Writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima first introduced the manga for Lone Wolf and Cub in 1970. It sold eight million copies in Japan and was renowned for its story of adventure and brutality during the Edo period. The tale led to six films starring the legendary Tomisaburo Wakayama as disgraced ronin Ogami Ittō, a television series on NTV starring Yorozuya Kinnosuke, and four plays.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance is the first of the six films based on the manga. Infused with themes of revenge, honour, and fatherhood, this is a violent adventure story complete with mandatory blood-spurting action and loads of excellent swordplay. Its title in Japanese is Kozure Ōkami: Kowokashi udekashi tsukamatsuru, which translates directly to the more telling title of Wolf with Child in Tow: Child and Expertise for Rent.
Wakayama’s Ittō is an executioner or Kogi Kaishakunin serving under the reign of the shogun. He is responsible for taking the lives of anyone that the shogun wishes, including children, and assisting samurai in committing seppuku (ritual suicide). He also enforces the will of the shogun over the daimyo (territorial lords) and dishes out punishment. As the Kogi Kaishakunin, Ittō is in a position of great power. Yagyū Retsudō (Tokio Oki), the head of the Yagyu clan, conspires to take the position from Ittō.
The Yagyu clan attempts to set up Ittō by killing his wife, Azami (Reiko Kasahara), and framing him for treason. Ittō vows revenge and goes after Retsudō and the Yagyu clan, swearing to live as a demon with his son, Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa), for the rest of his days. He becomes a wandering assassin and ultimately takes a job to take out a gang of henchmen terrorizing a small hot springs village.
Much like Lady Snowblood, Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance features a character possessed by the spirit of retribution. As Ittō travels the countryside with Daigoro in a wooden baby carriage, he is fundamentally soulless. His lone function is to kill. While there are signs of life in his eyes, Ittō predominantly exists as a vessel for vengeance.
It can be argued that there is little that is laudable about Ogami Ittō. Much like Meiko Kaji’s Yuki Kashima, Ittō is an antihero. He wages war in blood and spurts of it flow from his enemies as though flowing from a hose. Wielding the dōtanuki, Ittō is skillful, lethal, and almost indestructible. He is able to slay large groups of warriors with his powerful sword. In point of fact, the enemies are of little consequence and take little effort to deal with. The biggest hindrance for characters of retribution such as these is, undeniably, within.
Yet as an exploitation picture, the internal struggles are marked with stylistic action sequences. There is considerable nudity and sexuality too, as the raw sensuality of a prostitute contrasts with the life-giving milk from a woman’s breast. Director Kenji Misumi is quick to make these comparisons, unfolding two shots early on in the film of Daigoro breastfeeding from two different women. Later, Ittō engages in love-making with a prostitute in order to save her life and the breasts are again a focal point. In many ways, Misumi’s way of using nudity is life-affirming.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance is an interesting film. The themes of honour, revenge, death, and life are unmistakably presented in the graphic violence and nudity of the picture. There is poignancy to Misumi’s piece, though, and we are drawn to the characters as the stories open up. Daigoro and Ittō are two demons travelling on the road to hell more than they are father and son. That is, perhaps, the great tragedy of this film.