The greatest of stories come from the simplest and most primal of concepts. A man is falsely imprisoned, but gains great power in his isolation and emerges to settle scores with those who betrayed him (The Count Of Monte Cristo); a man tries to rebel against an evil and unjust society only to find its total control of thought and deed have already accommodated his act of rebellion (1984); a man discovers no amount of material wealth and earthly power can turn back the clock on lost love and broken hearts, not even in a world that allegedly believes such things (The Great Gatsby). So it also went with Lone Wolf and Cub: A man and his son, outcasts everywhere, at home nowhere, take to the road to embody the very honor and righteousness that the system has refused them.
From 1970 to 1976, across dozens of volumes of manga, author Kazuo Koike (Lady Snowblood, Crying Freeman) and artist Goseki Kojima (also paired with Koike on Samurai Executioner and Path of the Assassin) traced the journey of Ittō Ogami, former executioner for the Shōgun, and his toddler son Daigorō. In a move reminiscent of what happens with many modern manga, a deal was struck to film the series while it was still underway. To that end, the six Lone Wolf and Cub movies that emerged from 1972 to 1974 are more incarnations of basic ideas from the series — not really an attempt to adapt forensically its whole plot, since the story hadn't been completed by that time anyway. They're more a distillation of the essence of the story — a greatest-hits compilation for those who can't get their hands on all 28 original albums (or, in the case of Dark Horse's recent omnibus reissues of the series, a mere twelve). But even in distilled and interpreted form as a film, Lone Wolf And Cub is still recognizable as the pulp masterpiece that became a cornerstone of Japanese popular culture.
Rover, wanderer, nomad, vagabond
In the 1960s and 1970s, Japanese cinema turned out any number of period stories about the Tokugawa Shōgunate, and what always struck me was how many of them dealt with this era of alleged peace and unity in Japan by focusing on all the the things that were in fact terribly wrong under the surface — the repressive social codes, the corruption and strife that festered just below the surface, the way a warrior class found itself becoming a ruling class and didn't always make the transition gracefully. Lone Wolf and Cub is right in that tradition since it features a fallen samurai taking to the road after being betrayed and disgraced.
The man in question is Ittō Ogami (jowly, sullen Tomisaburo Wakayama), the Shōgun's official executioner, he who metes out a merciful death to all those who have defied the Shōgun's power. One day he himself is betrayed by men from an abolished clan whose leader he executed, although the real mastermind of the treachery is spy clan Ura-Yagyū master Retsudō Yagyū, all as part of a plot to infiltrate key positions of power throughout the government. With his wife murdered and only his infant son Daigorō to his name, Ittō allows Daigorō to choose either an immediate death or a life on the road with him as a fugitive. The boy picks the life of the sword and becomes Ittō's accomplice, not merely his companion. His father totes him about in a baby carriage that bristles with concealed weapons — including, implausibly but entertainingly, machine guns in its nose — and the two of them hire themselves out as assassins.
The first film provides us with this setup, and also with a pattern for how the other four films play out. In most every case, Ogami receives a mission to kill someone who is above the law. He commands a fixed fee for every job, regardless of however many people must die (in other words, it's per-customer, not per-victim). He demands to know in advance the full details of each job — who's to be killed, why a grudge is held against them. Each assignment typically brings Ittō back into Retsudō's circles, either by way of a direct clash with him or when Ittō kills a member of Retsudō's family that's been tasked with slaying him.
Most every story in this vein features a protagonist with a sword style that bests all challengers, and Itto is no exception. It's a given that any random challenger will be dead at his hand, but that brings with it a pitfall: how do you keep things interesting when Ittō is inevitably the baddest mother-trucker in the room? Lone Wolf falls back on that old reliable pulp-fantasy staple, the Cavalcade of Secret Techniques. Every episode introduces yet another foe with an outré fighting style, like the female ninja who leaps onto her enemies' shoulders and drives her blade through the top of her head.
Respect the technique
Movies like this work best when they do two things: 1) Serve up the usual ingredients in a stylish way, and 2) Use the material as a way to comment on its own themes — in this case, the misery of the lower classes under the heels of the samurai. Ittō's journey across the countryside brings him into contact with one variety of lowlife after another — bandits, hobos, peddlers, prostitutes, pimps, and folks just scraping out a hand-to-mouth living. He rarely comments directly on their misery, if only because he rarely speaks at all, but it's clear he sides with them over their lords and masters. There but for the grace of god goes he, after all.
