword-deaths and blood-spray, the ubiquitous final-act battle wherein Ogami Itto must slay no less than an entire army or armies-- the Lone Wolf and Cub series has rarely been taken as seriously as art as it deserves. While many of the great Samurai films-- nearly all of them, in fact-- explore the socio-political constructs and resultant injustices of feudal Japan (think Sword of Doom, Three Rebel Samurai, Kill!, Hara-Kiri, Samurai Rebellion, all of you-know-who's samurai efforts, from Seven Samurai to Ran), thus offering subversive elements of allegorical social critique and achieving a deep contemporary cultural resonance, Lone Wolf and Cub traffics very little in these waters. The protagonists' identity is largely defined by their total rejection of the entire social contract.
Itto characterizes himself and his son as "evil," or "demons." Though his sensible, self-evident morality (and paternal devotion) often casts him as one of the only noble characters in the universe, he still represents an unusually nihilistic agent of death death death inevitable fucking death, remorselessly cutting through the landscape (while pushing a stroller), leaving nothing but wind blowing over silent corpses in his wake-- and so the demon comparison is, in many ways, a fitting one. There are no lessons learned, no morals reinforced, no power structures or social codes satirized in any but the most basic sense-- the polemic of every Lone Wolf and Cub is: mess with Lone Wolf and Cub and you will die.
This fascinatingly simple premise, combined with a committed gonzo aesthetic of splorching, spraying, erupting blood, could result in jokey cult cinema-- somewhere between Riki-Oh and early Shaw Brothers (One-Armed Swordsman springs to mind)-- and that, honestly, would be enough. Fortunately, it's much more than that, and Lone Wolf and Cub, for all its excesses and absurdity, is a devastatingly elegant body of work (particularly when director Kenji Misumi is at the helm). Based on a comic book, it embodies much of what a comic book offers, and that includes graphic composition, graceful impossibilities, and psychological impressionism alongside all those surreal eruptions of belief-beggaring violence. The Samurai genre is often spoken of as a cultural analogue to the western world's Westerns, and while it's not always a clean comparison, it certainly does make a lot of sense to discuss these ultra-violent, anachronistically mythic, and surprisingly graceful pop reconstructions of the Samurai flick in relation to Leone's similar treatment of the Western genre.
It helps that the films are anchored by Wakayama, a troll-like goblin-man with the body of a small sumo wrestler and all the grace, reserve, and dignity of a beautiful god. With such a magnetic and quiet eye at the center of the storm, you scarcely dare laugh, even when Itto is slashing the tits off a carrot-throwing lady assassin, or striking a statuesque pose while his foe bazooka-sprays blood from his throat.
Contributing to the utter greatness of the series is the exquisite score, by Hideakira Sakurai. Like the films, it's all over the place, tonally. Barry-esque spy surf guitars and blaxploitation wah are thrust with inspiring confidence alongside spaghetti western weirdness, eerie psychedelic avant-garde soundscapes, giant pregnant silences, and whatever passes for "traditional" Japanese instrumentation. It's amazing. Today I'm sharing with you all the "Best of" Lone Wolf and Cub music, as compiled by La-La Land records (and now out of print). It's a good collection of themes from each of the six films, a real treat-- though I do wish I could find a complete collection of all the Lone Wolf and Cub scores, because La-La leaves out a lot of the best incidental stuff, which is where Sakurai gets the most abstract, atmospheric and weird. Sakurai deserves a dimension-x comp of this other stuff like Morricone got with Crime and Dissonance, if you ask me. But this will have to do for now.
Please enjoy, then check out the films. You will not regret your choice.
LONE WOLF AND CUB