Samurai and Son: The Lone Wolf and Cub Saga

On Film / Essays — Nov 8, 2016

One day in 1971, actor Tomisaburo Wakayama appeared at the home of writer Kazuo Koike wielding a wooden bokuto samurai sword . . .

Wakayama was on a mission to secure the lead in the film adaptation of Koike’s hit manga Lone Wolf and Cub, and what he did next with the practice weapon in his hands would change the history of Japanese samurai cinema.

Lone Wolf and Cub had created a stir when it was first published in 1970, and it was quickly sized up for development as a single television movie. Matinee idol Tetsuya Watari (of Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter) was the first choice to play the role of the revenge-seeking assassin Itto Ogami, but he had fallen ill and had to pass. And so actor and producer Shintaro Katsu, star of Daiei studio’s long-running and popular Zatoichi film series, was approached for the project.

Katsu, who was busy playing Zatoichi, among other film roles, wasn’t interested in the part of Ogami, but he could see that the material had the potential to become something much bigger than the small screen could accommodate. He decided to acquire the rights to the manga and produce Lone Wolf and Cub as a feature film himself, under the banner of his Katsu Productions.

But the budding project still needed a star. Wakayama, Katsu’s older brother, as it happens, badly wanted the role of Ogami—but before any contracts were signed, Wakayama felt he needed the blessing of the original material’s creator.

Koike would later report that he had been puzzled by the intense sword-wielding figure on his doorstep. Wakayama told him, “I really want this role,” and hazarded a guess as to what Koike might be thinking—after all, the hefty actor was hardly the spitting image of the physically fit main character of the Lone Wolf manga. Wakayama said, “If you’re hesitant to let me play this part because I’m too fat . . . look at this!” And with that, the forty-two-year-old veteran of the kabuki stage and numerous yakuza and chanbara pictures proceeded to dazzle Koike in his yard with a ferocious display of swordplay and somersaults.

It sealed the deal: Wakayama got the author’s blessing to play the lead in what would turn out to be only the first of six Lone Wolf and Cub films: Sword of Vengeance. Koike even agreed to sign on as the film’s screenwriter—a service he would also provide for most of its sequels. This “greatest team in the history of mass slaughter” (as the posters for Shogun Assassin, the U.S. compilation-film version of Lone Wolf and Cub, later shouted) was set to deliver a classic first outing for the series, but before they could do that, they would have to battle their way through a maddening production maze involving all of Japan’s major film studios . . .

We’ll get back to behind-the-scenes dirt in a bit, but for now, let’s consider how these titans of Japanese cinema eventually succeeded: the Lone Wolf and Cub series contains some of the best sword-slinging, Buddhist-sutra-spouting samurai fiction ever committed to celluloid, enriched with the beauty of Japan’s natural landscape and seasoned with the vulgarity of its pop entertainment. In time, the source material would influence the evolution of Western comic creators like Frank Miller and Walt Simonson, and the movies would inspire the literal chops of filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and John Woo. But the quest never ends. Lone Wolf and Cub seems fated to be eternally referenced, remade, and reborn, in all manner of media.

Then there’s the matter of real life: I can personally testify that the Lone Wolf series can function as an inspiration even for toddler-toting, stroller-pushing fathers like myself, a blood-soaked “World’s Greatest Dad” greeting card that exemplifies the hard-won responsibility, relentless worry, and glorious battle damage of being a parent. Death—swift or prolonged, unexpected or anticipated—is all over the place in the Lone Wolf and Cub sextet, but so is the warm lifeblood of familial bonds, like those between Ogami and his infant son Daigoro, the brothers Katsu and Wakayama, and the relatives who helped shape the original story’s creation.

Born in 1936, Kazuo Koike comes from samurai stock and is a student of the Bushido code—the mix of Buddhism and Confucianism that is the Japanese way of the warrior. As a best-selling manga author, he excels at meticulously researched historical fiction—frequently full of sex and violence—that has often made the leap to film (among the adaptations of his work are the seventies’ Lady Snowblood and Hanzo the Razor movies). “Comics are created by the characters. If a character is well created, the comic becomes a hit” is his oft-repeated formula for success. The ideas for those characters have to come from somewhere, though. And Lone Wolf started with the cub.

