(Note: The following review features several unrestrained eruptions of unrefined, fully distilled and thoroughly crystallized Fanboy geek-joy. For those with weak constitutions and frankly fictitious moral turpitude, I recommend a case of handy-wipes at all times throughout the reading of said review. Please keep your arms and legs within the space capsule and away we go…)
Legendary manga creators Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima caught lightning in a bottle and cast their ensuing thunderbolts aplenty when they created their renowned series Kozure Okami (Lone Wolf and Cub), a twenty-eight volume, 3000-page magnum opus that not only spawned a massive sensation in their native Japan, but also influenced a generation of comic creators in America as well, most noticeably Frank Miller (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Ronin, and the greatest run on Daredevil ever written) and Max Allan Collins (The Road To Perdition). The series, which began its run in 1970, was serialized over the course of several years in the popular Manga Action magazine and reprinted around the world. The resulting tale emerged as one of the crown jewels of modern Japanese graphic storytelling, as well as becoming one of the most popular iterations of Samurai literature since Eiji Yoshikawa's Musashi.
The background for the series is rather simple in description: The story takes place in the Tokugawa or Edo Period of Japanese history (roughly 1600-1867), in which the Tokugawa clan controlled the shogunate and steered Japan's history towards a period of relative peace and isolationism. Ogami Itto, the protagonist of the storyline, was the Shogun's kaishakunin, the official executioner who performed beheadings during the suicide rite of seppuku. His position as the Shogun's executioner was coveted by the treacherous Yagyu clan, who, scheming to expand their base of power within the shogunate, murder Ogami's wife and framed him for dishonoring the Shogun's Hollyhock crest. Ordered to commit seppuku for a crime he did not commit, Ogami escapes and swears revenge on the Yagyu clan, hiring his skills out as an assassin, committing himself and his young son Daigoro to meifumado, to live the way of demons and walk the road of damnation.
The entire story is one of the most breathtaking achievements in modern graphic storytelling. Koike's magnificent prose combined with the wind-swept, moody pencils of Goseki Kojima evokes a gray, dusty, dying world that reflects the atmosphere of social and political change that permeated Japan during the Edo Period. Epic in scope yet intimately personal in execution, Lone Wolf and Cub stands as a towering achievement not only in modern manga but also in the entire realm of comic books, graphic novels, and overall great storytelling everywhere.
It's that good.
Two years after the first Lone Wolf and Cub story appeared in print, Kojima adapted several of his stories into a series of six films (often referred to as the "Baby Cart" saga). They first surfaced in America in 1980, most notably as Shogun Assassin, a dubbed and re-edited mishmash of the first two films in the saga. I remember seeing this in theaters when I was ten, and being utterly blown away. The powerful storyline and massive amounts of action, blood-drenched violence, and hack-and-slashed swordplay made the film an instant classic in my warped and fragile little mind.
The initial film in the six-part series, Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance, has finally seen the light of day on DVD thanks to the fine work of the people at AnimEigo. The entire Lone Wolf and Cub saga has been one of the most requested series to be released on DVD since the inception of the format, and if the first DVD is any indication, fans will be performing Snoopy-like dances of joy in the streets. The transfer simply looks incredible.
AnimEigo performed a thorough restoration on Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance, enhancing the vivid color palette and removing excessive grain and noise. The resulting transfer simply looks spectacular, especially for a thirty-year-old film. The video is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and is presented in enhanced anamorphic widescreen. What a lovely picture! Color schemes are lush and vibrant, with deep blacks, a rich color scheme that rarely evidences any bleeding or oversatuarion, and sharp contrasts that accentuate the warm, vivid presentation of the film. Flesh tones are accurately rendered, while shadow delineation reveals a fine level of detail. Images are sharp and well-defined. There was some occasional haloing but nothing terribly excessive or marring to the presentation. Some grain structure was still evident throughout the film, retaining a natural film-like appearance without detracting from the quality of the transfer. Some occasional marks, spots, and creases were visible that betray the age of the negative. Transfer and compression noise was non-existent. Overall, the quality of the video is excellent, and provides for a remarkable visual presentation.
The audio is fairly standard Dolby Digital 2.0, presented in its original Japanese language with removable English subtitles. The audio delivery does not provide for a plethora of commentary, other than that it is serviceable and reasonably presented. The primarily center-stage soundtrack does not demonstrate aggressive directionality or a solidly immersive experience, but the dialog sounds bright and clear and serves the movie quite adequately.
If the DVD disappoints, it is only in the area of supplemental material. However, AnimEigo did include the Original Theatrical Trailers for Sword of Vengeance, Baby Cart in Peril, and Baby Cart in the Land of Demons, as well as the Zatoichi film Zatoichi the Outlaw. The DVD also comes with a rather thorough and informative booklet that contains a wealth of translation notes, history, and background material. These notes are reproduced in the Liner Notes portion of the DVD.
With his stocky frame and jowls, Wakayama Tomisaburo doesn't really resemble the sleek, lean Ogami Itto of Goseki Kojima's majestic pencils, but within the context of these films he literally becomes Ogami Itto before your eyes. The characters and the storylines from Lone Wolf and Cub have become so iconic that they strongly influenced the graphic novel (and film) The Road To Perdition. Ogami Itto and Daigoro have become such beloved characters that they even scored a cameo on the acclaimed Cartoon Network series Samurai Jack (During the episode, Daigoro stands by a young Samurai Jack as they watch Ogami battle Kurokawa ninjas on a bridge, a scene that inspires young Jack to become a Samurai himself.)
I've been waiting for the Lone Wolf and Cub films to come to DVD for a long time. I resisted purchasing the VHS versions and scooping up the long out-of-print laserdiscs with the hope of being able to collect the series in our preferred format. The wait is over, and I can't help feeling elated over the result. While the DVD is lacking in supplemental materials, it bounces back with an absolutely splendid transfer.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance is a remarkable film. While it doesn't have the lush poeticism and artistry of Kurosawa's finer Samurai epics (and honestly, how many films actually do?), the tale is replete with action, intrigue, historical pageantry, violence, and buckets upon buckets of bloodshed. Naturally, the Lone Wolf and Cub saga doesn't end in this film, but continues through the next five, so those expecting a definite ending might find themselves both short-changed and screaming for more. On the basis of the quality of the film and the excellent transfer, Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance merits a hearty recommendation.
Please note that the Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance DVD can only be ordered from AnimEigo's web site (http://www.animeigo.com), and will available at finer retail/online stores everywhere by mid-summer 2003.