If you love extreme violence and blood, all wrapped up in a multi-film franchise like John Wick then I have just the series for you. The Lone Wolf and Cub movies are adaptations of a long-running manga series from the 1970s. The story follows the day-to-day existence of the wandering Ronin named Ogami Itto and his son, Daigoro.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance
The first film sets up the origin story. Itto used to be the head executioner for the Shogun in feudal Japan. This was a politically powerful position at the time. I won’t even attempt to pretend to explain the intricacies of ancient Japanese politics and culture. It doesn’t matter. You don’t have to grasp them to enjoy these films.
Itto is set up by a rival clan that wants to take his spot. He is framed and made to look like he wants to kill the Shogun. His wife is killed and he is turned out and run off by the real culprits, headed up by a real bastard named Retsudo.
After a duel with one of Retsudo’s sons, Itto is allowed to take his son and become a Ronin. Once on the road, Itto becomes an assassin for hire in between caring for his toddler son with a baby carriage that is more like an armory on wheels. All the time, he is hounded every day by men sent by Retsudo to kill them.
The first film sets up the tone of the rest of the series. Itto and his son wander the countryside until being hired for a hit, while Itto also contends with Retsudo’s thugs.
The main story arc is Itto’s long-term revenge plan against Retsudo. The hired killer missions are secondary stories to show Itto’s abilities and intelligence.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx
The second movie in the series sees Itto, with his now 3-year-old son, being hired to take out a lower-level official who has stolen some secrets to making dye from local merchants.
Meanwhile, Retsudo has sent a clan of female ninjas after Itto. He slashes and stabs and cuts the women up with about as much concern as he would show a cloudy day. In the end, he finishes his job. He kills the official and a small army. The leader of the female ninja clan is completely defeated, mentally, after seeing Itto slaughter her entire group and about fifty samurai bodyguards.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades
We continue with the slaughter in this next installment. As usual, Itto has to kill everyone sent against him, just like every other day.
He arrives at an inn and protects a girl who killed a man while defending herself from being raped. There is a lot of rape in these movies. He takes her punishment on her behalf to save her from a life of prostitution. Itto is then hired by the locals to take out the governor who had sold out their clan to raise his own status.
The climax of the film is a battle where Itto kills at least two hundred guys using swords spears, guns, bombs, and everything short of a nuke I guess. It is a glorious symphony of violence, highly pressurized blood spray, and severed limbs.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril
This fourth installment progresses the main plot more than the last few entries. Itto is after a female assassin with distinctive tattoos on her breasts. She uses these as a distraction for her victims.
In the meantime, Itto has a duel with another one of the sons of Retsudo and hacks off his arm. Itto tracks down the female killer. He, of course, slices and dices her up honorably.
The local Lord is being leveraged by Retsudo, so Itto takes him as hostage to aid his escape from the castle compound. He arrives on an open field with the Lord, where he is ambushed by Retsudo and a small army. In the melee the Lord is killed.
Itto goes for his last stand. He kills everyone in the army and blinds Retsudo in one eye before he makes his escape. A badly wounded Itto then sets out on the road again with his son.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons
This one is my favorite of the series. Itto has to kill a priest who is delivering a secret letter to the Shogun. He initiates an awesome attack while the priest and his guards are crossing a river. As a side quest, he agrees to a hit that sees him cutting his way through an entire compound, then killing a lord, his mistress, and their toddler daughter.
After this badassery, he just walks off with his normal 1,000 yard stare. Very cool.
Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell
The last entry in the series. In installment we see Itto waste the rest of Retsudo’s family. It’s a short film without any assassin side story.
Itto and his boy are chased to a snowy mountain where he confronts at least a hundred of Retsudo’s men. He uses all his tricks and weapons. At the end of a raging battle all over the mountain, in his final fighting position, I counted at least 37 bodies laying around him.
The entire movie is one death after another. Even poor bystanders are wasted just for talking to Itto and his boy.
We, and Itto, are denied a final victory because the manga series was yet to end.
I add this one to the list because it is the film that introduced me to this set of stories. Released in the US, it is an edited mash-up of some of the first movie with most of the second film.
Narration was added to have Diagoro telling the story, which has been altered with dialog. It is still extremely entertaining, and has a sweet synth soundtrack reflecting its 1980 release. I love it, even though it’s not actually part of the film series continuity.
These movies are great. They are never dull, they keep you entertained throughout. The violence is superb and the bloodshed is even better. Trademark blood sprays all over the place as if from a firehose. Itto uses damn near weapon known to man to kill men, women and children. He easily has double the body count of John Wick, yet he does all the killing with the serenity of a Buddhist monk.
He isn’t invincible, he has just accepted he is going to die on his revenge quest.
Well done Japanese action films can tick all the right boxes for me. Hyper-violence, killing, exploitation movie levels of rape, blood, guts, and beheading. Guns, swords, knives, nudity, dismemberment, and eye gouging. All driven by a cool protagonist that isn’t an emotional candyass. They are superb. My highest recommendation.