Around 1965, Koike, feeling that parent-child bonds were beginning to erode across Japanese society, decided to create a story that would set a positive example. A rough idea for a narrative about a samurai raising his son alone began to emerge, and Koike’s infant nephew served as partial inspiration for the baby Daigoro. His imagination also fixed on a traditional hakata doll of a child, which had been given to him by his mother and which he kept in his writing office. As he said in a 2008 interview, “I wrote this story wondering who the parents of that child were.”

Lone Wolf and Cub emerged during a boom time for graphic storytelling in Japan. During the postwar years, comic publishing had become a phenomenon that rivaled film and television for audience size and cultural relevance. While manga had begun as children’s entertainment in the Disney mode, it quickly splintered off into a new style known as gekiga (“dramatic pictures”), which doled out adult-strength, hard-boiled adventure. Along with Koike, artist Goseki Kojima was one of the leaders of the movement. An avid film fan from a young age (he often name-checked The Third Man as a major inspiration), Kojima painted movie advertisements and worked as a projectionist at a small theater before moving to Tokyo to work as a kamishibai artist, drawing pictures for traveling storytellers. His art soon evolved into the perfect foil for Koike’s writing, both influenced equally by traditional Japanese aesthetics, film technique, and pure pulp entertainment.

The seventies began in Japan with the New Left movement dissolving into infighting and violence while, on the extreme right, novelist Yukio Mishima committed suicide in a gory, samurai-style seppukuself-disembowelment and beheading. The debut of Lone Wolf and Cub—full of clan warfare and the legendary cruelty of the Tokugawa era—in the pages of a 1970 issue of Manga Action magazine could not have been better timed for relevance, and the comic quickly became a hit.

Lone Wolf would eventually make the jump to television in more mild-mannered incarnations, but the theatrical films in this series are incredibly faithful to Koike and Kojima’s original manga, with most of the situations and dialogue ripped straight from its pages by Koike himself, as screenwriter. These movies are extraordinary even if considered merely as examples of comic-book adaptation or exploitation filmmaking, but their samurai-film pedigree and the strong personalities they portray raise them to the level of genre classics.

Shintaro Katsu was not only one of Japan’s greatest entertainers—he sang and played traditional instruments in addition to acting and producing—but also a world-class hell-raiser, with multiple drug arrests on his rap sheet. He had swaggered off the kabukistage and onto movie screens in the fifties, before cementing his place during the following decade in the role of the blind swordsman Zatoichi. In the early seventies, as declining ticket sales opened the floodgates for a new wave of low-budget exploitation fare in Japan, he founded Katsu Productions, to make more titles for the Zatoichi franchise along with other projects, all of which Daiei had a hand in distributing.

Meanwhile, Tomisaburo Wakayama—also a veteran of the kabuki stage—had become a film star in his own right as a contract player for Toei studios. Even with Koike’s blessing, the fact that the two brothers were affiliated with rival studios initially caused problems for the production of the first Lone Wolf and Cub movie, but Katsu was able to call in a favor from the president of Toei, who granted Wakayama permission to star in the film.

Then, in December 1971, right in the middle of Katsu Productions’ initial planning for the debut, Daiei declared bankruptcy. The project essentially became an indie film, with the production company scrambling to use locations and key staff rented from Daiei’s Kyoto studio facilities.

Kenji Misumi was slated to helm Sword of Vengeance (1972). A staff director at Daiei since 1954, Misumi specialized in chanbara swordplay program pictures and had worked on several successful multifilm series, including the sixties’ Sleepy Eyes of Death, starringRaizo Ichikawa. Misumi had also directed the very first Zatoichi title, in 1962, and went on to make five more entries in that series before directing the first Hanzo the Razor outing, also for Katsu. In lesser hands, Lone Wolf could have been pure cheapo exploitation, but Misumi’s knowledge of period film craft forms a rock-solid foundation that allows his entries to be serious, comedic, erotic, lyrical, and philosophical—while still delivering the bloody goods.

Two different studios, Shochiku and Toho, wanted to distribute Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance, but Toho wound up winning the rights after an impassioned presentation by one of its executives. Toho had also inherited the Zatoichi series after the collapse of Daiei, and Sword of Vengeance was launched on January 15, 1972, as the second half of a New Year’s double bill that began with Zatoichi at Large.

