It might be number 5 in the series, but the adventures of Ogami Ittō and Daigoro continue to entertain…
I’ll ‘fess up. Asian Cinema is a big and wide subject, and there are plenty of areas that I haven’t really explored. And whilst I was totally aware of the Lone Wolf and Cub manga and films, I never really dipped my toe in the water. So I was somewhat keen to see what the fuss was about. So I come at this not just as a neophyte to the series, but even more challengingly I have been give the 5th in the series to review. So… Challenge Accepted!
The film opens with Ogami Ittō (Tomisaburô Wakayama) and his young son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) wandering feudal Japan, when the pair encounter a series of five warriors who each offer up 1/5th of the required 500 ryu Ogami requires to perform an assassination, along with pieces of the backstory as to why the target is a suitable victim. It seems the leader of a major clan has placed his daughter by a concubine in place as his heir, passing her off as his true son by marriage, leaving the rightful child imprisoned. It seems factions within the clan itself need Ogami’s help in resolving this, but things are further complicated by his old enemy Yagyū Retsudō (Minoru Ohki) attempting to gain access to the evidence that makes the deception quite clear. Ogami of course takes on the contract, and woe betide anyone who gets in his way. Blood is copiously shed, Daigoro continues to learn the way of the Samurai and it all ends in a river of brightly covered blood and decapitations.
This might be the 5th film in the series, but the overall quality feels high for what amounts to a fairly simple exploitation swordplay film. It doesn’t concern itself with replaying the backstory of the Father and Son, allowing for the reputation of Ogami stand for itself. Wakayama doesn’t physically appear to be your classic action hero, but he has a stoic appearance and clear skills with his weapons which do allow the audience to understand his deadly capabilities.
The picture quality on this new Criterion release is amazing, with the only real clue to the 1973 date of production being a rather esoteric soundtrack that mixes occasional funky jazz with more traditional sounds. …in the Land of Demons also tones down the T&A aspects that were evident in the other films, but has a couple of strong female secondary characters that again feel at odds with the sexual politics of the time.
The film is structured into three parts. We get the initial set of individual encounters which set up the plot and show us Ogami’s abilities and personality. This section is fine, if maybe a touch unremarkable. Then we get a second section that seems utterly disconnected from the rest of the film. This detour involves Daigoro getting involved with a famous female pickpocket, and I am assuming is meant to show his growth as a person of honour in the context of the entire series. Watched on its own however, it feels totally unnecessary, and hampers the flow of the film. It also involves some child nudity with what can only be said amounts to some child cruelty – out of context it sounds pretty bad, and is a little uncomfortable to watch in the modern age. Luckily the bulk of the film the concentrates on Ogami fulfilling his assassination contract, and it is filled with blood, battles and fun little moments. It’s hard not to smile when we see Daigoro’s cart fitting with ski’s and dragged behind a horse over the desert sands.
I have to say, despite the strange detour of the second act, and maybe a little confusion around the history of Ogami and Yagyū Retsudō (easily fixed with a little google), I enjoyed this one immensely. Although it is very much seeped in the Japanese Chanbara tradition, I suspect my enjoyment was enhanced by the fact this felt very much like a film that could happily sit within the Chinese Wuxia genre – a story of a lone hero dedicated against a corrupt controlling hierarchy. It just lacked a pale faced eunuch and a little comic relief to make that connection complete.
Hugely enjoyable, it might be the 5th in a series, but it didn’t feel like a tired and weary money grab by the studios. And i’ll be addressing this hole in my knowledge by going back to check out the other 5 films in the cycle.