‘Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance’ – Son for hire, sword for hire on Max and Criterion Channel

“Son for Hire – Sword for Hire,” reads the banner flying from the wooden cart of rogue samurai Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) in Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (Japan, 1972).

Once the official executioner of the Emperor, Itto roams the countryside with his infant son and a baby carriage stocked with a veritable arsenal in tow. He rents his services for 500 pieces of gold while awaiting his revenge on the corrupt clan that murdered his wife.

It’s adapted from the legendary manga series written by Kazuo Koike (who adapted his own work for the screen) and director Kenji Misumi draws his distinctive graphic style from the comics while adding an inspired cinematic device: when Ogami enters battle, the world falls silent, literally, until his sword strikes. The fights are savage—blades slash, limbs fly, and blood spurts like geysers—but in addition to the swordplay, violence, nudity, and earthy sexuality, the film also offers a tender, loving father under the gruff exterior of the pitiless warrior. And his giggling baby son, who coos even as his father slices through opponents, gives film moments of serenity.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance was the first in what became a series of six hugely popular and influential samurai thrillers. All have become classics of Japanese action cinema, but his origin stands apart, if only for the iconic moment when Ogami gives his infant son a choice: pick the sword and “travel the road of the assassin with me,” or the toy ball and join his mother in the afterlife. He reaches for the sword and history is made.

The original 1980 American release was a kind of hybrid that mashed the film up with the sequel, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (Japan, 1972), and rewrote it through the dubbing, which also added narration from the samurai’s infant son. The resulting film, Shogun Assassin (1980), became a cult film in its own right.

In Japanese with English subtitles,

For more on the backstory and production, read on at the TCM website.

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Six Film Collection (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance [DVD]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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