Sword of Vengeance’s harrowing opening scene, in which Itto Ogami performs his duties as the shogun’s executioner on a very young child, is unrelated to the rest of the plot, but it underlines the constant danger that baby Daigoro will face during the father and son’s journey through meifumado, the way of “demons and damnation.” This is one of the harshest realms ever depicted in samurai films, one where even children must become killers in booby-trapped baby carts lest they wind up under the sword stroke of history. Without Daigoro, Ogami would be just another unbeatable superman with a big sword, but the child at his side gives him vulnerability and strength in equal measure. Yet neither could make this journey without the other.

In addition to setting up the dynamics that will run throughout the series, Sword of Vengeance is the consummate comic-book origin story of a company man becoming a wanted outlaw, told in twists of memory, flashbacks, and dramatic revelations. I’m willing to say the film is in some ways an improvement over the black-and-white manga version. Blasphemy to some, I know, but then there’s that sunset duel between Ogami and his foe from the treacherous Yagyu clan . . . In the comic, Ogami’s winning strike results in his opponent’s body simply falling over. But in Vengeance, Misumi (in tandem with Chikashi Makiura’s camera work and Toshio Taniguchi’s editing) stages the scene in blazing color, and the loser of the duel lets loose an arterial spray from a headless stump in sensuous slow motion. The moment is transformed into something transcendent . . . outrageous . . . cinematic.

Most of the key staff returned for the second Lone Wolf film, Baby Cart at the River Styx (also released in 1972, a mere three months after the first movie), but production moved to Shochiku’s Kyoto facilities. Things hit a snag when Toei producer Koji Shundo began to have second thoughts about loaning out his star Wakayama again to a film that would be distributed by Toho. He agreed to let the actor appear in just one more Lone Wolf film, but it was expected that Wakayama would have to return to Toei after that for more entries in its Gokudo franchise. Eventually, a secret deal was struck that allowed the star to appear for the remainder of the series, but when the cameras began rolling, it wasn’t clear whether this would be the last outing for this incarnation of Lone Wolf.

Perhaps that’s why Baby Cart at the River Styx throws down the gauntlet so hard. Misumi’s film unfolds like a fever dream full of montage and superimposition, as father and son drift through a floating world of severed body parts, eerie silences, and delirious images like a sword dripping blood as it slides down a paper wall, and blood leaking from the desert sand when a metal claw strikes a foe hidden under it. The camera becomes the disembodied proxy for Ogami’s heightened awareness, scanning the environment for the pursuing Yagyu clan, as well as a female ninja under the steely control of Seijun Suzuki’s regular actor Kayo Matsuo (who sets the tone for the strong female villains to follow in the Lone Wolf films) and the unforgettable “masters of death” known as the Hidari Brothers. Martial-arts splatter gags may have been pioneered earlier by Akira Kurosawa in Sanjuro (1962), but Baby Cart at the River Styx—where characters give entire monologues with swords jammed into their heads or while blood sprays from their necks like a lawn sprinkler—pushes the notion as far as it can go. That excess helped spread the gospel of Lone Wolf outside of Japan, when River Styx formed the bulk of the American-edited 1980 film Shogun Assassin and became a grindhouse legend.

By comparison, the third film in the series, Baby Cart to Hades (released in September 1972 and set during Japan’s oppressive summer heat), is a slow boil, with Ogami not even facing off against any bad guys until well into the first reel. After getting mixed up with the yakuza outlaws of the Bohachi clan (to be featured again the next year in Teruo Ishii’s Bohachi Bushido: Code of the Forgotten Eight, also based on a Kazuo Koike manga), Lone Wolf gets tied up to endure a bout of epic torture, and defeats his enemies not through clever swordplay or gadgets but through pure passive inaction. In some ways, Baby Cart to Hades, again directed by Kenji Misumi, presents a different aspect of the warrior spirit than the previous two titles, homing in on the inhuman powers of restraint and self-control found in samurai culture. That said, by the end, all hell breaks loose, resulting in deadly new gimmicks for Daigoro’s stroller and the sort of mayhem featured in the original manga’s signature “one-versus-many” battles.

