#5 in my ranking of the Lone Wolf and Cub franchise.
And so comes to an end the original six films of the Lone Wolf and Cub franchise, completed before the end of the manga, denying a complete end to the conflict between Itto Ogami and the Yagyu clan. In the hands of director Yoshiyuki Kuroda, Ogami and Daigoro meander through another cobbled together actioner that at least has the smarts to shake up the aesthetics and mythos of the action, providing something new.
The film begins with what seems to be real focus. The Yagyu Clan is on the verge of losing face because they can’t manage to kill Ogami despite five movies’ worth of effort. The head of the clan, Retsudo, is getting desperate and has set his youngest child, his daughter, the most dangerous of his four remaining children, to kill Ogami. First, she must kill her three brothers in a display of her skill that, well, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense but it’s a neat scene anyway, I guess. She demonstrates her ability with her throwing knives by killing each brother in a row in a different way. I mean, I guess Retsudo isn’t that concerned with his family name passing down anymore because the danger is so great, but this is another example of what sounded like a neat idea falling apart the second you think about it.
Anyway, the movie spends several minutes setting up this daughter, and…well, she’s dead after about ten minutes, killed by Ogami who instantly sees through all of her attacks and kills her with little trouble. I mean, this is probably the perfect microcosm of my problem with these movies. The filmmakers dedicate time to a character based almost purely based on her ability with a unique weapon. After all the time dedicated to showing us how awesome she is, Ogami gets rid of her almost instantly, and the woman is never mentioned again. The movie was smart enough to give her a direct tie to Retsudo, at least, which feeds into Retsudo’s decaying position and mental state, but the relationship between her and Retsudo was never established beyond expository dialogue.
Retsudo, desperate after he threw away the lives of his three sons and daughter, finds a never mentioned before illegitimate son who has hidden in the mountains for decades, Hyouei, the leader of the Tsuchigumo clan. Hyouei brings out his three fiercest fighter, buried under the earth for weeks and given magical powers turning them into some kind of kung fu zombies, and we get another instance of awesome fighters getting built up and then easily dispatched by Ogami once they show up. In between there’s a sequence where they use their magic to kill everyone in an inn that Ogami and Daigoro stay the night in because, as we learn during the sequence and not before it through voiceover, everyone who helps Ogami will die. Ogami flees northward to the snow driven mountains where he kills all three in a very quick encounter.
Finally, we’re ready for our final confrontation between Retsudo and Ogami. Retsudo has no more children, legitimate or illegitimate. He has to kill Ogami himself if he wants it done, so he brings a small army (another one) for Ogami to kill off one by one in the snow. Now, action movies have used snow fights to great effect before, thinking of James Bond in particular and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service specifically. The problem here is that it’s a back and forth battle on a slope where everyone’s on skis, so it feels artificial when the army comes down to Ogami, he fights off a bunch of them, they ski down past him, and then he skis after them. Add in the visual of the baby cart and it comes off a bit more ridiculous in execution than I imagined they thought it would look in theory.
And then Retsudo gets away and the franchise ends without a real ending because the manga hadn’t caught up. I have no idea why Toho Studios didn’t make a seventh film to end out the franchise with the same cast, perhaps getting the ending from the author early like what happened on Game of Thrones, but they didn’t. This is the end, and it’s a disappointing ending.
Looking back at this franchise, I guess I didn’t realize what I was getting into. Knowing almost nothing about it beforehand other than it was in the Criterion Collection and The Mandalorian adopted its core concept of a warrior traveling with a small being for its first couple of seasons, I think I expected something more adept. I certainly didn’t expect that every single movie would be at least two different stories inelegantly stitched together. There are some highlights here and there (my favorite being Baby Cub in Hades, which I think mostly holds together), but overall I found the franchise rather dull because the basic building blocks of storytelling were largely absent. It also didn’t help that some of its “coolest” moments fall apart the second you think about them. No, I wouldn’t recommend this franchise. It’s reputation is far greater than it deserves.