Cast & Crew
Ogami Itto and Daigoro face off against the Yagyu clan in the snowy mountains of northern Japan.
Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell
Shot in rapid succession, the film series began in 1972 with a trio of films helmed by Kenji Misumi: Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (the primary source for Shogun Assassin) and Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades, which was circulated in English-dubbed form as Lightning Swords of Death. Misumi returned for the fifth film, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973), but other directors were handed the remaining two titles: film four, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (1972) by Buichi Saitô, and this film, directed by Yoshiyuki Kuroda. A journeyman with a career that lasted less than two decades, Kuroda had proven an affinity for flamboyant material with his second film, the frequently eye-popping Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare (1968), and tackled multiple episodes of the single-season fantasy TV series, Mirrorman. His one Lone Wolf and Cub film would prove to be his final theatrical feature, after which he moved exclusively over to television until the early 1980s.
As with the previous entries, Ogami is played by actor Tomisaburô Wakayama, a noted martial artist who rocketed to fame as the stoic, sword-swinging Lone Wolf. While previous samurai films had emphasized balletic grace and historical detail, these film proved to be a huge break from tradition and commercial successes by placing the action all over frequently unseen areas of Japan with an emphasis on flamboyant bloodletting and the grim social restrictions of the time that turned our antihero into a refugee seeking revenge. Wakayama had been acting since the mid-1950s, often in very minor roles, including appearances in multiple Zatoichi films and a variety of ghost stories. Incredibly, he managed to turn out a total of 16 features over the two-year course when he made the Lone Wolf and Cub cycle along with a five-part TV miniseries, Mute Samurai (1973). Afterwards his career flourished domestically, and he was even recruited to appear in two Hollywood productions, The Bad News Bears Go to Japan (1978) and Ridley Scott's Black Rain (1989).
While the preceding films had often pitted Ogami against his adversaries in such settings as a green countryside and an arid desert, this film changes the template significantly by focusing on snowbound locations with a mountain clan sent after our father and son death squad. Shooting on snowy mountainsides proved to be the most arduous decision of the entire series with both Wakayama and young Akihiro Tomikawa, who played Daigoro in all six films (his only credits), put through chilling physical challenges for their trudging scenes through the tundra. The wild finale featuring a fleet of samurais on skis painting the snow with plasma turned out to be a major series highlight, escalating the already gruesome excesses of the snow action scenes in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) to new baroque heights. Though this marked the end of the road for the duo in theaters, the popularity of Lone Wolf and Cub endured through a two-year series for Japanese television, multiple international reprints of the manga after its conclusion, and a video game. In addition, it has been referenced numerous times in American cinema including prominent placement in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004) and the overt inspiration for Max Allan Collins' comic book crime series that would be adapted as the Sam Mendes film, Road to Perdition (2002), with Tom Hanks essentially swapping out Ogami's sword for a Tommy gun.
By Nathaniel Thompson
Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell
Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell
As in the six earlier episodes, the show is a relentlessly gory cavalcade of ambushes and over-the-top sword battles; our fierce hero with the guttural voice dispatches opponents by the dozen, frequently splitting them in two and opening up exaggerated fountains of gushing crimson. The bloodletting of Kill Bill Vol. 1 is nothing compared to the outrageousness of these Sword of Vengeance slice 'n dice epics.
Synopsis: Frustrated at the failure of his sons and daughters (along with armies of retainers) to destroy the vengeful Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and his toddler son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa), the evil head of the Yagyu clan Retsudo (Minoru Ohki) dispatches his last relatives to the struggle. Daughter Kaori (Junko Hitomi) has mastered a complicated fighting style involving dagger juggling. Illegitimate son Hyouei (Isao Kimura) is now the leader of a tribe of supernatural zombies who can slip underneath the earth to find their victims. He marshals his forces to defeat Ogami Itto, but refuses to do so in the name of his father.
The title White Heaven in Hell reflects this episode's largely snowbound setting, which creates some interesting situations while putting a crimp on Ogami Itto's signature cut-ups. The novelty of seeing ski-mounted samurai in massed attack and Ogami's baby cart transformed into a toboggan isn't particularly rewarding, and it looks as though the difficulties of shooting in snowscapes forced the battle scenes to be simplified. Once a patch of snow has been stepped in, there's no opportunity for a take two, and the consistently dazzling fight choreography of some of the earlier films here gives way to less distinctive fighting. The blank white snow doesn't lend itself to either combat (ever try to do anything graceful in snowshoes?) or interesting compositions.
Director Yoshiyuki Kuroda has a more generic style that lacks the impact of the initial episodes of Kenji Misumi, or the perverse beauty of Buichi Saito's episode IV, Lone Wolf and Cub in Peril. Besides the intense concentration on the slicing of human bodies, the first installments made better use of the baby Daigoro in the carnage. Part of the giddy weirdness was to see a tot scarcely big enough to stand on his own taking part in the formalized mayhem and Spaghetti western set-piece showdowns. The scarce sex in the films often relied on intimate moments of Daigoro doing things like playing with a nipple in huge close-up, not exactly MPAA material.
White Heaven in Hell has its moments of aesthetic harmony but comes across as a weaker effort that signaled it was time to bring the series to a close. There were brief supernatural elements before, but this episode devotes a lot of screen time to a complicated cult of undead warriors living like forest spirits up in the wild. Like one of the better Japanese ghost stories, their magic is conveyed through effective double exposures and simple physical tricks. They start burrowing in twos and threes and then simply slip underground to apparently swim through the earth like ghostly snakes. But they are no more formidable than Ogami's usual adversaries, tumbling like tenpins before his sword or the machine-gun in his baby cart. Fans will be disappointed if they expect a showdown to top previous showdowns.
Similarly, Junko Hitomi's careful knife-juggling gimmick is easily defeated by Ogami Itto, and Hyouei's rape of his sister to produce a future Yagyu warrior doesn't add up to much beyond providing some commercial nudity. In White Heaven in Hell, the anarchic Sword of Vengeance series finally became tame.
AnimEigo's DVD of White Heaven in Hell looks beautiful. With the other five episodes it represents the first satisfactory home video presentation of a fascinatingly violent series. The picture is sharp and clean and the eclectic music track (sometimes affecting the funky feel of a blaxploitation thriller) is bright and clear.
AnimEigo's loving attention to Japanese movies is evident in the presentation's details. The carefully worded English subtitles are sometimes augmented with helpful definitions of obscure shogunate terms. A lengthy text extra addresses the intricacies of Japanese translation, including humorous explanations of Japanese modes of address and how they're typically used in the movies. In addition to the samurai thrills, we get a deeper understanding of a different culture's pop mythmaking.
For more information about Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell, visit Koch Vision. To order Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson