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[aka Sword Of Vengeance]

"Daigoro, choose your own path. If you choose the sword, you will join me on the path of the assassins. If you choose this handball, I will send you to join your late mother…."


Kenji Misumi

Tomisaburo Wakayama, Tomoko Mayama, Akihiro Tomikawa, Yunosuki Oki, Taketoshi Naito, Reiko Kasahara, Fumio Watanabe

Kazuo Koike, based upon the works of Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima

Synopsis: Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama), former Shogunate executioner, wanders the countryside with his young son, Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa), whom he pushes in a wooden cart, hiring himself and his child out to anyone who can pay for their services. An elderly woman rents the child, so that her daughter, driven insane by betrayal and the death of her own baby, can breastfeed him. Ogami refuses payment, as this transaction provided a meal for Daigoro. It begins to rain. Covering his child, Ogami thinks back to another rainy day two years earlier…. Ogami’s wife, Azami (Reiko Kasahara), confesses to him that she has been suffering a recurrent dream about the spirits of those that he has executed. Ogami takes the baby Daigoro and goes to his personal shrine, where he performs a ceremony to honour the dead. In his absence, a band of assassins breaks into the house. Ogami hears Azami’s cries of agony, and runs to the house. Azami lives long enough only to touch her son’s cheek with bloody fingers, then dies in her husband’s arms. Ogami discovers that the rest of the household has been murdered as well. He swears a terrible vengeance…. Ogami receives an official visit from Superintendent Bizen Yagyu (Taketoshi Naito), who tells him that three samurai accused him of treason against the Shogun, claiming that evidence could be found in his shrine, then committed seppuku as proof of their sincerity. Within the shrine, Ogami is stunned to find the Shogun’s mortuary tablet. He then realises that the Superintendent’s men have armed themselves, and put on sword-proof mail. In a fury, Ogami accuses Yagyu of plotting against him, claiming that he is one of the "Black Yagyu", an offshoot of the genuine Yagyu clan, who are led by one Retsudo Yagyu (Yunosuke Oki) and are using treachery and murder to bring themselves into positions of power. Yagyu admits the plot, ordering his men to kill Ogami, but the swordsman slaughters his adversaries. Ogami sees Retsudo Yagyu watching from a distance, and again swears that he will have revenge…. Ogami and Daigoro enter a small village, where Ogami is hired to dispatch four treacherous samurai and their band of mercenaries, who plan to kill the rightful heir to their fiefdom’s throne and establish a puppet government. As Ogami sets out, he sees two children playing with a ball. This triggers more memories…. Convicted of treason and ordered to commit seppuku, Ogami makes a fateful decision: he will refuse the order and become a paid assassin, until he can fulfil his vows of vengeance against the Yagyu. But what of the infant Daigoro? Grimly, Ogami places before the child a sword and a ball. If the boy chooses the former, he will become an outcast like his father; the latter, and he will be sent to join his mother….

