At last the Lone Wolf and Cub series becomes excellent. I really liked it. The first two had spectacular violence, but here we have a strong character-based story.
Tomisaburo Wakayama is once again the invincible assassin, Ogami Itto, while Akihiro Tomikawa is once again his tiny son Daigoro. We're shown very early that Wakayama can slaughter enemies so fast that you hardly see his sword leave the scabbard. Some ninja are trying to kill him. (They're presumably Yagyuu, who otherwise don't fight him in this film.) So far, so action-packed... but of course action isn't actually that interesting.
What this film does is to show that the dramatic decision is often not to kill. More than once, Wakayama declines the easy option of killing everyone in a blood-soaked massacre, which he could very easily do and indeed does routinely for money. He doesn't. He's a man of honour. He believes in bushido and follows it fiercely. This turns him into a fascinating character, but at the same time, the story's asking some hard, brutal questions of bushido itself. What does it mean to live by the Way of the Warrior? Is it simply a good thing? I can't accept that this film is simply a condemnation of the code, since it portrays our hero (and also the ronin Kanbei) as almost spiritual in their honour and capable of doing great good as a result of their beliefs. Compare them with Kanbei's rapist watari-kashi comrades, for instance.
However they'll also creep you the hell out.
1. Kanbei's loyalty to his comrades causes him to kill three innocent witnesses (two of whom had just been gang-raped), then make his comrades draw straws to decide who he'll kill right now as a scapegoat.
2. Wakayama is so impressed by Kanbei's honour that he declines a request for a duel. "You are a true warrior, one I hope will live on."
3. This doesn't make Kanbei happy. "Once again, I have lost a chance to die." You'd think he'd commit seppuku, but I presume he wanted something even more macho. Seppuku was of course regarded as a beautiful and noble act, instead of a way of ridding the planet of annoying losers. (Well, unless their lord had ordered them to kill themselves, in which case the victim had no choice.) Opening your belly also had nothing to do with earning God Points in the afterlife, by the way. Some samurai believed that it did, but others admitted that murder was incompatible with going to heaven, especially in Buddhism. On the contrary, a common motif in Japanese art and literature is that of a noble warrior suffering in hell.
4. Eventually we hear how Kanbei lost his samurai status. He was in a battle and his duty was to stay with his master. He didn't. He saw a chance to attack the enemy. If he'd hadn't, the battle would have been lost. Instead the battle was won... but he'd broken the code, so he was dishonoured and expelled. (Bushido is stupid.)
5. The film's second half is given over to an assassination job involving two servants of a man killed by Wakayama when he was the shogun's official executioner. A lord was a pathetic, cringing, homicidal psycho who'd gone on a killing spree. One servant notified the authorities, for personal gain. This is supposedly terrible and disgraceful. The other servant did the, um, right thing, i.e. assisted in a forced seppuku. This makes him a good man.
This is horrendous and clearly the writer putting the boot into romantic bushido ideals in a big way. However everything else about the historical era is being depicted as equally horrendous.
Nothing's as bad as the rapes. Now it has to be said that Japanese cinema and rape have a disturbing relationship. I recently learned of a light-hearted superhero series called Rapeman, in which the hero runs a Rape Agency and hires himself out to anyone who thinks a woman needs teaching a lesson. ("Righting wrongs with penetration.") No, I'm not joking. Lone Wolf and Cub is a bit of a rapey series, but the good news is that this is never anything but horrifying. Kanbei's colleagues are monsters. Then, later, Wakayama makes himself the defender of a girl who killed a would-be rapist who'd bought her and was going to force her into prostitution. You might think that a normal thing to do, but this is the Lone Wolf we're talking about. He's a block of wood. He has the emotional range of a piranha. He'd happily kill every man, woman and child in Japan before breakfast.
Nonetheless, the things he goes through to protect this girl are staggering. (This is another example of the "choosing not to kill people" drama I was talking about.) He says it's because of her memorial tablet, but even so. Whoah. Does he even know her name? Afterwards he just sends her walking away and thinks no more about it.
I get something from Lone Wolf that reminds me of The Sopranos. When someone killed, maimed or mutilated someone in the latter, Tony Soprano wouldn't think twice about forgiving them. It was as if violence didn't register with him as something to care about. Lone Wolf's the same. Killed a rapist? Butchered three innocents? Normal day-to-day behaviour, surely?
No, on second thoughts it's not just Lone Wolf. It's this whole society.
He's still a fascinating character, though. Look at his refusal of a job from his current target, even though it's for double the money and against a target he'd personally want dead anyway. He also doesn't attack when he's been invited in. "I'll return at a later date."
This makes for a shocking story. It has bad people and their rigid codes of honour. One's a ronin. Another's a female yakuza. The latter in particular ends up as almost a sympathetic character, yet her idea of honour includes organised crime and forcing girls into prostitution. Rigid codes destroy people. It's a ghastly, medieval world in which people are either wolves or victims. Twins are supposedly evil (eh?), which is partly why Yuko Hamada's sister ended up being raped to obtain secrets, after which she committed suicide. It's lacerating the samurai code. It avoids the series's formulaic elements (i.e. Yagyuu seeking revenge on Wakayama), because that wouldn't be as dramatically significant as what it's actually doing. It's not merely an ultra-violent action movie, although it has that too (e.g. cool gun business, funky ninja and a terrific decapitation). And when Lone Wolf does eventually let rip at the finale... wow. His choices not to fight are fascinating, but the fights he picks are terrifying.
Far more interesting than you'd expect. I was surprised and impressed.
"I bought you. You belong to me."