Among the Samurai epics available on U.S. shelves, possibly only Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai is more familiar than the Lone Wolf and Cub series, which began in 1970 as a Manga and has branched out into movies, books, American comic books and graphic novels, a television series and even a video arcade game. Chock-full of violence and pithy wisdom, Lone Wolf and Cub has become synonymous with "Samurai" the world over. In this first movie in a series of several, the story is set up and much destruction occurs.
In this first movie in a series of six, Ogami Ittō, former executioner to the Shogun, is betrayed and made to look like a traitor when Ninja-like assassins break into his house, murder his entire household save for his son, and plant a funereal tablet to the Emperor (who is not yet dead) in the shrine he built to the memories of his victims. Like many other Samurai films, those in control are portrayed as fat, greedy, and corrupt, and the emperor is no exception. Ittō's mortal enemy Yagyū Retsudo makes an appearance early on; he has murdered Ittō's wife and set him up so that the Yagyū clan can take the post of the executioner.
While the Japanese hadn't really figured out how to smoothly integrate exposition in the 1970s, neither had many American (or other) directors, and this movie winds up only feeling partially stilted. It has a classic look and feel that characterized Samurai movies for years after the making of this picture; today it seems that most Kung-Fu and Samurai movies both include a lot of CG and wire work and focus on mystical rather than mundane stories.
Potential viewers should be warned that this is a violent movie in more ways than one and is not suitable for children. Before the picture is even half way through a woman has been raped to death by a bandit on the road, and the main character even has sex with a prostitute in front of bandits looking on in order to save her life. Blood spurts and sprays everywhere, heads and limbs roll, and so on. None of this is especially egregious, at least not in the culture that invented Bukkake, but if you are squeamish you should skip this and all other Samurai movies. They tend to involve the removal of body parts and various tortures visited upon peasants.
Everyone who can get past that will be treated to a festival of violence and cinematography — again, while the movie is primitive by in many ways modern standards, it was made in 1972. Its only real failing is that the wooden baby cart which features prominently in the movie and which in fact is a sort of symbol for the entire series is never actually explained. He escapes with the baby, but we never see the cart there. Where did a ronin whose family has been killed and whose honor has been (officially) shattered come up with a wooden baby cart with hidden weapons? Inquiring minds want to know.