Comments: Sword Of Vengeance was the first of six films adapted between 1972 and 1974 from the incredible 110 volume manga by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, films that are generally known collectively as the "Lone Wolf and Cub" or the "Baby Cart" series. Upon a first viewing, Sword Of Vengeance often strikes viewers as both strangely familiar, and strangely unfamiliar. During the late seventies, Roger Corman’s New World Pictures acquired the rights to both Sword Of Vengeance and the second entry in the series, Baby Cart At The River Styx. The two films were edited, the footage cobbled together and dubbed, and the result released to Western audiences as Shogun Assassin. Somewhat ironically, this patchwork effort probably turned far more people onto Asian cinema than the "pure" version of either film could have done on its own, by providing an astonishingly compressed view of just how extreme Asian cinema could be. When the two films were cut together, what was kept was, of course, "the good bits" – that is, the incredible fight scenes that make up a portion of Sword Of Vengeance, and a great deal of Baby Cart At The River Styx. (It comes as no surprise that far more of the latter film than the former ended up in Shogun Assassin. And indeed, so very good were those "good bits" that Shogun Assassin eventually found itself caught up in the British "video nasty" furore of the mid-eighties.) Conversely, what ended up on the cutting-room floor was the "boring stuff", the background material that introduces the audience to its anti-hero, Itto Ogami. While Shogun Assassin found a clever way of telling its story without diverting from the action too much (the film is narrated by the child, Daigoro; amusingly, his voice is provided by, of all people, Sandra Bernhard!), the fact is that the stories of Shogun Assassin and Sword Of Vengeance are quite different. It is possible to watch Sword Of Vengeance, and indeed the entire "Lone Wolf and Cub" series", purely for the action scenes – and I imagine that a lot of people do so – but to ignore the story elements is to rob this saga of much of its richness. To be appreciated, the Lone Wolf must first be understood, and for modern audiences, particularly Western audiences, this is not a simple matter. The opening scene of Sword Of Vengeance is nothing short of horrifying. We are introduced to Itto Ogami in the performance of his duty as Shogunate executioner, "helping" a condemned prisoner to commit seppuku. Shockingly, the prisoner is nothing but a child, scarcely more than a toddler, who is almost lost amongst his white death robes, his bewildered expression leaving the viewer distressingly uncertain whether he understands what is happening or not. As the child sits motionless, unresisting, Ogami steps up behind him and draws his sword….

Even though this is the one act of violence in Sword Of Vengeance that is not depicted explicitly, it is probably the most disturbing. It also illustrates the magnitude of the task that the film sets before the viewer, who must come to terms with a time and a society when the slaughter---sorry, the execution of small children (or "terminating the bloodline", as the Shogun himself puts it) was an accepted thing; when the post of executioner was not only an honourable one, but so desirable that others would commit murder and treason in order to obtain it; and when death was not something to be feared but, on the contrary, very often to be embraced. Perhaps the best example of the latter comes in the form of two followers of the official who will eventually hire Ogami to kill the rebel samurai. In an attempt to determine whether this paid assassin is indeed the notorious Itto Ogami, the official orders the other two, both skilled swordsmen, to attack him, reasoning that if they can kill him, obviously he was not Ogami. On the other hand, if he kills them…. "I hope that he will kill us!" enthuses one of the underlings, and needless to say, he gets his wish. (This is one of my favourite moments in the film: while negotiating with the official, Ogami is attacked from behind by the two swordsmen, and kills them without even bothering to look around. He then resumes negotiations.) As Sword Of Vengeance unfolds, it becomes apparent that Ogami is a man who lives by a brutally rigid, all-consuming code of honour. He must do so. Nothing else could make the commission of the kinds of deeds that he is ordered to carry out possible. His loyalty to the Shogun is unshakeable, even though it is clear to the audience, if not to Ogami himself, that hatred and paranoia, not justice, are behind many of the ordered executions. (Intriguingly, Ogami’s wife, Azami, obviously has severe doubts about the righteousness of this rash of executions; as we meet her, she confesses that the spirits of the dead are beginning to haunt her dreams.) But when the evil "Black Yagyu" clan sets its traitorous plot in motion, Ogami is betrayed by the Shogun, who condemns him without even granting him a hearing. It is this act of broken faith on the part of the lord he has served so loyally as much as the assassinations and treachery committed by the Yagyus that compels Ogami to the enormity of refusing the Shogun’s order to kill himself. As we watch Ogami setting out upon his single-minded quest, we come to understand that his sense of personal honour has not been touched, despite his betrayal and suffering; the "Lone Wolf" is now as loyal to himself, to his own beliefs, as he once was to the Shogun.

