Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The six-film Sword of Vengeance series comes to a close with White Heaven in
Hell, an adequate finisher to the celebrated samurai bloodbath based on a popular comic
with over a hundred installments. The basic setup of the series is maintained, if not enlarged
in this last chapter. Shogunate
executioner Ogami Itto still battles the treacherous agents of the Yagyu clan that
unjustly deposed him, murdered his wife and forced him to go out on the road with his tiny tot
As in the six earlier episodes, the show is a relentlessly gory cavalcade of ambushes
and over-the-top sword battles. Our fierce hero with the guttural voice dispatches opponents
by the dozen, frequently splitting them in two and opening up exaggerated fountains of gushing
crimson. The bloodletting of Kill Bill Vol. 1 is nothing compared to the outrageousness
of these Sword of Vengeance slice 'n dice epics.
Frustrated at the failure of his sons and daughters (along with armies of
retainers) to destroy the vengeful Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and his toddler son Daigoro
(Akihiro Tomikawa), the evil head of the Yagyu clan Retsudo (Minoru Ohki) dispatches his last
relatives to the struggle. Daughter Kaori (Junko Hitomi) has mastered a complicated fighting
style involving dagger juggling. Illegitimate son Hyouei (Isao Kimura) is now the leader of a
tribe of supernatural zombies who can slip underneath the earth to find their victims. He
marshalls his forces to defeat Ogami Itto, but refuses to do so in the name of his father.
The title White Heaven in Hell reflects this episode's largely snowbound setting, which
creates some interesting situations while putting a crimp on Ogami Itto's signature cut-ups.
The novelty of seeing ski-mounted samurai in massed attack and Ogami's baby cart transformed into
a toboggan isn't particularly rewarding, and it looks as though the difficulties of shooting in
snowscapes forced the battle scenes to be simplified. Once a patch of snow has been stepped in,
there's no opportunity for a take two, and the consistently dazzling fight choreography of some of
the earlier films here gives way to less distinctive set-pieces. The blank white snow doesn't lend
itself to either combat (ever try to do anything graceful in snowshoes?) or interesting compositions.
Director Yoshiyuki Kuroda's more generic style lacks the impact of the initial episodes of
Kenji Misumi, or the perverse beauty of Buichi Saito's episode IV, Lone Wolf and Cub in Peril.
Besides the intense concentration on the slicing of human bodies, the first installments made
better use of the baby Daigoro. Part of the giddy weirdness was to see a tot scarcely big enough
to stand on his own taking part in the formalized carnage and
Spaghetti western set-piece showdowns. The scarce sex in the films often relied on intimate moments
of Daigoro doing things like playing with a nipple in huge closeup, not exactly MPAA material.
White Heaven in Hell has its moments of aesthetic harmony but comes across as a weaker
effort that signalled it was time to bring the series to a close. There were brief supernatural
elements before, but this episode devotes a lot of screen time to a complicated cult of undead
warriors living as forest spirits. Like one of the better Japanese ghost stories,
their magic is conveyed through effective double exposures and simple physical tricks. In twos and
threes, they start burrowing and then simply slip underground to apparently swim
through the earth like ghostly snakes. But they are no more formidable than Ogami's usual
adversaries, and tumble like tenpins before his sword or the machine-gun in his baby cart. Fans
will be disappointed if they expect a showdown to top previous showdowns.
Similarly, Junko Hitomi's elaborate knife-juggling gimmick is easily defeated by Ogami Itto, and
Hyouei's rape of his sister to produce a future Yagyu warrior doesn't add up to much beyond providing
some commercial nudity. In White Heaven in Hell, the anarchic Sword of Vengeance
series finally became tame.
AnimEigo's DVD of White Heaven in Hell looks beautiful; with the other five episodes
it represents the first satisfactory home video presentation of this fascinatingly violent series.
The picture is sharp and clean and the eclectic music track (sometimes affecting the funky feel
of a blaxploitation thriller) is bright and clear.
AnimEigo's loving attention to Japanese movies is evident in the details of the presentation. The
carefully worded English subtitles are sometimes augmented with helpful definitions of obscure
shogunate terms. A lengthy text extra addresses the intricacies of Japanese translation, including
humorous explanations of Japanese modes of address and how they're typically used in the movies.
In addition to the gory samurai thrills, we get a deeper understanding of a different culture's pop
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell rates:
Supplements: program notes
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 4, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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