The Northwest Film Center's showcase of classic samurai films offers some of the best films to grace the big screen all summer, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of samurai films have been produced in Japan over the decades, including the incredibly popular Lone Wolf and Cub series.
Based on the seminal comic-book series by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima (available in English-language version by Dark Horse Comics), the Lone Wolf and Cub films starred Tomisaburo Wakayama as Ogami Itto, the shogun's official executioner. As the first film in the series, Sword of Vengeance, kicks into high gear, Itto is carrying out one of his grisly assignments for the shogun. Before long, Itto is caught up in a duplicitous web of deceit spun by the nefarious Yagyu clan, which brutally murder his wife and then frame him for treason. It is then declared that Itto and his infant son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) must commit ritual suicide. Knowing he is innocent, and determined to make those who have wronged him suffer, Itto defies the shogunate's order, instead going on a killing rampage. Rather than condemn his son to a life of violence, he gives the infant a choice. Itto lays before Daigoro a ball and a sword and tells the young child his destiny is in his own hands: Choose the sword and be cursed with a life of violence, or choose the ball and join his mother in heaven. Daigoro chooses the sword, and the result is five more blood-splattered films that feature father pushing his son around in a wooden baby cart, tricked out with weapons, as they sell their deadly services for 500 pieces of gold.
There were six Lone Wolf and Cub films produced between 1972 and 1976 (all available on DVD). In 1980, an American producer took the first two films in the series—Sword of Vengeance and Baby Cart at the River Styx—and heavily edited them into one film, Shogun Assassin (out on DVD this week). Most of the blood-gushing violence was left intact, but the story was reworked—burdened with terrible dubbing and, even worse, added voice-over. Two films with a combined running time of nearly three hours became one hyperkinetic mess that clocked in at 85 minutes. There's no denying the sacrilegious desecration of the two films, but, at the same time, Shogun Assassin is an incredibly entertaining movie that plays like a highlight reel of severed limbs and gushing arterial blood-spray (only with bad dubbing).