Misumi sat out the next film, Baby Cart in Peril. He probably needed a break. This was the fourth Lone Wolf and Cub title released to theaters in 1972, and right from the get-go the change in personnel is apparent. Director Buichi Saito was a veteran of numerous Nikkatsu studio youth films and “Diamond Guys” outings—movies that featured the studio’s top male idols—and he brings a sensibility to the proceedings that favors speed over accuracy and pop entertainment above all. (Daigoro even gets a musical interlude, featuring lyrics by Kazuo Koike!) There’s no denying that a kind of formula has taken hold as the A plot and B plot—the latter this time about a samurai and a female warrior in various states of dishonor—move things along briskly before becoming entwined at the end. Predictable, maybe . . . but Baby Cart in Peril succeeds in showing off the series’ deep roots in vulgar kabuki drama and countless samurai program pictures. You can practically hear the audience boo and hiss as sneering villains and sniveling government officials make life hard for our heroes. (Saito would revisit Ogami and Daigoro when he directed multiple episodes of the popular seventies Lone Wolf and Cub TV series.)

Meanwhile, Misumi came back to direct the fifth film, 1973’s Baby Cart in the Land of Demons, but Shintaro Katsu had left the fold, leaving his brother, Wakayama, to handle coproducing duties. There’s a surer hand on the hilt as Misumi returns to the natural beauty of the landscape, with which the way of the sword is again harshly contrasted. We see the series circling back to themes and images from earlier movies—Ogami’s sword is once more set against a very small child about the same age as his son, and the five warrior messengers recall the Hidari Brothers—but The Land of Demons goes a bit deeper. For the first time, we see Ogami hesitate to strike a target (in this case, an abbot in mid-meditation), and more room is given to the spiritual dimension of the assassins’ quest for revenge, which plays an even larger part in the manga. But it is Misumi’s small-scale finale that impresses the most, as Ogami takes up his role as pitiless executioner par excellence, leaving us to contemplate the remains of a gory primal scene.

In the final Lone Wolf and Cub film, White Heaven in Hell (1974), Daigoro looks as though he has been hardened by the countless grim encounters of the previous films (or maybe that’s just the way child actor Akihiro Tomikawa actually felt after grinding out six Lone Wolf films in two years), and the pursuing Yagyu clan is almost out of cannon fodder. While Lone Wolf and Cub had successfully made the leap to television in 1973, it was the end of the line for the film franchise.

Behind the camera, more of the core participants had begun to drift away. White Heaven in Hell is the only Lone Wolf film that Koike did not script in some capacity. Kenji Misumi felt that the movies in the series had become “like westerns,” and decided to pass on the offer to direct again. Shintaro Katsu remained absent, leaving his brother to continue in his place as coproducer.

Rather than let this be a setback, Tomisaburo Wakayama made the most of the creative opportunity he now had. In previous Lone Wolf outings, he could never hope to override the veteran Misumi on set, but for White Heaven in Hell, he chose a younger director, one who might be easier to control: Yoshiyuki Kuroda. Kuroda had worked on a number of horror films at Daiei, including directing Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare (1968) and doing special-effects duty on the Daimajin movies, so it makes sense that his entry sees things wandering into the realm of the supernatural. The results are not exactly subtle, but there is tons of trash film pleasure to be had, as Ogami and Daigoro face off against Evil Dead–style zombie hit men to a soundtrack pitched somewhere between Isaac Hayes and “Night on Disco Mountain.”

Wakayama had always wanted to stage a battle in the snow, and he finally got his chance with White Heaven in Hell’s epic finale. The filming took a grueling month and a half to complete in Japan’s volcanic Zao mountain range, with equipment that frequently broke down in the subfreezing temperatures. Over one hundred stuntmen and extras were employed, with professional skiers, pole-vaulters, and locals all given swords and roped in for duty. The result is one of the all-time great, jaw-dropping action movie sequences (think The Road Warrior or Apocalypse Now), with a body count in the triple digits. Yet things manage to conclude on a grace note, with Ogami and Daigoro coming together as family one last time before setting off for the horizon of samurai film history.

White Heaven in Hell denies us the ultimate duel between Ogami and his archnemesis, Retsudo Yagyu—the ending of the manga’s main story line had not yet been written when the movie went into production—but I’m fine with Lone Wolf and Cub’s quest for revenge going unresolved. Some part of me would like to think that the way of “demons and damnation,” like the path of parents and children, goes on forever.