Sword of Vengeance is the first movie to chronicle the travels of Ogami Itto, a wayward samurai of the Tokugawa period. The series of movies, which numbers six films, goes by several names. Some people call it the Baby Cart series, others call it Lone Wolf and Child, but Animeigo, who released the version we reviewed, call it Lone Wolf and Cub. You may be familiar with this series from the fairly successful translation of the original comic book that was released in the US a few years back.
Opening credits from
Sword of Vengeance.
Ogami Itto was the official executioner for the Tokugawa Shogunate, but his position was coveted by the villainous Yagyu clan. The Yagyu frame Ogami as a traitor to the Shogun, and, just to be sure, kill off his entire family with the exception of his infant son, Daigoro.
Ogami has only two options left to him. He can commit suicide and retain his honor, or he can become a ronin, a masterless samurai, and pursue his seemingly futile vow of vengeance against the Yagyu. He decides to take his son with him, so he spends his time traveling around Japan pushing his son around in a wickedly customized baby cart.
All of this is really a prologue. In the second half of the movie, Ogami travels to a town that is famous for its healing spas. Ogami has been hired to kill a traitorous noble who is planning to hire a band of brigands to kill the head of a rival clan. Ogami must deal with both the noble's entourage, the "Oyamada Three," and the truly unpleasant group of ronin who have taken over the town.
This movie does not stray far from its origins as a manga (comic book). Many scenes, especially those in which dialogue is delivered, take place with almost no movement all, resembling comic book panels. Also, the narrative is extremely episodic, much like the short chapters typical of Japanese manga.
When you think of samurai films, what usually comes to mind are the famous films of Akira Kurosawa, or maybe the dramas of Kenji Mizoguchi. But don't try to compare this films to those created by those two masters. Kurosawa made films that were about fierce honor, and Mizoguchi constructed meditations on the nature of life. On the other hand, Sword of Vengeance is about how much blood you can fit into one film, and is a meditation on how cool it is to see a guy have his arm cut off with a sword.
This is a very violent film. Limbs are hacked off, people are decapitated. Nearly every time Ogami hits someone with his sword, it elicits a spurt of blood that has enough force to shoot 10 feet in the air. This is not a film for those easily offended or with weak stomachs. There is much that is unpleasant. We couldn't help but wonder if the whole trend of super violent samurai films can't be traced back to Kurosawa's great samurai dramas Yojimbo and Sanjuro, which themselves feature severed limbs and spurting bazooka blood.
Ogami in a stylish white robe.
On the other hand, the carnage is handled with a lot of style, and most of it is so over the top that it's hard to take seriously. For instance, the production uses what is rather obviously red paint for blood. We kept waiting for Ogami to paint Daigoro's cart with the blood of his enemies. It would probably go on in smooth, clean strokes.
The joy of a film like this is that it presents such a stylized reality. Watching Ogami carve a bloody path through Japan is just fun. We also get the most irrational kick out of actor Wakayama Tomisaburo's super low voice. He always sounds like he's growling. This movie does not skimp on action, either. There are plenty of sword fights, both one on one duels and scenes where Ogami takes on a gaggle of enemies. We get to see various people use swords, chain and sickles, bladed pole-arms, and primitive firearms, most often with bloody results. The fights are dramatic and quick, and extremely well edited. If you're into this kind of film, you'll be in Nirvana during Sword of Vengeance.
Special mention needs to made of the presentation. We reviewed Animeigo's new release of this film, part of their new Samurai Cinema series. Animeigo has started releasing movies from three Japanese series: Lone Wolf and Cub (6 films), Hanzo the Razor (3 films), and the Sleepy Eyes of Death a.k.a. Son of the Black Mass (12 movies). Our copy of Sword of Vengeance is presented letterboxed at the ratio of 2.0:1. This is something to be happy about. Japanese films made at this time (or made today for that matter) were shot for the movie screen, not the video screen. Cropping the image at best robs the watcher of the original compositions that the Japanese cinematographers created, and at worst renders scenes incomprehensible. If you want to see what we mean, you could rent Shogun Assassin, a dubbed, cropped re-edit of this film and the next entry in the series, Baby Cart at the River Styx.