Ogami’s quest, however single-minded, is not entirely a solitary one, of course. His young son, Daigoro, a baby of one when his mother was murdered, and now a child of three, accompanies him on his journey. Perhaps the most famous scene in Sword Of Vengeance comes when Ogami forces his infant son to "choose" his own path, by offering him both a sword and a ball. If the boy chooses the sword, he will become an outcast like his father; the ball, and he will be "sent to join his late mother" – by his father. After what we have already witnessed in this film, we have no doubt that Ogami will kill the boy instantly should he choose the ball; and yet had this come to pass, it would not have been an act of brutality, or indifference, or evidence of a selfish desire not to be burdened with the boy, but genuinely an act of love. This is perhaps the time when an understanding of the film’s attitude towards death becomes absolutely critical. Ogami hopes that his son will choose the ball, not because he does not love him, but because he honestly believes that the boy would be better off dead. Ogami himself may have chosen to "tread the path of demons", but it is not what he wants for his son. However, having made his child’s life or death a matter of destiny, when Daigoro chooses the sword, Ogami is compelled to abide by it. The two set out on their fateful journey, Daigoro in the wooden cart that bestows upon this set of films one of its many alternative titles – and which, as the series progresses, will prove to be considerably more than just a baby cart. (Sword Of Vengeance is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a film that encourages facetious thought, but I couldn’t help reflecting that Ogami’s situation represented one of the more interesting depictions of the eternal problem of juggling parenthood with a career.)

The relationship between Ogami and his son is one of the film’s most fascinating aspects, and is all the more so for, in a sense, being told backwards. As indicated, we first see Ogami executing the infant Lord Hirotada; our next view of him is out on the road, carrying a banner that, among other things, offers to rent out his own child. Neither of these things exactly encourages the audience to take a sympathetic view of Ogami, and nor does the ronin’s habitually grim expression; but as the story progresses, we slowly come to an understanding of the sincere love that the Lone Wolf bears for his Cub. This initially becomes evident when Ogami and Daigoro enter the town where Ogami’s assignment is to be carried out. The rogue samurai and their hired bandits are not only there, they have taken over; and as Ogami pushes Daigoro’s cart into town, he – and we – are confronted by the sight of a village woman being brutally raped. Swiftly, Ogami pulls the cover over the cart. One of the bandits, noticing this instinctive movement, jeers, "Fatherly love, protecting him from such a brutal scene?" – and that is precisely what is going on. (An arresting layer of moral ambiguity enters the story here since not only does Ogami do nothing to shield Daigoro from the sight of himself making mince-meat of anyone who challenges him, but he occasionally uses the boy as a weapon, as we shall see.) But more overt evidence of the real relationship between Ogami and Daigoro is to come. Ironically enough, one of the most startling moments in the entire film is also one of the quietest, as we are permitted a glimpse of Ogami and Daigoro bathing in a spa, with Ogami gently splashing the giggling child with water, and smiling. In the overall context of the film, which contains a parade of incredibly intense violence – most of it committed by Ogami himself – this moment of playfulness is so unexpected as to be almost shocking; and indeed, it is no more than a moment. Ogami’s mask immediately slams back into place – because, it seems, he has noticed that we are watching, but in reality because someone else has entered the spa. Brief as it is, this scene allows us a much greater understanding of our anti-hero. Far from being a mere killing machine, he is a man of genuine emotion, no matter how vice-like the hold he keeps upon it. This knowledge adds immeasurably to the interest and complexity of the Lone Wolf stories.

One of the main features of the Edo period of Japanese history was the emergence of Neo-Confucianism, a particularly secular form of orthodoxy that was introduced to Japan by Ieyasu Tokugawa during his Shogunate. Among other things, Neo-Confucianism had a huge impact upon the place of the samurai in Japanese society. Formerly little more than an uncultured fighting force, the samurai were suddenly raised to a level of privilege, and made a social caste of their own, one responsible for setting an example of devotion to duty, and of unswerving honour and morality. (Something not readily apparent during Sword Of Vengeance is that this period in Japan’s history was essentially one of peace; the changes to the role of the samurai were made primarily because the warrior class no longer had much to do.) Society at this time was divided into four separate classes – the samurai, the farmers, the artisans and the merchants (outcasts of society, the eta, formed an unofficial fifth class) – and individuals were forbidden to move from their own caste. The story of Sword Of Vengeance manages to encompass all of these levels of society, as it moves from the court at Edo, through various towns and villages, then ends up at a health spa patronised by ill samurai. On this journey we meet not only the Lone Wolf himself, with his inflexible code of honour, but the evil Black Yagyu and their ninja assassins; loyal fiefdom officials; Sugito and the other rogue samurai, who plot against their feudal lord; the various villagers whom Ogami encounters; the bandits hired by Sugito; and last and least – or so it seems at first – a prostitute, Osen. One of the overwhelming impressions left by Sword Of Vengeance is that the Tokugawa Shogunate was – surprise, surprise – not a good time to be a woman. We meet only five women in the course of the story. The first is Azami, whose position of privilege leads only to her death, as she is murdered by the Yagyu. On the road, we see a young townswoman, driven insane by betrayal and the death of her child, and her elderly mother, who has the thankless task of trying to care for her unbalanced daughter; while later, a village woman is literally raped to death, something the bandits responsible have a good laugh over.

