Criterion Corner: The Road to Hell: Lone Wolf and Cub: Part One

I have decided to escape, to defy the shogun. Today I will begin walking the road to hell. But you will choose your own path. So soon, you may be seeing heaven. Choose the sword and you will join me. Choose the ball and you will join your mother, in death. You don't understand my words but you must choose. So...come boy. Choose life or death.

--Ogami Itto

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972)

In the crowded chambara genre the Lone Wolf and Cub franchise stands out due to its intriguing mixture of elegant historical drama and bloody grindhouse-style battle scenes. It was based on a long-running manga of the same name written by Kazuo Koike, who has had many of his works adapted into various films.

The tale follows the exploits of Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama), a former executioner who has been framed and subsequently banished from his post. His wife is killed by assassins and he is forced to wander the countryside with his young son Diagoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) as a mercenary-for-hire. Not unlike many westerns, he often makes trips to small villages who are being terrorized by gangs and uses his incredible sword fighting skills to take them out. Itto also has a tricked-out baby cart that he pushes Diagoro around in with hidden weapons and deadly surprises.

Sword of Vengeance is a gorgeous film with excellent cinematography and use of color. The backgrounds for the battles are always visually interesting whether it's a fight in a streaming river with a waterfall, or close-quarters combat inside of an intricately decorated house. This series is most infamous for the way it depicts violence with sword slashes unleashing giant crimson geysers of blood and body parts being chopped off with impunity. The way the sound design is utilized is interesting as well, because most of the fights have no sound other than the grunts of the enemies and the swishing sounds of Itto's blade. Battles become a deadly and mesmerizing tate with Itto nimbly darting around cutting his foes to ribbons.

In the iconic opening sequence, Itto is shown killing a very young child, during his tenure as executioner. The world he inhabits is full of death and brutality and he foists much of this onto his son Diagoro as well. Diagoro keeps Itto's character from being an overpowered superhero as Itto must protect him during battles. The child also acts as the last tether of his humanity, because at least he has something to live for with the future of his son on the line. 

The entire film encompasses moral ambiguity, because it is kill or be killed and the law of the sword is all that rules the land. Earlier in the film Itto offers Diagoro a choice between a ball or a sword. If he chooses the ball, Itto will kill him. If he chooses the sword, he will let him live. Diagoro chooses the sword, but now has to live a life where he has to kill others to survive. Indeed that can only be called the road to hell, but at least he will not be travelling it alone.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972)

A mere few months after the first film, director Kenji Misumi unleashed Baby Cart at the River Styx, which is widely regarded by fans as the high point in the franchise. Itto and his son are still travelling the countryside making a living by being assassins-for-hire. This tale finds Itto becoming entangled with the all-female division of the Shadow Yagu ninja clan as well as him picking up a new assassination mission. The main villains are the three fearsome Hidari brothers, amazing fighters who wield brutal weaponry, and Sayaka, head of the Akiri Yagyu female ninjas. Itto must use all his skills to outwit these foes as well as protect his young son Diagoro.

While Sword of Vengeance was an exposition-heavy affair, this iteration is jam-packed with gratuitous and stylish violence. The composition of the fight scenes is much more surrealistic in nature and many of the enemies use strange weapons and attack styles. One such scene has the female assassins trying to hypnotize Itto with brilliantly patterned kimonos, and in another sequence they throw knives at him that are disguised as daikon radishes. Every death has a beautiful quality to it--death is poetry and blood-tinged ink is the vehicle for its expression.

Itto's character arc is static between these two films, he is ever the stoic individual, accepting life or potential death with equal calmness. Even when his son is threatened he is pragmatic, yet underneath this stone-cold exterior there is a small but bright flame of compassion. He will spare a foe if fighting is not needed, but once his fury is unleashed he is unstoppable. This dichotomy between life and death and its inevitability is the main philosophy of the film. At the end Itto and Diagoro continue on their road filled with demons and damnation.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (1972)

Itto and Diagoro wander still further in this film entry, now traveling down the river on a boat. Unfortunately, the evil Yagyu Clan are still in hot pursuit and no matter what Itto does he cannot escape them. 

Itto has an encounter with a traveling band of watari-kashi which are lower ranking samurai who handle odd-jobs. These men rape two poor young women and although the thugs try to cover up their crime Itto teaches the leader of the gang a fatal lesson with his blade. Throughout this film he seems much more compassionate as he also protects a young prostitute accused of murdering her pimp and accepts a torturous punishment on her behalf. His exterior is still solemn but his actions are merciful.

Diagoro gets much more screen time and takes an active role in helping his father take out enemies. He uses his childish looks and manner to lull enemies into a false sense of security while Itto sneaks up for the killing blow. Often, the film bookends the violent acts with close-up shots of Diagoro's inquisitive face, as if to emphasize the contrast between the innocence of childhood and the grim business of adulthood. Diagoro seems unaffected by this violence, however, and is still content to spend his rare downtime observing nature and playing in the mud.

Baby Cart to Hades is much slower paced than the previous film Baby Cart at the River Styx, but the third act is a frenzy of violence. We finally get to see the infamous baby cart in action and the plethora of weapons and tricks in its portable armory. In an orgy of blood Itto takes out hundreds of men, mowing them down like a farmer reaping his crops, and in this moment he is more monster than man, and he is death incarnate. Perhaps he has always been a monster.

--Michelle Kisner