With each installment, the question is rarely whether Ittō will beat all comers, or even if he will survive a final clash with Retsudō in the last film. It becomes in time more about the way each little struggle mirrors the big ones, how Ittō's one-man holding action against the world is an act of resistance — not against the warrior code, but the way it has been used to destroy lives rather than ennoble them. Ittō still believes in it himself, even if his application of it is unorthodox. At one point Ittō clashes with Retsudō's illegimitate son Gunbei Yagyū, the man who lost out to Ittō for the position of official executioner. Rather than kill him, Ittō leaves him crippled instead: after all, in the eyes of the rest of the world, isn't he already dead anyway? And if someone like Ittō can live on despite such things, why not Gunbei as well? (The final shots of that installment say yes.)
One common aspect of mercenary antihero types is how they habitually lend their strengths unbidden to the helpless and the powerless, but don't advertise it, because that would ruin the fun. Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack worked much the same way: he'd charge exorbitant fees for his miracle-working medical procedures, but if it was clear someone couldn't pay, he'd always find some excuse to eat the cost. Likewise, Ittō at one point endures a savage beating by gangsters to ensure a young girl he met along the way isn't sold into prostitution.
The other aspect of this that's important is how it's something Ittō manifests naturally. It's not something he agonizes over; it's just something he does because he's suited to taking such a whipping. It's also possible, although never stated explicitly, that he does this not because she is entirely helpless, but because she does in fact have some steel in her and is just out of her league with her exploiters. (When her pimp tries to take advantage of her, she bites off his tongue and leaves him to bleed to death.) It's also made clear that Daigorō is a chip off the old block, as at one point he too endures a whipping rather than indict a woman pickpocket who tricked him into holding her stash. But, also like his father, he reserves his strength for the right battles; he's not brutal to those who don't deserve it. From the way he plays with the other children he meets (at one point he provokes giggles from a young prince by making faces at him in court), he's still very much a normal boy at heart. Even if his upbringing and surroundings are anything but.
An antihero will rise
Few people complain about reggae or blues records being limited in their scope or style, because the limits in scope and style are an inherent part of the art form. The same goes with pulp-action stories from decades past — that they are products of their moment in time is part of their essence. In Lone Wolf's case, that moment in time was part of a period in Japan's pop-culture history when assumptions about the country's classical values were openly challenged, when Ittō Ogami's cold-blooded adherence to the samurai code could also be read as a critique of same. If you turned over such a code and found men like this crushed underneath it, what was that code all about, really? I was reminded of another film from nearly a decade earlier, Bushido: The Cruel Code Of The Samurai, which showed how the same code of honor ground several generations of men underfoot, all the way to the present day. Each generation of man in that film was played by the same actor — fiery, scowling Kinnosuke Nakamura, who went on to play none other than Ittō Ogami in a popular TV adaptation of Lone Wolf And Cub.
Koike was responsible for another seminal story about a lone, indomitable assassin in Japan's underworld: Lady Snowblood, also adapted to film around the same time as Lone Wolf And Cub. The differences between the two stand out all the more now that I've rewatched both of them so close to each other, aside from one having an antihero and the other having an antiheroine. For one, Snowblood is set in a later timeframe — the end of the 19th century, when Japan had emerged from the isolationism of the Tokugawa Shōgunate and made overtures towards becoming a world economic and military power. That implies the kind of power the antihero (and antiheroine) of each story is holding out against are markedly different. In Snowblood's case, it's the disruptive power brought on by the presence of the industrial-capitalist West; in Lone Wolf, it's the top-down power of the Shōgunate that insists on order at the cost of whole swaths of human life, while at the same time looking the other way while corruption flourishes in the corners. In both cases, it's the criminals, the dispossessed, the castoffs and the outcasts who stand against all that.
One of my theories about lowbrow mainstream entertainment — what we once called "pulp" or "trash", and sometimes still do — is that it provides an arena for criticism of the social order that escapes official notice by dint of being pulp or trash. The Nikkatsu films of the same time frame as Lone Wolf and Lady Snowblood were loaded with lurid sex, grotesque violence, but also more often than not angry social commentary that seems all the more cutting and even progressive in retrospect. I think Lone Wolf is closer to the pure-entertainment side of the spectrum than Snowblood, and its worldview is scarcely progressive — but to my mind there's always something inherently political in the idea of a loner adhering all the more fiercely to the code that his own masters have decided to use as an altar to sacrifice him on. Not that he's about to let them do it, of course.