I decided to take on three martial arts movies this Criterion Month without realizing I’d also be reviewing them all in a row. Needless to say, I’ve seen a lot of people get cut up with swords over the past week. I already filled you in on the first Zatoichi movie, let me tell you now about the other two.
We’ve already talked quite a bit about King Hu’s second Taiwanese wuxia film, A Touch of Zen, but I wanted to go back and check out his first post-Hong Kong movie. Perhaps based on Hu’s own experience relocating, Dragon Inn is a story of exile and camaraderie outside of the corruption in China. A powerful eunuch has the emperor’s minister of defense executed and his children sent to the Dragon Gate, an inn at the country’s border. There, the eunuch has secretly filled the inn with his assassins who lie in wait to wipe out the rest of the family once and for all. However, their devious plans hit a bump in the road when some more travelers arrive ahead of the kids. Each one of them proves to be a master swordsman and finds their own ways to politely refuse the undercover henchmen’s checking out. As you might expect, eventually tensions boil over and people start dying.
A blockbuster hit at the time, Dragon Inn shows Hu starting to experiment with the supernatural martial arts that will come to define the wuxia genre. While this movie doesn’t have people flying as often as A Touch of Zen, it does have some sweet super jumps and lots of cool stunts. So many people catch arrows you start to wonder why people even bother bringing bows to these battles. Also, along with The Tale of Zatoichi, this is the second movie in a row that I watched where someone demonstrates their prowess with a sword by cutting a candle that been thrown in the air. My only real complaint is that the late minister’s family don’t actually matter to the plot and have no development – they’re basically unnamed extras. It’s a baffling choice that’s compounded by the movie’s insistence on making two different sets of siblings major characters. Couldn’t they have just made one of those pairs the minister’s kids?
After all, movies are better when they’re about family. Which brings me to…
Based on the best-selling manga series, the cinematic Lone Wolf and Cub series began in 1972 with Sword of Vengeance, directed by The Tale of Zatoichi‘s Kenji Misumi, produced by Zatoichi himself, Shintaro Katsu, and starring Katsu’s brother Tomisaburo Wakayama. Despite those strong ties to the first Zatoichi, Sword of Vengeance shows just how much chanbara movies had changed in the decade between these movies. While Zatoichi’s tale dealt with respect and honor, Lone Wolf and Cub goes hard R immediately. Within the first few minutes, we see a young child be executed, fountains of bright blood spray out of wannabe swordfighters, and an insane woman pluck the “cub” out of his stroller and begin breastfeeding him. Make no mistake, we are in a much darker world now.
Told in a non-linear fashion (as was the case with the manga), Sword of Vengeance follows Ogami Itto and his son, Daigoro, traveling to a remote hot spring village on a mission to murder the clan that is currently occupying the town. They’re a despicable lot, raping and murdering the villagers and taking any wanderers hostage, so I definitely was looking forward to Itto killing these guys. But the movie also focuses on the terrible toll the path of vengeance takes: we find out that two years ago Itto’s wife was murdered and he was framed as a traitor. Itto gives Daigoro a choice: the ball or the sword. If the one-year-old were to crawl to the ball, he’d have killed them both and ended things there. But Daigoro crawled to the sword, dooming them both to a bloody quest to wipe out the clan that attacked them.
It’s pretty surprising how involved Daigoro is in Itto’s violent ways. For example, when Daigoro was still a baby, Itto was challenged to fight a gifted samurai. Itto faced the samurai with Daigoro strapped on his back — which was bad enough — but then only manages to win by, I shit you not, ducking at the last second and blinding the samurai with a mirror Itto had attached to the boy. Yikes! My favorite part is the slaughter at the end, when Itto reveals that the cart he pushes Daigoro around in is actually fully decked out for battle, complete with a bunch of hidden weapons and armor plating that can be used to block gunfire. Thankfully he doesn’t actually make Daigoro do any of the fighting — that’s Baby Yoda’s thing.