“Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance” – A.J. Hakari

Contrary to popular belief, not all samurai films are steeped in seriousness. Some take on the genre from the inside-out, staying true to their roots while incorporating their own funky twists. Case in point: the Lone Wolf and Cub series. While not as outright outrageous as the Hanzo the Razor trilogy, these films nevertheless presented a more off-kilter samurai experience than audiences were used to. With as many artistic flourishes as over-the-top violence, the franchise knew when to keep a straight face and when to show viewers a bloody good time — a philosophy that inaugural film Sword of Vengeance represents to a tee.

Set in the midst of the Tokugawa Era, Sword of Vengeance focuses on a stoic soul by the name of Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama). Despite serving as personal executioner for the Shogunate, a job that requires him to kill without mercy, Ogami remains a dedicated husband and doting father to infant son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa). But all of that changes when the rival Yagyu clan sets its sights on our man’s post, setting into a motion a plan that leaves his wife dead and himself branded a traitor. Disillusioned with the Shogunate, Ogami swears to live the rest of his days as a “demon,” drifting throughout the land with Daigoro in tow and selling his swordfighting skills as an assassin. But the more evil he witnesses during his travels, the more Ogami becomes instilled with a newfound sense of justice, using his deadly talents to fight on behalf of those too weak to stand up for themselves.

When you think about it, Sword of Vengeance is a lot like an average superhero movie. It’s a textbook origin story, detailing Ogami’s transformation from family man to killer for hire. This comes as no surprise, for the entire franchise is based on a manga series that ran throughout the ’70s. But just as recent blockbusters like The Dark Knight and Iron Man were more than mere comic book adventures, Sword of Vengeance boasts more substance than you’d expect. Though the graphic violence might indicate otherwise, this tale is as much of a character study as it is a slice-and-dice action movie. Marking the beginning of a true legacy, it endows the lead character with significant dramatic weight. As opposed to someone like Zatoichi, whose escapades can be viewed in any random order, you have to follow Ogami’s journey from the very beginning. It’s a tragic story that simultaneously highlights the flaws of a social system which allows such treachery to go by unpunished.

That being said, Sword of Vengeance is as bloody a slice of swordplay as you’re likely to come across. Effective as the drama is here, none of it would work without the over-the-top violence to lighten the atmosphere and maintain somewhat of a comic book mentality. The effects are a tad crude, but they don’t detract from the sheer shock of seeing geysers of blood shoot into the air and limbs sliced through like warm butter. With sound effects limited almost solely to swords clashing and blades slashing through opponents, director Kenji Misumi enhances the power of such sequences, rendering them more artistic than exploitative. In a way, they highlight Ogami’s single-minded dedication to the sword in the wake of his wife’s murder, though Wakayama does an even better job of accomplishing the same thing with his own performance. While not exactly in prime physical condition, Wakayama has no problem convincing us of his skills with a sword, as well as how much the world is weighing him down.

In terms of plotting, Sword of Vengeance lacks the quality of its other elements. The characters have a tendency to spout out long-winded speeches, and Ogami’s enlistment in a political coup feels too awkwardly shoehorned into the proceedings. Still, Sword of Vengeance is a rousing and engaging picture that succeeds on two fronts, both as a burly samurai opus and as the first chapter of a saga I’m more than eager to dive into.

Rating: ★★★☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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