Dir. by Kenji Misumi
Comic book fans the world over are familiar with Kazuo Koike’s Lone Wolf and Cub, one of the best action comics ever, and a magnificent evocation of the dark side of Tokugawa Japan. Perhaps fewer people are aware that they were made into a series of movies. Even fewer realize how deeply committed the protagonist is to attachment parenting and taking children seriously, Ogami Itto isn’t known as “the baby-cart assassin” for nothing.
Sword of Vengeance is the first in a series of six films about Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayma) and his particular Highway to Hell. The time is the 17th century and the Tokugawa shogunate has imposed a police state on Japan. Ogami is the shogun’s executioner, when the orders a noble to commit seppuku (hara-kiri to us vulgar gaijin), Ogami stands by with his very sharp sword to make sure the deed is completed swiftly. But rivals from the Yagyu clan frame Ogami and arrange for his family to be slaughtered, only Ogami’s son Daigoro (Akihiro Tokayama, the cutest little shaver ever to go a killing spree) survives the massacre. Ogami is ordered to commit seppuku. But Ogami goes off the rails and declines that honor. In a touching scene he asks an uncomprehending Daigoro to chose: a life of murder with dad or instant death by his sword. In short order Ogami takes on the entire Yagyu clan with nothing but a stroller and a bad attitude (it’s quite a stroller though). Having done the unthinkable by refusing to commit seppuku when ordered, he has no choice but to become a hired killer. With Daigoro in tow, every day is Take Your Kid to Work day for Ogami.
All of Ogami’s back-story is inter-cut with an account of one of his jobs. It’s a brutal demonstration of just how far out of, not just social norms, but even normal affect Ogami has taken himself in order to be an assassin. The problem is that while the assassination story is good, it can’t bear the weight of Ogami’s fall from grace and the film is rather unbalanced. The one story culminates with a dramatic change in the protagonist while the other ends up with, well, an awful lot of dead guys. In true chanbara fashion, Ogami slices samurai like an automated salami processor. Finally, this may seem a very petty quibble, but I found Tomisaburo Wakayma’s face too fleshy to match the austere visage of Ogami that Koike’s art had burned into my brain.
If you are in love with Lone Wolf and Cub or just like chanbara, you can expect some pretty good stuff here. If you are new to samurai film in general, then consider starting with Yojimbo, or better yet, check out Koike’s comic books first hand.