Criterion Crash Course: Moviemaking Lessons From Criterion’s Lone Wolf and Cub

Whether you’re a moviemaker, critic or devoted film collector, lovers of cinema can all agree: A Criterion Collection release is a stamp of cultural importance.

How can the arthouse distributor’s releases be used as tools to help independents hone their craft? Criterion Crash Course, our series focusing on new Criterion titles, considers every aspect of Blu-ray/DVD packages, from the film itself to its special features, as weapons in a moviemaking arsenal. Explore the moviemaking lessons from these packages—gifts that keep on giving.


Lone Wolf and CubSword of Vengeance (1972), Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972), Baby Cart to Hades (1972), Baby Cart in Peril (1972), Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973) and White Heaven in Hell (1974)

By the beginning of the 1970s, two important things happened that would forever reshape Japanese samurai cinema. The first: The chanbara (sword-fighting films), led in part by Akira Kurosawa, were beginning to grow into more modern sensibilities. The second: the release of writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub, a particularly bloody manga that would go on to sell millions of copies in Japan and prove to be a key source of inspiration for actor-turned-producer Shintaro Katsu’s new production company, Katsu Productions.

With major studios like Nikkatsu focusing on youth-driven cinema like the Stray Cat Rock films, the old chanbara style, which featured little death and blood, was beginning to appear outdated. Katsu and director Kenji Misumi were growing weary working for studios that weren’t pushing boundaries, and when Daiei Film closed their productions down in 1971, their response was to change things up in a big way. Katsu launched his own studio—Katsu Productions—and set his sights on making the kind of films he found himself unable to make as an actor working for Daiei Film, who produced films like Rashomon and the Zatoichi series.

Pegging Misumi to adapt the Lone Wolf and Cub series and hiring skilled swordsman and actor Tomisaburo Wakayama for the titular role, Katsu Productions’ six-part saga ran from 1972 until its final installment, Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell, was released in 1974. The film’s father-son adventures briefly resurfaced for English-speaking audiences in 1980 with the re-edit and dub of the first two films as Shogun Assassin.

Now released as a six-film, three-disc set featuring a brand new 2K restoration for each film—as well as a high-definition presentation of the Shogun Assassin cut—Lone Wolf and Cub can be appreciated in the manner it deserves. Somewhat marred by the inaccessibility of many principal members of the production, The Criterion Collection have still managed to wrangle a bevy of special features, including exclusive interviews, archival documentaries and behind-the-scenes featurettes and an illustrated booklet featuring essays and synopses by Japanese pop culture critic Patrick Macias.

Lessons in Carving Your Own Path

Though sparse in narrative development, the Lone Wolf and Cub series follows executioner Ogami Ittō’s (Lone Wolf) in his long, drawn out saga to enact vengeance on the Yagyu Clan, who have murdered his wife and (unsuccessfully) left his son, Daigoro (Cub, played by Akihiro Tomikawa), to die. The father-son duo then sets off to earn money as assassins in feudal Japan in what is ostensibly a series of fight scenes loosely connected vis-a-vis a revenge narrative, with hyper-stylized violence and masterful moviemaking keeping the series captivating throughout. Though all six films are heavily rooted in the genre tradition, it will come as little surprise that The Criterion Collection have set their sights on the films, as they represent among the best the genre has to offer and elevate bloodletting to a level of artistry.

Sharing directorial duties with Buichi Saito, who directed the third installment, and Yoshiyuki Kuroda, who stepped in for the final feature, Misumi set the style and tone for the Lone Wolf and Cub series, filling each frame with projectile blood splatter, severed limbs, frenetic editing and camera work, stunning sets and colorful costuming. Though period-set, the films appealed to their era’s modernist penchant for violence and experimentation, and have since—along with its contemporary works like Lady Snowblood or The Blind Woman’s Curse—gone on to heavily influence directors like Quentin Tarantino.

One thing that becomes increasingly clear in the box set’s 2005 archival documentary, L’âme d’un pèrf, l’âme d’un sabre, is that the major players in the Lone Wolf and Cub series were driven together out of their shared disinterest in continuing to work within the Japanese studio system in its existing form. At the time, most Japanese studios were largely informed by their individual moviemaking methods, and this was made clear by their respective filmic outputs. Katsu and Misumi felt shackled by this demand and desired to break free from the rigidity of said studio system. Rather than be caught in another production house and subject themselves to similar circumstances, Katsu decided instead to form his own company that would be able to make the movies that he desired to see.

Tomisaburō Wakayama as Ogami Ittō and Akihiro Tomikawa as Daigorō (foreground) in Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973). Courtesy of The Criterion Collection

While forming your own studio or production company can be a daunting—nearly impossible for some—task, there is a great message to be learned from the Lone Wolf and Cub series: Moviemakers should, and must, learn to carve their own paths. Every step of the way, Lone Wolf and Cub was fueled by a collective desire to make a specific kind of film that its crew believed wasn’t being made elsewhere, and they also believed in the appeal of such a film. Indeed, Misumi pushed the series into a more commercial market, which is another reason why the Lone Wolf and Cub films are far bloodier than his prior works.

