Holy moley do these movies deserve the hard R! But it is 1972 Japan, baby! We don't have time to warn the public about insane violence!
DIRECTOR: Kenji Misumi
This! This is why the movie after the origin story should be better than the first one. I might be a little biased. While I love me some origin story, I acknowledge that the A-story always becomes a bit of a B-story. It's why I don't like when the big bad guy is in the first movie. That character becomes a bit of a throw away. Look at the '89 Batman. The Joker is completely wasted. Now look at the Joker in The Dark Knight. He becomes much scarier because he gets all of the attention. Lone Wolf and Cub gets this. Sure, I dug Sword of Vengeance. But Baby Cart at the River Styx? Finally, there's a cool story there. This is something that Zatoichi doesn't really seem to get. Lone Wolf and Cub has a very intense premise, but doesn't lean on it hard yet. It is simply a cool movie.
The movie rides pretty hard on a subject I've seen in other movies. I'm ashamed to say it, but there are similarities with the Thomas Jane version of The Punisher. Misumi, however, takes this simple premise and crushes it. Lone Wolf and Cub have become a burden on the local gangs, so they hire the best assassins in the world to take care of him. Meanwhile, Lone Wolf receives a contract to take out some other amazing assassins, so it is a story of who is going to kill whom first. Misumi, and perhaps credit is due more to the manga storyline that preceded it, creates absolutely amazing bad guys in this movie. They are scary as anything I've seen. Admittedly, there is always a hint of Bond villain / cornball factor that comes into having a bad guy prove his or her own evil, but I didn't mind it with this one. The villains show their villainy and how in this one. It is a group of female assassins who prove their worth through the almost piranha like destruction of a ninja. His jump to the ceiling is chuckleworthy. The moments following are jaw dropping. If you watch just one scene from this movie (and why would you?), try to watch this part. It is absolutely crazy what happens to this guy by the end of the scene. Small spoiler: Imagine if the scene with the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail wasn't funny. Then make it grosser.
Like I said last time, the chauvinism in this series is still palpable. It might have diminished a little bit from last time, but the movie does still have a bro-ey vibe. Yes, I feel a little gross enjoying these movies, but I do have to acknowledge the ickiness of the whole thing. There is a woman who is afraid of being raped, but that fear is almost portrayed in a way that is meant to excite rather than looking at the entire moment as abhorrent. I can't applaud the movie for that and I have a feeling the rest of the series is have the same stance when it comes to its views on sexuality. The audience is bro-ey guys and I'd like to consider myself not super bro-ey. Again, Lone Wolf and Cub is an example of low art. But as a fan of pulp, I have to accept that sometimes when something loses the focus on changing the world and just creates something for the sake of being cool, there comes a danger with the product. The film actively ignores the responsibility of what it is presenting and that's a shame. Is a sacrifice in tone more important than the moral responsibility that the filmmakers are sidled with? I now know that we can no longer say, "Well, that's how it was." Also, this is 1972, not the early 1900s. We have to accept some responsibility. This may have been culturally acceptable, but that doesn't mean that I have to applaud it.
There is a weird moral center in these movies. While Lone Wolf is definitely our protagonist, he is a fairly awful human being. He takes care of his "son" for the film, albeit with a stoicism that is added almost exclusively for tone, but he is still an assassin. I kind of commend the storytellers that they didn't shy away from this plotline. Lone Wolf is paid an astronomical amount of money to murder someone who is in a moral gray area protected by ronin who are morally gray as well. There is a clear cut villain in the story, but that's not Lone Wolf's objective. He must murder excellent ronin to stop an industrial spy. So many people die for the sake of protecting money. What is great is that Misumi doesn't try painting that in a more flattering light. He presents both sides of the debate and Lone Wolf goes in with few scruples about what he is doing. The movie never forgets to remind the audience that Lone Wolf is not necessarily a good man. He is a man who kills for money. He is the villain of someone else's story. The only real traits that make him redeemable or even salvageable is that he takes care of Cub and is really good at killing folks. Both of those traits are simply filling my reptile brain as opposed to feeding my soul, but when a movie presents itself as junk food, I should be allowed to say if it is a Symphony bar with toffee (my favorite) or a Bit-O-Honey. The movie leans toward Symphony bar (maybe Mini M&Ms because of its lack of perfection) and that's pretty cool. Lone Wolf bears the burden of me thinking he's cool from a distance, but I would be terrified to know him in reality. Kind of like Don Draper.
The movie is beautifully shot gore. I think my future distaste for some of the Zatoichi movies might be caused by how good these movies look. What is very bizarre is that the gore in these movies reminds me of a great '70s or '80s practical horror effect. The movie has all of the gore of a horror movie with the same looks, but with the tone of a an action movie. Yes, we have gory action movies today and some of them are very cool, but the cut of the film is so frenetic that it never lets you sit on that gore. Lone Wolf and Cub presents truly impressive gore effects and just lets you watch them while you hold back a gag. This is true from the first shot to the last fight. The first shot in the movie literally is a guy getting a samurai sword to the head, surviving long enough to give a moving monologue while his brain fails him. Blood runs down the blade and we just stare at the guy trying to talk with a blade an inch down into his brain. Cool. The movie also maintains the tradition of absurd gore; flying swords and stuff constantly fills the screen. But the movie establishes a world where people bleed more brightly colored blood than any person really would. I have to wonder what it's like being the kid in this movie. That's a disturbing thought.
Again, Lone Wolf and Cub isn't for everyone. In fact, it's not for most people. But for those people predisposed to gross out violence, the sequel is actually better than the original. I don't know if the franchise can maintain this, but I'm sure I'll eventually get burned out on this as well. The turnaround time is just too quick.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.