Are you familiar with the Shogun Assassin films that erupted out of Japan in the 1970s with a baby cart full of vengeance in store for anyone who would cross them? I discovered this series as an impressionable young geek who had just uncovered the joys of Netflix and ripped through the 6 film series with fervor. I just couldn’t believe the badassery, not to mention the audacity, on display here! But over the years I’ve learned that many a well-versed film geek have somehow managed to let this series elude them. I found them by chance, on a whim, and although it is a well-loved series amongst its fans, there are far too many who have yet to choose the sword and enter the world of Ogami Itto and Daigoro, the Lone Wolf And Cub.
Origins and Dueling Series’
You may have noticed that I referred to the series with two different titles, both Shogun Assassin and Lone Wolf and Cub. Let me unpack a little bit of that before I weigh in on the pros and cons of each of the series’ boxed sets.
For one thing, the movies are based on a popular manga series from the 1970s that were created by Kazuo Koike. American audiences are able to read the entire epic adventure through a series published by Dark Horse Comics in the early 200s.
Somewhat ahead of their time, the Lone Wolf and Cub films are some of the world’s best comic book adaptations! All six films were produced at an incredibly break-neck pace that is somewhat reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (all being shot together.) But between 1972 and 1974, 6 Lone Wolf and Cub films were shot, all starring Tomisaburo Wakayama as former Shogunate Executioner Ogami Itto and young Akihiro Tomikawa as Diagoro, Itto’s young son, occupier of the baby cart, and toughest child in film history.
It is this series of films which are known as the Lone Wolf and Cub series. The six titles are, in English:
- Sword of Vengeance
- Baby Cart At The River Styx
- Baby Cart To Hades
- Baby Cart In Peril
- Baby Cart In The Land of Demons
- White Heaven In Hell
In the early 1980s, a couple of American film producers secured the rights to the series for US distribution and created a somewhat new beast, which they titled Shogun Assassin. Shogun Assassin is made up almost entirely of footage from LW&C: Baby Cart At The River Styx. But Shogun Assassin also uses footage from the original LW&C film to set up the premise. Until this recent Blu-ray boxed set release of the Shogun Assassin series, I had only seen the LW&C films in that iteration.
There is a part of me which will forever be upset with Shogun Assassin because it breezes past the events of the first LW&C film so briskly as to deny that film it’s awesomeness. But Shogun Assassin redeems itself in two major ways. For one thing, the producers bridged the content gaps of editing two films into one by making Daigoro, the Cub, the narrator of Shogun Assassin. The haunting young voice of Daigoro adds a unique dimension to the film which makes it stand apart from the LW&C films from which it was cut. It is genuinely effective to hear Ogami Itto’s deeds praised by his stoic young son. Itto becomes a more distant and mythological figure even though he is the main character of the series.
But perhaps more importantly, the producers of Shogun Assassin commissioned a new, westernized, synthesized soundtrack which adds an incongruous, early-80s schlock factor to Shogun Assassin which I absolutely cherish. The music of Shogun Assassin elevates and updates the film, giving it a more modern feel and opening its doors up to Western audiences. I feel it was a mild stroke of genius on the part of the producers of Shogun Assassin to make these significant changes to the series.
Out of Shogun Assassin came a slightly different version of the series. All of the rest of the original LW&C films were eventually released, with varying degrees of successful dubbing. Daigoro’s voiceovers (which make the English dubbing on Shogun Assassin tolerable) are dispensed with, and we essentially get the original film series, only retitled.
The Shogun Assassin series are five in number and are titled, in English:
- Shogun Assassin
- Shogun Assassin 2: Lightning Swords of Death
- Shogun Assassin 3: Slashing Blades of Carnage
- Shogun Assassin 4: Five Fistfuls of Gold
- Shogun Assassin 5: Cold Road To Hell
Which Boxed Set To Own?
When I saw that AnimEigo was releasing a Blu-ray boxed set of the Shogun Assassin films, I was pretty elated. For one thing, I was ready to see Shogun Assassin for the very first time. I had watched the LW&C iteration of the series many times. But this would be my first exposure to the western cut. And I was also excited to upgrade to high definition for one of my favorite series!
However, the DVD boxed set that AnimEigo released many years back includes all 6 LW&C films, and features them in their original language with subtitles!
In the end, I’d still have to say that the original series of films, and the box set they can be purchased in from AnimEigo, are still the definitive set. I’m happy to own the Shogun Assassin Blu-rays, but there is no “White Heaven In Hell” that I will give up my DVD series. I simply love the Japanese series too much.
Ultimately, if you are a massive LW&C fan, I highly recommend owning both sets. But a very sensible alternative exists as well. There is a Blu-ray of JUST the original Shogun Assassin film, which is apparently identical to the first blu-ray in this set. Since the high definition scans of the Shogun Assassin sequels are average at best, and since the dubbing gets pretty spotty at times in each of the sequels, I would recommend picking up the DVD boxed set of the LW&C series, and also picking up the Blu-ray of just the original Shogun Assassin title. I’d say that is a best of all worlds scenario for fans right now, until AnimEigo unleashes a high definition, extras packed boxed set of the full, original language Lone Wolf and Cub films.
Regardless of the set you dive into, or how you experience the Lone Wolf And Cub films, there are some things that I can absolutely promise you. You will get to experience a grand adventure which I often compare to the Roger Moore James Bond films for their tone. Itto remains stoic and powerful throughout, but he will do ridiculous and historically incongruous things (like fire baby cart mahine guns) to keep your craven, blood-thirsty mind happy.
Lone Wolf And Cub will follow Ogami Itto as he sets out on the path of revenge. He will take on incredible missions of daring as an assassin, and he will fight enormous battles (against hundreds of opponents at a time) in each film. Daigoro will shock you with his bravery, maturity, and his willingness to take a life, even as a 2 year old. You will experience a baby cart that can only be compared to the Batmobile in its resilience and its armory.
And all throughout, the Shadow Yagyu clan will relentlessly persue our heroes and the extent of their conspiracy will be exposed. Women will be bedded, ninjas will be dispatched, battles will happen on snow skis, and 100s of gallons of movie blood will blow into a fine mist across your television screen. I’m telling you flat out, this series has to be seen to be believed.
Blood Relatives of Lone Wolf And Cub
If you do check out the films, or have been a fan for ages, I think it is important to note the various cinematic (and otherwise) relatives of Lone Wolf and Cub to check out as well.
GZA: Liquid Swords – This album, and all of the culture surrounding the Wu Tang, are heavily influenced by this series.
Kill Bill: Most of the time, if I need to explain to someone what the LW&C films are, I’ll say “Remember when Uma Thurman watches a movie with her daughter in Kill Bill 2? Yeah, that is Shogun Assassin”. Clearly we wouldn’t have the Kill Bill films if it weren’t for the insane rivers of blood which Shogun Assassin spills.
Road To Perdition: Itself a graphic novel which was turned into a feature film, Road To Perdition is pretty much a direct remake of the LW&C films set in an American, Irish Gangster world.
There were also some television show off shoots of the Lone Wolf and Cub series which I’ve never had the privilege to check out.
Did I miss anything?
Alright folks, I recommend that you choose the sword and walk the road between heave and hell with Ogami Itto and Daigoro. I can’t possibly imagine any self respecting action fan, or samurai aficionado, making it through this series without falling in love!
Out of a Possible 5 Stars