And finally, there is Osen. The final section of Sword Of Vengeance takes place at the Gonomori Spa, where Ogami is sent to kill those who plot against the Lord Noriyuki. He arrives to find the situation even more dangerous than he has been led to believe. The bandits hired by Sugito have taken control of the town, and are keeping both the local villagers and the samurai who were visiting the spa for their health in subjugation. Ogami himself is met at the bridge leading into the village, where his sword is confiscated and his life threatened. He succeeds in convincing the bandits that his arrival is a coincidence, that he is only there for health reasons ("Would I bring a child here otherwise?" he argues), and he is escorted in. One glance is all he needs to sum up the situation. Ogami accepts that he must bide his time, and adopts an attitude of the utmost neutrality: a stance interpreted as pusillanimity by bandit and captive samurai alike. Indeed, the other samurai, bitterly ashamed of their inability (or unwillingness) to combat the bandits, vent their frustration upon Ogami, making him the subject of constant derision and abuse. Paradoxically, it is only the prostitute, Osen, who can recognise the qualities that mark the former Shogunate executioner, and who understands almost instinctively that Ogami’s façade of cowardice is exactly that. Granted, Osen has, as she herself later puts it, "known a lot of men"; still, this scarcely explains the almost psychic bond that forms between herself and Ogami as they take their respective stands against the bandits. Already we have seen that the girl, a social outcast of the most despised kind, has been the only one with backbone enough to stand up to the bandits, even if only verbally. When the bandits, frustrated by Ogami’s lack of response to their insults, make a move to provoke action from him by threatening Daigoro, Osen instantly intervenes, cleverly deflecting the bandits’ attention back to Ogami himself with a sneering speech about the samurai’s timidity. Finally, however, Osen pushes her luck too far: the bandits decide to punish her, and amuse themselves, by forcing her to have public sex with Ogami. The horrified girl cringes, hesitates – and then the decision is taken out of her hands by Ogami, who without a word begins to disrobe. What follows is one of the strangest and most beautiful scenes in the whole film, as what was intended as punishment, as public humiliation for both Ogami and Osen, is transformed by camerawork and editing into a most tender and intimate encounter. Of course, Ogami’s willing self-degradation is interpreted by the other captives as still further evidence of his spinelessness, but Osen knows better: sensing that she was on the verge of suicide, Ogami acted not to save himself, but her. "A samurai sacrifice his pride for a woman like me!" she moans, in full and painful consciousness of the magnitude of Ogami’s gesture. The consequence is inevitable. When Sword Of Vengeance reaches its conclusion, it is with a scene like many seen in American movies over the years: the "fallen woman" gazing helplessly, longingly, after the hero as he walks away from her, accepting that she is morally unfit for him despite her courage and her love for him. Yet here Osen is not rejected because she is not "good enough" for Ogami, but simply because the Lone Wolf and his Cub must make their own way along the bloody path that they have chosen, alone.

