It's the first Lone Wolf and Cub movie, adapting the highly regarded (and violent) manga. Unfortunately it's a samurai film, but the important thing is that it's from the 1970s, when Japanese cinema threw off all restraints (e.g. sex, violence, taste).
I thought it was decent enough, if you like that kind of thing.
The manga's by writer Kazuo Koike (who also wrote this screenplay) and artist Goseki Kojima. It's been adapted into lots of films, four stage plays and a TV series, while Dark Horse recently completed an English translation of all 28 volumes and 8700+ pages. Apparently this film series is impressively faithful to the manga, incidentally, with panels recreated in live-action in perfect detail. It's about Ogami Itto, the shogun's official executioner, who one day finds himself betrayed and his wife and household murdered by the Shadow Yagyu clan. Ordered to commit seppuku, instead he goes on the road as an assassin. He'll kill anyone for money, although his long-term goal is to wipe out the Shadow Yagyu. This manga became wildly popular, selling eight million copies in Japan, thanks to its powerful story, historical accuracy and brutal portrayal of the violence of Edo-era Japan.
The twist is that Ogami does all this while pushing along his three-year-old son in a pram. What's interesting about Lone Wolf and Cub, I think, is that its creators half-agree with me about samurai. Where I go further is in being bored by them. Ogami Itto has as much personality as any other stoic, emotionless samurai, i.e. none. However if you find yourself getting a bit disturbed by what we see in this film, that's the point. It's not a celebration of macho killers. On the contrary, this story is showing the bushido world and its ethos in an unflattering light.
The first thing we see is a toddler's execution. He's the surviving lord of his clan, you see, so by Edo-era standards there's nothing particularly abnormal about having him put to death. This infant gets led into a room and sits down in the approved seppuku fashion and you'll be thinking, "No no no no no no." Good news, though! They're not going to make this three-year-old cut open his own stomach! Good old Ogami Itto steps up behind him, raises his sword and brings it down. As the opening to a series about Ogami travelling Japan with his own young son (of a similar age), that's making quite a statement.
We then get a slightly confusing narrative that jumps back and forth in time. Sometimes Ogami is pushing around a three-year-old in a pram and taking assassin jobs. (His price is per job rather than per victim, since he's so confident in his abilities that he doesn't care how many targets he'll have to whack once he's there.) Sometimes, though, we see Ogami with his wife and son, at that point still only one year old. Hint: this isn't going to end well. Don't get too attached to the wife. I presume Ogami loves his son, since he's going to spend 8700+ pages bringing up the boy single-handedly, but he's hardly a lovable character and some of his parental attitudes will make you blink. He wonders if it might be kinder to kill his son, for instance. There's a scene with a sword, a ball and a life-or-death choice being offered to an infant who can't even walk, let alone understand what's being said to him. If the boy "chooses" the ball (presumably by touching it first), then daddy will be a good daddy and kill him. (I must try that at home. Here, Natsuki, look at this razor-sharp sword I've stuck into the floor in front of you. Would you like to reach out and touch it?)
The really creepy thing, though, is that it's tempting to conclude by the end of the film that the boy chose wrong. He's going to grow up some kind of freak, isn't he? He'll have the education of a garden snail and the morals of a wolf. The finale involves mega-swordplay and daddy painting the ground red, as of course was inevitable, but this boy's been watching it all from his hand cart.
Scenes with children can be understood by anyone. However the film's doing other levels of deliberate dishonour that won't be followed without some awareness of Japanese culture. There are cowards who humiliate themselves in their desire not to die. Ogami ignores a command to commit seppuku and instead chooses to become, as he calls it, a "demon". Later he visits a bathhouse run by outrageously vile bandits and doesn't lift a finger against them, ignoring every outrage because his four targets haven't arrived yet and he doesn't care about anything else. They challenge him to a duel. They hit him. They laugh at him. They perpetrate a scene of extreme political incorrectness, involving a whore. (This is more twisted than the rape and murder we saw them committing earlier, for recreational purposes.)
It's not an out-and-out hatchet job on bushido, mind you. Everyone respects the shogun, for instance. Nonetheless it's clearly a violent deconstruction of glorification of Japan's samurai past, with a hero who's a samurai to his fingertips and yet also a child-endangering killer who's going out of his way to abandon all decency (both by sane standards and by those of his period). I said that he doesn't have a personality. He doesn't. You'd get better conversation from a family pet. He's also played by Tomisaburo Wakayama, who has a face like a toad. Nonetheless, he's interesting because of his actions, which are extreme.
It's a 1970s film, of course, which means it's going so far that it verges on exploitation cinema. I love the seventies. There's plenty of nudity. The violence gets gorier as the film goes on, until by the end I was laughing out loud as body parts get severed. (That's a compliment. It's the kind of laughter that hits when you're watching something going further than you'd expected.) Someone vomits blood on the camera. The whole point is that this is unsuitable for children, although in fairness Ogami's son is shown to be sleeping during the sexual content even though he cheerfully watches the bloodshed.
The only bit that doesn't work is Yunosuke Ito as Ogami's mortal enemy, Yagyu Retsudo. We're told in dialogue that he's 64. The actor looks to be in his twenties, but badly aged up by covering him in shaggy (blond) hair.
To be honest, I wasn't that enthralled by the first half. I didn't care about either Ogami or the Shadow Yagyu. They're sinister, dull tossers, i.e. samurai. The Shadow Yagyu in particular have arranged that bloodbath because they covet Ogami's position as the shogun's official executioner. How lame is that? I presume we're meant to think it's pathetic, but personally I found it so childish that I couldn't take any interest in them. Presumably after achieving that, they'd been planning to throw their toys out of the pram and scream for mummy. However the bandits in the second half are so disgusting that I was watching eagerly to see them meet their makers.
Warning: despite the movie's title, we don't see Ogami taking his final vengeance. This isn't his entire story, but merely the beginning of it and an episode in his subsequent career as a sword for hire.
If you like samurai films, this is the start of a famous series. I like its attitude to the historical period. I like its 1970s-ness. It's unflinching and extreme in that seventies way, not self-consciously but simply because cinema around the world seemed to go hard and out of control in that decade. It's nowhere near as powerful as Pinky Violence, but by the same token it's also more fit to show in civilised company. There's no avoiding the fact that it has samurai in it, but it also has more interesting people who aren't (bandits, whores, etc.) I thought it was okay. I enjoyed the second half. I'll be continuing with the series.
"If you choose the ball, I'll send you to meet your mother."