September 28, 2017
On Finales and Lone Wolf and Cub
Movies are somewhat different. Fewer of them have what could be called traditional finales. However, in this age of reboots and sequel/remakes, more and more of them are finales to the exploits and romances of versions of certain characters. Spider-Man has had two finales, and both of them have left many people dissatisfied. The finale of the first incarnation of James Bond was Die Another Day, hardly one of the more memorable Bond films and one that was clearly not designed as a finale, and other finales such as the last films in the Twilight and Hunger Games series have had financial success, while also not inspiring much in the way of positive word of mouth or excitement. It is as if people watched them out of a sense of obligation instead of genuine interest, and it’s uncertain whether these films will be rediscovered ten or fifteen years from now.
I recently watched the six films in the Lone Wolf and Cub series, which were released from 1972 – 1974, a period of time during which movies were generally growing darker in tone and much more graphic in their depiction of sex and violence. Now there has always been violence in movies, but things began changing in the 1960s. The Hayes Code was no longer enforced in Hollywood, televisions were in people’s living rooms, and there was a switch from black-and-white to color. This made onscreen violence more apparent. Audiences now saw the true color of blood whether they wanted to or not, and it is an open question whether the majority of moviegoers truly wanted to.
Perhaps logically then, Lone Wolf and Cub fully embraces violence. Its battle scenes are replete with blood gushing out after limb dismemberments, swords slicing skulls in half, skin being ripped apart, and eyes being pierced by thrown swords. It’s at first disturbing, and then, even more distressingly, rather passe. By the sixth film, I felt a sickening sense of déjà vu during much of the swordplay. The series is graphic in other ways, too. Rape is a frequent occurrence in the films, occasionally being the catalyst for one character’s pursuit of revenge or her adoptance of violence. Other times, it exists to show viewers who the villains are.
The protagonists at the heart of Lone Wolf and Cub are Itto Ogami and his son, Daigoro – a toddler in the first film and no more than five or six by the last – and it is the presence of the son and his acceptance of the violence that occurs around him that sets the series apart from so many other films of its genre. Instead of protecting his son the way that most characters would, Itto pushes Daigoro straight into the fight, putting him directly in the line of fire and even instructing him when to commit acts that result in death and severe disfigurement. It is a disturbing relationship, yet one that fascinates and continues to draw people to the series.
The series follows these two along two paths. The first path is a series of assassinations. To make a living, Itto is forced to become an assassin, and in each movie, he accepts an assignment and fulfills it – regardless of whether his victims are truly callous individuals or not. This is softened by many characters’ apparent willingness to die at the honorable hands of a true samurai. The film’s other path is the pursuit of vengeance. The first film establishes this motivation, and in each successive one, Itto comes in contact with someone from the family that destroyed his life. Interestingly, Itto does not appear to be directly seeking out revenge; rather, opportunity finds him. Most of the films begin with a fight again a member of the family hunting him, and then shift to the assassination before reaching their brutal and bloody climax.
Throughout the series, Itto consistently references his acceptance of his eventual death or descent to Hell. He also repeatedly explains that his son has accepted this path and its life-altering repercussions. One movie even begins with a swordsman being shocked that Daigoro’s eyes show no fear of death. Itto's other constant refrain is for revenge. It therefore stands to reason that for the series to conclude well a couple of things can happen. 1) Itto can finally get his revenge, but be fatally wounded in the process, leaving Daigoro to carry on without him. 2) Itto can get his revenge, yet live, and then pronounce to his son the end of their struggles and his hope that they can now return to the world honorably. 3) Itto is unsuccessful, yet Daigoro escapes. In this less rosy scenario, the film would end with him picking up his father’s sword and vowing to avenge him one day. Each of these scenarios would leave viewers with a sense of finality and gratification. The series would be over, and repeat viewings possible because of the wholeness of the story.
Lone Wolf and Cub takes a different approach. Starting around the fifth movie, the series begins to suffer. That movie strays from the revenge story line, so far in fact that when it returns to it, there is no time to advance it in any meaningful way. It is also the least involving and most convoluted of the films, and its comparison to a video game is not hyperbole. The sixth movie, the first one not based on a graphic novel, is a further flight from reality, for it includes both supernatural elements and head-scratching, manufactured family drama. Unfortunately, its climactic skirmish is also poorly executed. Instead of a one-on-one battle with Itto’s arch-nemesis, Retsuyo Yagyu, we get samurai on skis and the usual “one man versus a mob that cannot attack simultaneously.” I was a little tired of it by then.
However, it is the film’s final moments that left me most unsatisfied. In them, Lord Yagyu flees down the mountain to fight another day and Itto turns his attention to the fate of Daigoro, whose cart moments earlier crashed into a tree. For the first time in the entire series, Itto shows real concern for his son’s well-being, and when he finds him dazed, but safe, he seems to fighting back quite a poignant display of emotions. See, the film seems to be telling us, he cared about his son all along. It is a touching moment, and I suspect it will please most viewers. However, it is also a betrayal of two of the series’ key themes: the acceptance of death and the fearless thrust toward it. It’s practically an apology for all of the scenes from previous movies in which Daigoro was depicted as expendable.
I get it, though. The series had run its course. It had run out of source material; Kazuo Koike, the writer of the graphic novel the series is based on, had not written a new screenplay yet; and its director had misgivings about the direction of the series. However, this being the film industry, there was no reason to think the future wouldn't be different. After all, writers eventually write, stars can regain their passion for roles, and directors often feel re-invigorated by the loud, enthusiastic responses of zealous fans crying out for more. Sequels, therefore, were still possible, so it just didn’t make sense to kill off either the villain or the hero. Yet in my mind, without a proper ending, the series suffers. It is akin to a series finale that was intended as a season finale, in other words, to be the force that brings fans back to their TV screens, not the one that allows them to say good-bye. And it will always be this way. It is similar to the way many fans felt after the first “series finale” of Twin Peaks or after the last Zatoichi film. Both of these series were eventually returned to, and I suspect that is part of the reason for their prolonged popularity. As for Lone Wolf and Cub, I’d have a hard time sitting down to watch the series again. Sure, some parts of it are truly amazing, yet in the end, those moments of astonishment may not be enough. After all, I know what’s coming - and, perhaps more importantly, what’s not.