Despite considerable domestic success in Japan, the films of the Lone Wolf and Cub series probably remain best known to Western audiences under the infamous guise of the dubbed and significantly re-edited 1980 US release Shogun Assassin. Although often claimed as a ‘video nasty’ in the UK, Shogun Assassin never actually made the official Director of Public Prosecutions list, instead appearing only among the “less obscene” supplementary Section 3 titles (so liable for police seizure but not prosecution). Comprised of material taken from the first two films in the Japanese series, director Robert Houston’s compilation stripped more than an hour from the originals, emphasising gory action over characterisation and plot. However, while not exactly skimping on jaw-droppingly gruesome battles, the original films have far more to offer than just bright red arterial spray.

Based on the Manga by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, and directed by industry veteran Kenji Misumi, the first Lone Wolf and Cub film, Sword of Vengeance, was released by Toho studios in January 1972. Incredibly, the same year also saw the release of sequels Baby Cart at the River Styx, Baby Cart to Hades, and Baby Cart in Peril, with Baby Cart in the Land of Demons following in 1973 and White Heaven In Hell closing the series in 1974.

The films follow wandering ronin Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) as he travels the countryside of 18th century Japan with his infant son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) and their trusty wooden pram. As explained in Sword Of Vengeance, Ogami was previously the executioner for the Tokugawa Shogunate, a regime with an extremely draconian approach to discipline. The scheming Yagyu clan framed Ogami as a traitor and murdered his wife Azami (Keiko Fujita), in order to claim his prestigious position for themselves. A wanted criminal, he has become an assassin for hire in order to survive, though not one without honour or principles. The basic plot of each instalment revolves around the murderous assignments he undertakes, all the while pursued by his vicious Yagyu foes.

Japanese cinema has a long tradition of historical samurai films, from classical jidaigeki (period dramas) to the more rambunctious chanbara (sword-fighting) sub-genre. In 1954, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai had revolutionised the genre’s approach to action, pioneering a more fluid and dynamic style. However, it was arguably the final moments of Kurosawa’s otherwise light-hearted 1962 Sanjuro that truly foreshadowed the later, more exploitative style exemplified by Lone Wolf and Cub: the abrupt fatal blow in the film’s climactic dual unleashes a sudden, shocking geyser of gore.

Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972)

Combining the archetypal figure of the wandering hero, popular from long-running series such as Zatoichi (1962-89), with Sanjuro’s explosion of blood and the hallucinatory ferocity of Kihachi Okamoto’s intense The Sword of Doom (1966), the Lone Wolf and Cub films broke new ground for sheer deranged, balletic excess. If the comparatively low-key Sword of Vengeance faintly recalls the doomed village and final showdown of Kurosawa’s 1961 Yojimbo (albeit with slow-motion decapitations and far more severed limbs), its sequel Baby Cart at the River Styx is an anything-goes assault on the viewer, throwing down the gauntlet for the rest of the series. With each instalment, the odds increase against Ogami; entire armies engage him in spectacularly gory combat, one man armed only with a sword and a heavily-weaponised baby cart taking on multitudes of villains.

By the time of the apocalyptic snow-bound battle that concludes White Heaven In Hell, the series had effectively pioneered a whole new aesthetic of outrageous choreography and surreal stylised violence, later influencing the likes of John Woo and Quentin Tarantino, as well as countless other chanbara films. Paper partitions and tomb walls bleed, and blood bubbles from beneath sand and billows through water as endless hidden assailants attack from every conceivable angle. Across the six films, the editing of Toshio Taniguchi combines with the cinematography of Chikashi Makiura, Kazuo Miyagawa, and Fujio Morita to breathtakingly audacious effect, bringing the fearsome action to relentlessly grisly life (at one point even capturing the point-of-view of a freshly severed head). Tsuchitaro Hayashi and Toru Kurashima’s exaggerated use of sound effects and silence is also remarkable, with many fight sequences eerily quiet but for the slash of blades and the agonised moans of the vanquished.

As striking as the moments of violence are, it would be a mistake to dismiss the Lone Wolf and Cub films as simply mindless carnage. Kenji Misumi, director of four of the six instalments, always ensures that his entries balance their blood-letting with scenes of poetry and tenderness, even a sense of spirituality. The harshness of human society is deliberately contrasted with the abundant beauty of Japan’s countryside, with loving montages of scenery and animal life adding a lyrical, melancholy undertow to the brutality. Even in his reduced circumstances, Ogami honours his Buddhist faith and upholds his samurai principles, refusing to undertake assassinations without knowing his employer’s motivations, and subsequently visiting temples to pay his respects to his victims, as well as to commune with his deceased wife. In Baby Cart in the Land of Demons he even finds himself morally unable to strike down an abbot in mid-meditation, although he knows the holy man is really a corrupt servant of the Yagyu clan; Ogami lives by upholding his philosophy, even when others do not.

The bond between Ogami and Daigoro forms the profoundly felt but resolutely unsentimental heart of the stories. Ogami may be gruff and stern, dedicated to following “the demon way in hell” even if it costs both their lives, but Wakayama’s performance conveys a great, understated love for the child. Tomikawa’s Daigoro is winsome but never cloying, mixing moments of childish wonder at the natural beauty of the world with bleak resilience in the face of torture and death. Their terrible personal experiences and the painful loss of their respective wife and mother quietly but clearly affirms their bond and informs many of their more admirable and compassionate actions throughout the series.

Baby Cart in Peril (1972)

It is notable that the two films not directed by Misumi move his spiritual concerns into the realms of the outright supernatural. In Buichi Saito’s Baby Cart in Peril, assassins disguised as statues attack Ogami inside a Buddhist temple in a truly macabre set-piece, while “sorcerer” samurai Kozuka (Shin Kishida) appears to possess powers of illusion and hypnosis. Yoshiyuki Kuroda’s White Heaven in Hell takes this even further with its three undead warriors, revived by the dark magic of the mysterious Underground Spider clan. Ogami himself possesses almost supernaturally strong skills of swordsmanship and survival. At first glance, the middle-aged, bear-like Wakayama seems an unlikely action hero, physically very different to the lithe samurai of the Manga. Yet this only adds to the pleasure of seeing him turning the tables on those who underestimate him, suddenly moving with astounding grace, speed, and precision, his deadly talents utterly convincing despite the actor’s initially surprising size.

Such defensive skills seem the only way to stay alive in the merciless world of the series. Sword of Vengeance opens with the execution of a very young child on the Shogun’s orders, grimly demonstrating that nobody is safe (and establishing that Daigoro’s innocence will be no shield); young or old, samurai or civilian, there is no safe haven from destruction. Endless devoted guards are sacrificed by their leaders, with the Yagyu clan even killing their own men for mere training purposes. The defenceless peasants are at the mercy of both bandits and corrupt samurai, cut down without pity whether they resist or submit. Theft, murder, and rape are simply presented as horrifying facts of life in the Tokugawa era, and the vulnerable are rarely spared.

Given the brutal and largely patriarchal society depicted in the films, it is perhaps grimly inevitable that several disturbing scenes portray sexual violence against women (some of which arguably cross the line into the gratuitous). Despite this, the series does prominently feature several very strong female characters, who easily equal the males in physical and mental strength, as well as lethal skill. Lady Sayaka (Kayo Matsuo) in Baby Cart at the River Styx controls a legion of ruthlessly cunning female assassins who literally dismember their male counterpart, as well as being a formidable and intelligent opponent in her own right. Crucially, her decision to eventually let Ogami and Daigoro escape is not motivated by fear, weakness, or any hint of romance. The three are unwillingly forced into close quarters in order to survive, so her change of heart reflects a mutual debt of honour, rather than failure. Meanwhile, Torizo (Yuko Hama) leads the male Bohachi yakuza in Baby Cart to Hades. Her leadership is formidable, not least for her sense of fairness and loyalty. Despite her criminal status, she will not sacrifice her “precious boys” in pointless combat with Ogami (in stark contrast to most of the male-led clans) and honours her bargain with him to the letter. On a slightly different note, the female antagonist of Baby Cart in Peril is probably Ogami’s most sympathetic victim. He is hired to kill the mysterious, tattooed O-Yuki (Michi Azuma), who has been systematically killing samurai of the Owari clan. Motivated by a justified desire for revenge, O-Yuki is largely successful in her quest, thanks entirely to her own fearsome discipline and skill. Though she eventually falls to Ogami’s sword, he reverently burns her body in accordance with her final wishes, an unusually direct gesture of respect from the Lone Wolf.

Baby Cart to Hades (1972)

While the series celebrates the traditional Bushido samurai code, as embodied by Ogami, it does not shy away from criticising the hypocrisies and injustices of the conservative social order of the time. In Baby Cart to Hades, the fallen samurai Kanbei (Go Kato) kills two innocent women raped by his comrades rather than risk them disgracing his master by reporting the atrocious crimes of his men. Maintaining the appearance of honour is more important to the powerful than actually defending lives and justice, and social class is no guarantee of moral strength. The Owari Lord (Asao Koike) in Baby Cart in Peril is shown to be a pompous coward, happy to persecute social outcasts like the peaceful Gomune community but lost once Ogami takes him hostage. Similarly, Naritaka (Yoshi Kato), ruthless patriarch of the Kuroda clan in Baby Cart in the Land of Demons, is too afraid to commit seppuku when defeated, despite expecting others to die for him. In contrast, his outcast attendant Shiranui (Michiyo Yasuda) quietly kills herself once her quest for justice is complete, her bravery and loyalty far exceeding that of her Lord. At the other end of the social scale, O-Sen (Tomoko Mayama) in Sword of Vengeance shows far greater courage and compassion than those who sneer at her for her lowly standing as a prostitute. Of course, Ogami and Daigoro themselves are also outcasts, criminalised by the powerful and dismissed by the ignorant as beggars, while their outwardly respectable Yagyu nemeses are dishonest, cruel, and generally reprehensible.

A new adaptation of the Manga for Japanese television in 1973 sounded the death knell for the film series, with Wakayama declining to compete further, and frequent director Misumi feeling that the films had run their course. As the Manga continued until 1976, 1974’s White Heaven in Hell does not offer a conclusive ending to the saga, despite its foreboding tone of finality. While this may disappoint some viewers, it does allow the cinematic version of Ogami and Daigoro to continue forever in the imagination: archetypes on a never-ending quest, still pursued by their enemies, and eternally bonded by blood.