Judge Neil Dorsett keeps his unlimited supply of verbal barbs in check.
Daigoro, we're off to hell! (Strict translation of the Japanese title)
Itto Ogami and son Daigoro, collectively the assassins "Lone Wolf and Cub," find their way to U.S. DVD in the late coming final entry in their noted cinema series from Toho. Corpses ensue.
Facts of the Case
It has been some time since Ogami Itto, the Shogun's official seppukku second—the merciful formal decapitator of those who must publicly kill themselves by disembowelment—was driven with his son into the life of a ronin assassin after being framed by the Shadow-Yagyu clan. Its remnants, led by the Lord Retsudo—who had been responsible for the murder of Ogami Itto's wife—are straining under the defensive efforts of Ogami Itto, who typically responds to an assassination attempt on the Yagyu's part by slaughtering the emissary, all too often a direct son of Retsudo, in short order. Retsudo has completely run himself out of legitimate sons and now turns to a daughter, Kaori (Junko Hitomi), who has mastered a deadly dueling trick involving juggling daggers. In addition, Retsudo turns to his illegitimate son Hyoei, the leader of a strange clan of ritualistic assassins known as Tsuchigumo. Hyoei has no love for Retsudo, but concludes that he will destroy Ogami Itto to spite his father by defeating the enemy Retsudo could not. Since direct attempts on the life of Itto and Daigoro have proven both fruitless and deadly, this new clan turns to a vicious method indeed, what they call the "Wheel of Fire" technique: Everyone with whom the pair interact, for any reason at all, will be killed as soon as Ogami turns his back. During all of this, Retsudo continues building a huge army for a final strike against the Assassin with Son, eventually culminating in a bizarre hardware-oriented battle on the icy slopes of a mountainside, which pits Itto alone against more than a hundred assailants. To paraphrase Frank Zappa, don't you eat that reddened snow.
The previous Lone Wolf and Cub movies had come in quick succession to one another, appearing almost seasonally throughout 1972 and tagging into 1973. This entry dates almost a full year past the preceding one and is no longer produced by Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi). Akihiro Tomikawa, portraying Daigoro, has shot up like a weed in the meantime. He looks to be nearly eight inches taller and barely seems to fit into the baby cart! God only knows how he fit into it in the first place, with the seemingly unlimited ammunition contained by the baby cart's ample gun emplacements and armor. All of which are on full display in this movie, which pays open homage to—or outright parodies, take your pick—the James Bond series, particularly On Her Majesty's Secret Service. I say "seemingly" unlimited ammunition because on second viewing I did notice a pattern of fire that suggests three or four separate ammo loads, triggered independently by levers. There's an element of mysticism in this one, too, in the form of three seemingly undead warriors and a fireball that could have sprung from the hand of one Tim the Enchanter. The seeming "zombies," who have some kind of superhuman tunneling ability, could be explained in mundane terms. The fireball…I don't know about that. Anyway, there's a fireball. But in this disc, it's (fairly) clear that the three tunnelers are not undead but have undergone some hideously rigorous training ritual, their "deaths" perhaps metaphorical, not dissimilar to Ogami Itto's own occasional assertion that he is already dead and in hell.
There are a number of shots in which action is framed in deep focus by a dominant foreground element. These shots are gorgeous, especially one which features a burbling stone brook in the foreground as Retsudo's warriors (the Yagyu seemingly decimated, these must be mercenaries) climb across a vegetated rock wall in the background. This shot actually looks goofy at first, primarily due to the goofy-looking Retsudo himself, but it holds for a moment and once I had time to look at it, I was really impressed.
