Sunday, February 12, 2012

Comica Obscura: Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972, Kenji Misumi)

Just as comics and cowboys have been staples of Western entertainment for decades, samurai and manga have earned a rightful spot in Japanese culture. In fact, the sheer number of stories created for the aforementioned black and white Japanese graphic novels is staggering. Many have earned themselves significant reputations beyond the borders of their native country, as have films depicting the exploits of the samurai, be they of the legionary variety or master-less. It comes as no surprise that the two have merged into one for numerous books series. Among those that have reached degrees of popularity in the West is Kazuo Koike's Lone Wolf and Cub, which shared the tale of a former government employee who, after a shocking betrayal leaves him without honour or a wife, traverses Japan on a quest to right the wrongs done to him and his infant son, whom he brings along in a baby carriage. In 1972, only two years after the story's initial publication, the series was brought to the silver screen by director Kenji Misumi, the first film titled Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance.

Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is the Shogun's Second, or executioner. Forget all notions of hooded, brutish oafs who dwell in the caves of castle while awaiting for their next victims, being the Shogun's executioner is an incredibly enviable and prestigious. It is so prestigious in fact that members of a clan which rival's Ogami's, the Yagyu, who apparently have legitimate links to the government (this aspect of the tale is not explained very clearly, but one assumes many people from many different families and clans align themselves together to form governments) have conspired together and framed Ogami. Latter is immediately accused of treachery against the Shogun when law enforcement find an emblem of the Shogun planted on his personal shrine, a sign that Ogami would, if it were true, being praying for ills to befall their leader. Clearly this is all a fabrication of the Yagyu clan, forcing Ogami to flee his own own with his one year old son Daigoro, but not before his wife and servants are butchered. Now, all that matters is destroying the Yagyu and its leader, Retsudo (Tokio Oki).

A film which, in the first five minutes, features a pseudo rock-electronic score which announcing the passage of an unclean ronin waving uncombed hair and walking around with a baby in a makeshift wooden carriage decorated with a sign which reads 'Wolf with Child in Tow: Child and Expertise for Rent' has made its intentions plain and clear: Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance is not going to be a very serious movie. Granted, in some respects Akira Kurosawa's samurai films were not very serious, but they nonetheless exuded a level of class denoting a high minded craftsman was at work behind the camera. In the case of the film under review today, director Kenji Misumi also displays some craftsmanship, although it is for the purpose of creating what can ostensibly be described as the Japanese-samurai equivalent of a grindhouse picture. There is a griminess that covers the movie from the first frame to the very last, if not always in the visuals (although those do get quite grimy as well sometimes) then certainly in the overall tone and attitude the film brings forth. Subtlety is for the squeamish and the prudish. Misumi fully understands what sort of tale Sword of Vengeance is and how it should, in all likelihood, be presented on screen. The film plays like a balancing act between being nasty and filthy while also pushing things, tonally at least, in a direction which almost makes them comical. Much like with the movies of grindhouse lore, the viewer might not always be sure if the effect of a given moment is indeed supposed to be funny or not. Limbs are sliced off in such cartoonish fashion, yet Sword of Vengeance is playing it with as straight a face as possible. Those looking for something fun if trashy should see their hunger satisfied for the most part.

Kenji Misumi and the cast construct a tale which fits comfortably into the revenge genre, which can ultimately be considered a genre unto itself given the near incalculable amount of entries it now owns. The character of Ogami Itto is as stone faced as they come and does not offer much in the way of dialogue, making a proper assessment of actor Tomisaburo Wakayama performance somewhat difficult. He fits the bill nicely enough, although it is rather strange to see a man as chubby as him move like a cat against hoards of younger, leaner warriors and thugs. Then again, that reality is probably more of a testament to the titular wolf's skills as a swordsman than his physical prowess. The only individual who seems to to giving anything resembling a performance is actress Tomoko Mayam, who plays a whore in a small mountain village Ogami heads to for a mission to destroy potential usurpers to the throne. She is not in the film for very long, but what little screen time is given to her, she uses as an opportunity to craft some sense of realism to her character. It makes for an odd little role. On the hand, the effort is nice, but on the other, it feels peculiarly out of place in a film where almost everybody is hamming it up to the tenth degree, such as Tokio Oki as the chief villain Retsudo, who looks exactly the kung fu master who trains The Bride in Kill Bill volume 2 (perhaps Tarantino's principle inspiration for the character?), only he mumbles most of his lines, gets far more excited, and continuously gazes upon his Ogami with an unmistakably evil glint in his eyes.

If there is anything that plagues Sword of Vengeance, it is the story. Clocking in at a brisk 83 minutes, the director and screenwriters invest a lot of energy in developing the background story to Ogami and Daigoro. The flashbacks are not problematic in of themselves, only that they eat up a lot of the running time, hence by the time Ogami is actually sent on a mission, the film is literally halfway done. The goal he is tasked with in this episode is presented, explained and achieved inside of 45 minutes. The film would have been better suited with more economical storytelling with regards to the protagonist's background information. As it stands, the film feels exactly like what it is: an introduction. Even the first instalments of Marvel comic book films or Star Wars episodes have their own stories and complete character arcs within them even though audiences know future films will follow. For comparative purposes, Sword of Vengeance is actually like Kill Bill, the first volume in this case. There is much more story to tell, but the film already knows it will not get to it all even before it has begun, which is a bit frustrating, not to mention that, has much as director Misumi brings vim and verve to the proceedings, he is no Quentin Tarantino. Even if one was disappointed by the abrupt ending to Kill Bill 1, that film at least gave the viewer a pretty wild ride, artistically speaking. 


The Comica Obscura marathon is suddenly caught in an awkward position. Watching more of Ogami's adventures is not a possibility because there are other works left to discover in the months to come, meaning that Sword of Vengeance must be evaluated on its own terms, which itself is frustrating because it barely hides the fact that it is the first in a series, thus giving us a clearly incomplete story. The conclusion is that the film fine, offering some deliciously violent moments, both in terms of action and sex, has a curious soundtrack and a comically pudgy leading man who can tear through just about anybody. Still, there is no purpose in hiding the fact that Sword of Vengeance is an incomplete experience and can never be wholly satisfactory. 

Done here? Find out how Bill would offer his 'Expertise for Rent' in his review at his Movie Emporium

1 comment:

Bill Thompson said...

Interesting, I definitely picked up on the grimy nature of the film, but I did feel there was a bit more to the film than that. Either way, good work, looking forward to your rebuttal.