Perhaps moviemakers today don’t all have the capital to start their own production companies, but there are other ways of applying the DIY studio mantra of Lone Wolf and Cub. One is to consider working toward building a collective, to pool resources and talents towards a single goal. Perhaps the best example of this in recent memory is Lab of Madness, the team that birthed indie moviemaking darling Jeremy Saulnier. Launching a series of festival-driven shorts and two features—Murder Party and Blue Ruin—the team were able to produce exactly the types of films they wished to see more of, without caving to the perceived necessity of appealing to any financier’s stylistic or narrative mandates.

Special Features

With the three principal players in the Lone Wolf and Cub series (sadly) deceased, The Criterion Collection was somewhat limited in their scope of interviews, but they still have provide a wealth of features which helps to balance the films’ historical context with ample focus on their stylistic innovations.

The 2005 French documentary L’âme d’un pèrf, l’âme d’un sabre offers the most complete look at the making of the series, tracking each film through interviews with the crew, who provide informative and entertaining anecdotes from the production. Of all the features, this one will perhaps appeal to moviemakers the most, as the crew goes in depth into the importance of editing (especially film editing as opposed to digital), cinematography, casting and choreography. In one humorous anecdote, interviewees even discuss how—thanks to Katsu’s “spare no expense” method—the crew captured the POV shot of the final moments of a decapitated head by literally hurling the camera while it was filming (an act which destroyed the camera, but successfully captured the shot). Rather than becoming overly reliant on lensing and post-production trickery, bear in mind the story of Katsu and co.’s kamikaze camera tactics when improvising difficult shots on a tight schedule.

“Lone Wolf” Ogami Ittō (Tomisaburō Wakayama) and “Cub” Daigorō (Akihiro Tomikawa) carve their own path of icy-hot vengeance in Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972). Courtesy of The Criterion Collection

An interview with Misumi biographer Kazuma Nozawa delves deeper into the history of Misumi’s career and the evolution that brought him to make Lone Wolf and Cub, including the financial reasons that lead him to take on the project. Having to abandon his original passion for painting due to his father’s disapproval, Misumi took to cinema with a strong dedication, even on the Lone Wolf and Cub series, which he had originally agreed to film due to a lack of work in the wake of the collapse of Daiei.

Criterion also conducted a series of new interviews with members of the production and experts, including the writer of the original manga and screenwriter on five of the six films, Kazuo Koike. The writer’s laid-back demeanor and enthusiasm is infectious and offers a lot for fans of the series. Koike’s interview serves as an encouraging example of the potential to transition your ideas from the format of comics to that of screenplay structure. When confronting the challenge of adaptation, be sure to draw from the author’s insights into the process of bringing source material to a different medium.

The Takeaway

You might argue that the Lone Wolf and Cub films could have been made by any other Japanese studios. But Katsu, Misumi, Saito and Kuroda were able to maintain faithfulness to their source material’s hyper-violence while also embodying the artistry and care inherited from their experiences working for Daiei, specifically because of their willingness to remove themselves from the norms of the studio system. The result of their bucking tradition is a truly remarkable six-part epic, one that has gone on to become a cult classic for cinephiles, by taking risks to shake things up while still offering a the bare essentials of entertainment for mass audiences.

Criterion’s Blu-ray set may not be the most elaborate Japanese genre release of the year, but it is certainly the definitive collection of the Lone Wolf and Cub series. The set’s six 2k transfers beautifully capture each film’s aesthetic and form, and its special features offer more than enough background not only on the films themselves but also on the history of samurai cinema. With these episodic features and their supplements as your map, carve your own path to optimizing your moviemaking means, forming a collective, and redefining a genre that begs for fresh eyes and an even fresher approach. MM

Lone Wolf and Cub was released by Criterion on Blu-ray and DVD November 8, 2016.

Next week’s Criterion Crash Course: Punch-Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson’s painfully honest and off-kilter take on the romantic comedy genre that earned accolades at Cannes and was the first film to showcase Adam Sandler’s remarkable dramatic register.

Other titles in Criterion’s November line-up:

Marlon Brando’s one-and-done directorial debut, One-Eyed Jacks, which subverts Western genre norms and reconfigures the legend of Billy the Kid, now given a gorgeous 4K restoration supervised by Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg//Akira Kurosawa’s Dreamsa wildly imagined entry in the latter years of its master director’s canon that brings to the screen a series of his own subconscious wishes and visions//The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach’s sardonic yet tender coming-of-age tale set against the backdrop of 1980s Park Slope, Brooklyn, featuring uniformly excellent performances by Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Owen Kline and Jesse Eisenberg.

Criterion Giveaway: Every week, we’re giving away a different Criterion title to one lucky winner. To enter the draw, all you have to do is subscribe to our newsletter! Full instructions here, and follow @moviemakermag on Facebook and Twitter for announcements on every week’s title.

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