Lone Wolf And Cub:
Sword of Vengeance
(a.k.a. Sword of Vengeance)

Director: Kenji Misumi            
Tomisaburo Wakayama, Yunosuke Itoo, Fumio Watanabe

When you rent a samurai movie, what do you want? Do you want wall-to-wall sword fights and blood gushing like a geyser from gaping sword wounds? Or would you prefer focus on medieval Japanese culture, character development, and an actual story?

To tell the truth, I would like an even compromise between the two. Regular readers of this web page will know that I find hard action and violence, when well-done, entertaining. However, those same readers will know that I get annoyed by lame, unimaginative plots and uninteresting characters. Lone Wolf and Cub is the movie that has more emphasis on culture, character development, and story. It's cousin, Shogun Assassin, is the movie with emphasis on action, blood, and violence. Here is the point of the review that I must temporarily stop discussion of the movie to be reviewed, and give an explanation to the movie's background to those who are not familiar with the Lone Wolf and Cub movie series.

From 1972 to 1974, six Lone Wolf and Cub movies were made in Japan, all based on the same Japanese comic book. The movies centered around Itto Ogami, a samurai executioner who worked for the Shogun. In a bid for power, the evil Yagyu clan framed him for treason and murdered his wife. Swearing vengeance, he travels all over Japan as a samurai-for-hire, while trying to strike back against the Yagyu when he can. But he travels with his very young son Daiguro, who he pushes in front of him in a special baby carriage filled with various methods to dispatch his foes.

In 1981, some enterprising American distributors decided to bring the series to North America. Instead of showing one of the original films dubbed or subtitled, they decided to take the "best bits" from several of the movies and edit them into a new movie called Shogun Assassin, linking the segments together with the narration of Daiguro's thoughts (which wasn't in the original films). The movie starts off mostly how the first Lone Wolf and Cub starts (though in a more compact form), then goes from fight to fight, with no real plot linking all these incidents together. Still, the movie received some good reviews from critics, and I certainly enjoyed the movie greatly for the outrageous and fantastic action sequences. Though I enjoyed this version a lot, even I had to admit that the story was weak and there really wasn't an ending.

A lot of that is remedied in the first Lone Wolf and Cub movie, which is the movie reviewed here. The story has flashback segments which give a better explanation to why Itto became a renegade samurai, and why he was framed. His relationship with his son is explored, alternating between using his son to make money and what I suppose passes for "love" between Itto and his son. And there is a plot mixed with the explanation of the characters and premise; in this entry, Itto is secretly hired by a chamberlain to go to a small village of outcasts and eliminate several dangerous people.

I welcomed a lot of these elements in this movie that were not in Shogun Assassin; it was very interesting to see medieval Japanese culture from the elite to the peasants, showing aspects like women's roles and treatment, outcasts, and internal conflicts. I should note that I have a fair knowledge of Japanese history, so what I understood and enjoyed may be different from someone with little to no knowledge of this time. And even I admit that there was so much of this information, I got confused very quickly - it became difficult to know the difference between the clans and their objectives.

Also, the story took a long time to start, and then it took its time in getting there. Now I know this was the first movie, and they had to set things up - that I can understand. However, there's no excuse for making the storyline slow, and frequently going off-path for a vignette. Not that the vignettes aren't interesting - one interesting vignette has Itto renting out his son Daiguro for a minute so that a grief-stricken woman who lost her baby can breast feed what she thinks is her baby. Itto sees it as a way to feed his son. While occasional side trips like this can bring insight to the characters, too many of them simply take away from the story, which is equally important.

At least there are several fight scenes, when Itto takes his sword or some other weapon and creams all his opponents. Though there aren't as many fight scenes as in Shogun Assassin, the fights here are just as bloody as in that other film. Not only will viewers see numerous jets of blood spraying high in the air, but they'll see sights like someone getting their feet sliced off in one sword stroke, and the feet stay in the same position when the unlucky guy lies next to them in agony.

So which is better: Lone Wolf And Cub: Sword Of Vengeance or Shogun Assassin? The answer: neither. Each are good in their own way, and each has flaws that the other movie doesn't have. The answer lies in both what your mood during rental is, and generally what your tastes in movies lie in. Just don't rent one, and think that the other will be similar to it.

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Check for availability of the original comic novel "Lone Wolf And Cub 1"

See also: Ulterior Motives, Robotrix, Ninja Champion