For those who are completely unfamiliar with Lone Wolf and Cub, this is a voluminously violent samurai series following the title characters, a nearly invulnerable assassin who travels with his son acting as a mercenary. The series is highly celebrated both in Japan and the West for its historical interest, its extreme action violence, and its painstaking translation of source material, a long-running manga by Kazuo Koike and Goseri Kojima. Yes, this is a "comic book movie." For those of you to whom that means only costumed American superheroes participating in CGI silliness, welcome to the real world. Though White Heaven in Hell strays from the pattern of strict adaptation that had been policy in the earliest Lone Wolf vehicles, this is still an adaptation of printed sequential art to the screen. And what an adaptation! Tomisaburo Wakayama, though cast due to nepotism (he is Shintaro Katsu's brother), is the perfect screen incarnation of Ogami Itto—in this humble reviewer's opinion, somewhat more convincing than the idealized physical figure in the comic. He's a stocky man with a grim face but extreme ability to move through a battle—in essence, he is the personification of a father viewed through the eyes of his young son. He also happens to seriously resemble certain of the stylized samurai images of traditional Japanese art. He's the super stoic, too…only Eastwood can really compare with Wakayama's dead faced stare-down abilities.
One thing I dig about this series is its uncanny resemblance to episodic detective fiction. Though there's not usually all that much detecting, the regular elements of hard-boiled fiction are there: the solitude but for a single companion, the gadgetry, the character's lapse in formal rank and descent into the criminal element, the code of honor, and of course the general pattern of having all the villains dead and the sympathetic characters for any given piece achieving story closure by the end of their installment. Kozure Ookami is a very close analogue, for instance, to The Rockford Files, among many others. Only with swords, and boiled down to an extreme. No wonder these movies have such continued appeal.
AnimEigo has done their typical bang-up job in presenting a live action movie. Colors are rich and vibrant and the image is sharp as a tack. Let me reiterate, the picture quality on the AnimEigo Kozure Ookami discs (as well as their sister series, Zatoichi) is excellent, as is the motion compression. It makes the U.K. release look like it was expelled from the digestive system of a howler monkey (which is how it looked anyway, but this just exacerbates that). My only quibble here is with the embedded 3:2 pulldown, but as I've noted before, AnimEigo seems to have some skill at minimizing the problems this causes and the majority of viewers won't be aware of it at all on an NTSC set. The only troublesome shot in the whole movie is a rapid track across a field of white pebbles—a compression killer if there ever was one. The sound, including the movie's robust funky score, is very well represented in its original mono mix. Missing this time are the printed program notes, and far fewer notes than usual are provided inside. This is not an oversight so much on AnimEigo's part, but just a result of the fact that this movie is far more straightforward than the previous entries. Trailers are included for the featured movie as well as Zatoichi and the One-Armed Swordsman and two entries from the Lady Snowblood series, similarly inspired by the work ofLone Wolf and Cub manga writer Kazuo Koike.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It can't be avoided that this movie plays fast and loose with the beloved Itto and Daigoro characters and their premise, in support of a demi-parodic over the top version of themselves. This movie touches upon self-parody as well as parody of other sources as well as seemingly embracing mysticism; for this reason, true fans of the series have often felt let down by it, as well as the fact that this being the final entry in the series, there's no recovery to normal form. Viewers concerned with the unthreatened purity of their thoughts will of course wish to stay away from this intensely violent presentation, which features not only many violent deaths but other disturbing scenes as well. Unquestionably, the Lone Wolf and Cub series is not for the squeamish. Those who get more involved in the datedness of a movie than the movie itself might also wish to give this entry a pass, as they'll be giggling too much at their superiority to the '70s style to really get into the movie, and there are plenty of other ways to laugh at one's conception of a decade.
White Heaven in Hell is easily the least of the Kozure Ookami series and even freakish next to its peers, but an entertaining weird movie in its own right. Fans of bizarre action cinema and of this series in particular shouldn't miss it.
Lone Wolf and Cub are sentenced to walk the road to hell, but that's not the action of this court. As far as we're concerned, not only are they free to go on the grounds of the case, but the court would also just be afraid to try and contain them. Stand aside, bailiff…we're going to need you again.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
• Theatrical Trailer
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