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 Daigoro.
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.
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 mythmaking.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell rates: