The 70s Japanese series Lone Wolf and Cub, based on a popular comic by Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima, builds on the tradition of 20 years of samurai films. While it is one of the most violent examples of the genre, the staccato brutality suits the plot and is juxtaposed with elegiac scenes of travel through desolate landscapes. The overall story is quite simple, although individual episodes may leave the casual viewer wondering about characters’ motives and allegiances. The six instalments follow the travels of disgraced samurai Ogami Ittō and his three-year-old son Daigorō, who he pushes around 17th-century Japan in a cart, looking for work as a killer for hire while battling members of the Yagyū clan. The first instalment, Sword of Vengeance (Kowokashi udekashi tsukamatsuru), tells the tale of how Ittō goes on the run when members of a splinter faction of the clan murder his wife and household and frame him for treason in order to install one of their own as the Shogun’s executioner, a revered position in the social hierarchy. The rest of the first film and subsequent episodes have Ogami and ocassionally Daigorō dispatch various members of the Yagyū clan and perform work for hire from town to town.
Unlike the manga, the films don’t have a definitive conclusion as the comic was still being serialised while the films were produced, with the final episode printed in Weekly Manga Action in April 1976. However, the films do increase in violence as they go along, with the final film White Heaven in Hell (Jigoku e ikuzo! Daigorō) depicting a battle between Ogami Ittō and 150 assailants, the largest body count caused by a single individual committed to screen in one scene (although the Rambo franchise boasts more over its entire length).
The legacy of the Lone Wolf series has influenced work in various media in a number of ways. The violence alone was parodied in a memorable scene in The Addams Family (1991) where Wednesday and Pugsley hack each others’ limbs off in a school play, spraying the audience with blood. The American remix of the first two films - Shogun Assassin - was withdrawn from distribution in the UK for 15 years following the backlash against ‘video nasties’ in the early 1980s. It is interesting to see how adaptations of comics in Western cinema are now approaching the level of violence depicted in their Japanese counterparts 30 years ago. American comic book creator Frank Miller was also impressed by the series, providing covers and introductions for the first dozen issues of the 1980s US reprint before casting similar samurai and ninja characters, fond of dismemberment and decapitation, in his series Ronin and Sin City. The 90s comic book The Road to Perdition, adapted for film in 2002, was also influenced by the series both in its plot of a wandering assassin travelling with child on a path of vengeance and the name of the comic itself, as Ittō refers to his journey as meifumadō (The Road to Hell). As the Cormac McCarthy novel The Road and subsequent film also feature a man pushing his child around a desolate landscape in a cart, you can see that Lone Wolf and Cub is a series that has influenced both pop culture and literature alike.
Before manga and exploitation Japanese cinema were better appreciated in the West, many fans of the saga would have been introduced to the characters by the American release of the second film Baby Cart at the River Styx (Sanzu no kawa no ubaguruma) as Shogun Assassin in 1980, which adds flashback scenes from Sword of Vengeance but subtracts 10 minutes from the overall running time. This structures the film more episodically, which means that connections between some scenes are lost, but paradoxically also makes the film seem closer to the self-contained weekly episodes of the serialised manga. However, the addition of an omniscient voice-over by an older Daigorō adds unnecessary pathos and the simplification of the plot reduces our affinity with the characters.
The popularity of the various incarnations of Lone Wolf and Cub in the West can be attributed to the obvious - the engaging plot and characterisation, the excellent direction and performances - but also to the brief interest in ninja films in the early 1980s and the cross-referencing between the series and Spaghetti Westerns. While Sergio Leone’s films refer to the plots and brief but terminal melees of 1950s samurai films, in turn the Lone Wolf series uses many of Leone’s trademark devices such as close-ups of eyes during the tense build-up to duels and the placing of characters in long shot within a landscape. These elements, together with the simplicity of the plot, the reoccurring characters and blood as lurid as anything in a contemporaneous horror film, add up to a winning formula that’s terrifically watchable and leaves the viewer frustrated when it comes to an early end. It should come as no surprise that Japan produced further Lone Wolf and Cub TV series, but the original films are a great evocation of both the 17th-century Edo period - the subtitles and subplots have a surprisingly educational quality to them - and 1970s manga and filmmaking. Now distanced enough from the taint of exploitation associated with their initial American releases, they still have the ability to greatly impress modern audiences.