#2 in my ranking of the Lone Wolf and Cub franchise.
This is really two movies in one. The first is the origin story for Itto Ogami, the Shogunate Executioner, and his son Daigoro and how they were framed for a thought crime, sentenced to death, and escaped with their lives. The second feels like just the next in a series of continuing adventures with the pair. I think that there’s going to be a larger connection to Ogami’s story in that continuing adventure, though. It wouldn’t make much sense otherwise.
Ogami is a highly respected swordsman and highly loyal subject to the shogun, a tyrant who punishes his daimyo for the smallest of infractions in order to maintain his political rule. He sends Ogami to complete the seppuku the shogun demands as punishment, which Ogami carries out professionally even in the most trying of circumstances like the first scene that shows Ogami carrying out his duty on a small child who happens to be a lord. It’s an interesting setup, showing our protagonist murdering a child as the start of the movie, but Kenji Misumi, the director, leans into the darker aspects of the source manga with open eyes. The crime Ogami was accused of was to put the shogun’s crest in his temple dedicated to his victims, placed there in a raid, supposedly in revenge for the killing of the child lord, which killed Ogami’s wife. Framed, he extracts a promise to leave him alone from the shadow lord that organized the whole affair.
This is all told in flashback to the actual story of the film as Ogami, a couple of years later, is a ronin, traveling with his son in a cart, as they walk the countryside looking for work. His reputation as Lone Wolf and Cub has grown, and there are even suspicions that the man is the former Executioner himself. When he’s spied by a local chamberlain with information that a rival is planning on the execution of his lord. Now, the movie makes no effort to connect the dots between the three men who organize the assassination attempt through a gang of bandits and Ogami’s past, but I have to assume there is one that will get drawn out in subsequent movies. Otherwise, this is really just a random adventure that has nothing to do with Ogami, and I don’t think that the opening of an extended story with a supposedly definite end would go like that.
Anyway, it’s in this part of the story that the movie’s truncated runtime works against it. The movie as a whole is 87 minutes long. If all of it had been dedicated to this adventure, I think my problem with its thinness would have been addressed. As the actual time spent at the hot springs with the bandits takes up about thirty minutes and there are about half a dozen new characters of some prominence that don’t have any real time to make an impression, I think it suffers. Ogami shows up, convincing the bandits that he’s just a man with his child and no more, and he spends his time with the other visitors who are trapped there because of the bandit presence. There’s a prostitute that Ogami saves by making love to her in front of the bandits, and she’s well drawn enough. However there’s another samurai there, sick and unable to really stand up, who is literally just a background character until the large final confrontation where he’s suddenly at the fore with some important lines about who he is. The danger to him feels empty because he’s not really a character. That, mixed with the mere implication that this adventure has something to do with Ogami’s overall journey, makes the whole thing feel like an empty exercise in exploitative action and little else.
That being said, the action in the film is actually quite good. Samurai movies are generally known for one man against many with the one making the perfect slice on most of them as they all go in with swords held up too high for too long, and Lone Wolf and Cub continues this tradition, but it also embraces bright red blood sprays that color the action in entertaining ways.
Overall, the first Lone Wolf and Cub movie is hampered by its need to tell both an origin story and another adventure in the same 87 minutes. The origin story is told well enough, but the adventure gets short-changed. I fully expect these tales to get better with subsequent entries.