But before that happens, there must naturally be the showdown between Ogami and those he has been hired to kill. Preparing for their assassination job, the bandits decide to kill all the captive samurai to keep them from talking. One of the men obligingly kneels down to commit seppuku, but demands a "decapitator" to help him. The elderly leader of the bandits has been convinced all along that he has seen Ogami somewhere before, and at this, the penny drops, and with a vengeance: he realises exactly who the "coward" in their midst is. (If this guy’s expression had been subtitled, we’d all know what’s Japanese for, "Oh, shit!!") But by then it is too late; Ogami is already making his move. We then learn that Daigoro’s cart is much more than it appears: from it Ogami produces weapon after weapon, mowing down his enemies in an orgy of bloodletting. At one point in the fight, Osen again proves her worth, swooping in to snatch up Daigoro and carry him to safety, thus allowing Ogami to use the metal-plated cart to shield himself from one of the rogue samurai, who unexpectedly uses pistols. Samurai and bandits alike fall under Ogami’s sword, until every one of them lies dead, and the captives are freed. Not that Ogami cares much for that; he has fulfilled his commission and earned his pay, and it is time for him to move on.

The "Lone Wolf and Cub" films are famous, not to say notorious, for the extremity of their fight scenes. At times it seems as if the films exist only to demonstrate how many different ways you can kill someone with a sword. When Ogami goes into action, it is at all times to kill, and preferably with one blow. Heads roll, limbs are lopped off and, in one memorable instance, a pair of feet remain standing while their owner lies beside them, screaming in agony. Arteries are severed, and blood erupts from the wounds in literal geysers. Yet for all that, there is an undeniable beauty to much of what we see, even to the scenes of violence. Appropriately, given the film’s origins, the production design is very stylised; many scenes look exactly like frames of the manga from which they were derived. (In keeping with this aesthetic, the "blood" is fairly obviously red paint, which does serve to take the queasiness factor down a notch or two.) One of the most sumptuous of all the scenes in Sword Of Vengeance is the opening sequence of the execution of the boy Daimyo, which contains an absolutely stunning use of white on white on white. Other scenes, particularly those that take place out of doors, are simply breathtaking. This is perhaps most evident during Ogami’s battle against a representative of the Black Yagyu. Having failed to either arrest or kill Ogami, let alone convince him to kill himself, and having looked on while a good number of his clansmen were cut to pieces, Retsudo Yagyu finally offers Ogami a deal: a final duel, himself against a chosen Yagyu swordsman; if he wins, he and Daigoro will be allowed to leave Edo unmolested. Ogami accepts. The fight takes place at dawn, in a field full of long, swaying grass. As the two warriors face each other, Retsudo gloats mentally that Ogami must fall: the Yagyu swordsman has the sun at his back, while Ogami has Daigoro bundled onto his. But the executioner has an unexpected manoeuvre up his sleeve. The two men charge at each other, and at the last instant Ogami bends over. We see that Daigoro has a small mirror bound to his forehead. The reflected sunlight blinds the Yagyu swordsman for just an instant, and that is long enough for Ogami. There is almost a freeze-frame when the blow has been struck, one of quite unearthly beauty: the rising sun, the mountain in the background, the gently swaying grass, Ogami standing motionless with Daigoro on his back and his sword in his hand – and the decapitated body, still upright, gushing blood into the air…. Sword Of Vengeance carries an intense, pulsing score by Hideaki Sakurai, and while that is very effective, equally so is the film’s occasional use of silence, particularly at moments of death. Here, we are left listening to the wind in the grass; after an earlier battle, it was to the sound of a waterfall. If you have the stomach for it, the film is an artistic delight. The direction of Kenji Misumi is excellent throughout, but particularly so in the many fight scenes, where it is as clean and forceful as Ogami’s sword strokes. Also immensely enjoyable is Tomisaburo Wakayama’s interpretation of the character of Ogami. With his grim visage, stoic demeanour, and growling voice, Wakayama’s performance is simply indelible. And then there’s Akihiro Tomikawa as Daigoro. You know – generally speaking, I’m not really into "cute", but here I have to admit it: the little dickens is cuter than a basketful of kittens. Personally, I can hardly wait to settle in with Baby Cart At The River Styx, and see what happens next to the Lone Wolf and his Cub.

Want a second opinion? Visit Stomp Tokyo and The Unknown Movies for reviews of Sword Of Vengeance, and The Bad Movie Report for a review of Shogun Assassin.