How does a series about a chubby, ugly guy pushing a stroller become an action classic meriting a deluxe home-video release 25 years after its initial release? Simple. By being wildly imaginative and outrageous, visually stunning, and brutally deadpan. The intial entries in this film
series made their official US debut on home video in 1997.
Wandering ronin Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is a Shogun's "second," or official decapitator. Coveting his job, minions of the evil Yagyu clan--headed by the wicked lord Gisen, known as Retsudo--killed Ogami's wife and framed him for disloyalty to the Shogunate. Slaughtering the minions in a
duel, Ogami set out with his infant son in a wooden cart, offering his services as executioner for 500 pieces of gold.
Two years later, Ogami is hired to eliminate a band of ronin plotting to assassinate a visiting lord. Pushing the carriage carrying his young son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa), Ogami pretends to be a passing traveller, stoically entering the beseiged hot springs where the assassins have gathered,
refusing to be goaded or provoked into action even when a woman is raped and killed in front of him. Later, when the assassins are preparing to kill the assembled travellers, he pulls various hidden blades from the wooden cart and bloodily dispatches the villains.
The star of this film (and its many sequels), Tomisaburo Wakayama, had in his early years been a judo teacher as well as a Kabuki performer in a troupe with his father and younger brother, Katsu Shintaro--who went on to fame with the ZATOICHI film series (which lasted from 1962 to 1989). In the
midst of his own prolific film career, Wakayama brought to his brother's production company the epic Kozure Ookami (literally "Lone Wolf with Child") manga written by Kazuo Koike and illustrated by Goseki Kojima. Published in weekly serial form between 1970 and 1976, the phenomenally popular
series ran to thousands of pages and went on to sell in the hundreds of millions worldwide. Katsu bought the rights, enlisting one-man industry Koike (also writer of the successful Golgo 13 and Crying Freeman manga) to script adaptations of his stories for the screen and Misumi Kenji, helmer of
the first ZATOICHI film, to direct.
Together they crafted a gem. Dour Wakayama is perfect as the demonic Ogami, eternally pushing his stroller down a road left littered with corpses. The James Bond of feudal Japan, he is cool, prescient, and possessed of an arsenal of hidden weaponry. He's also enigmatic: after watching unperturbed
while one innocent woman is raped and then killed along with her father, Ogami shames his samurai heritage by sleeping with a common prostitute while the assassins watch, in order to prevent her from killing herself.
Filled with clever gimmicks and classic moments (baby Daigoro given the choice between a ball and sword, determining if he is to die with his mother or live in exile with his father; assassin leader Kanbei's sudden look of shock and fear when a random word clues him in to Ogami's identity), the
series is beautifully crafted, down to its explicit ballets of violence. Blood sprays, spurts, and splatters; a character dies spitting crimson on the camera lens; severed limbs tumble like leaves. With a terrific distorted guitar theme and creative use of sound and silence (rain in the flashbacks
beats down, relentless but unheard), SWORD OF VENGEANCE is a rare film that succeeds as lowbrow visceral entertainment, or as high-concept art. (Graphic violence, extensive nudity, sexual situations, profanity.)
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- Released: 1972
- Rating: NR
- Review: How does a series about a chubby, ugly guy pushing a stroller become an action classic meriting a deluxe home-video release 25 years after its initial release? Simple. By being wildly imaginative and outrageous, visually stunning, and brutally deadpan. The… (more)