Sword Devil (剣鬼, Kenji Misumi, 1965)

An orphaned son’s attempts to overcome his cursed destiny are poisoned by the duplicities of the samurai society in third part of Kenji Misumi’s loose “Sword Trilogy”, Sword Devil (剣鬼, Kenki). Perhaps unfairly dismissed by some as a mere genre craftsmen, Misumi was also an intense visual stylist, a quality very much on show in this vibrant drama which pits the beauty of the natural world against the samurai order but eventually finds its hero succumbing to cruelties of his age unable to outrun himself or his destiny. 

In the prologue which opens the film, shot in an arty theatrical style, a young peasant woman formerly a maid to the late Lady Makino gives birth to a “stranger’s” child after having been promoted and given a place in the women’s quarters as a reward for her loyalty in continuing to serve her mistress in the depths of her “madness”. Lady Makino claims that Kin’s kindness brought her back to reality and is keen to ensure she continues to be taken care of after her death, but also asks her to take charge of her precious pooch hoping that she will treat it “as herself”. This is perhaps why it is rumoured that the child, given the name “Hanpei” which ironically is in part inspired by the dog-like “Spot” coupled with a suffix which implies a lowly rank, is in fact the product of a taboo union between the maid and the dog (rather than admit he is almost certainly the illegitimate son of Lord Masanobu). For some reason this bizarre rumour persists throughout the boy’s life, cast out as he is from the palace and raised in an ordinary village as the son of a low-ranking samurai who appears to be kind and loving, worried enough about Hanpei’s (Raizo Ichikawa) future to advise him to find a special skill that will allow him to support himself and perhaps overcome some of the persistent prejudice against him after the old man’s death. 

The skill he perfects, however, continues to set him apart from his fellow men in that he chooses the cultivation of flowers. A particularly snotty neighbour describes Hanpei’s art as “annoying”, though others are impressed enough by his skill to marvel that they have such a man in their clan while also pointing out that in these times of peace becoming a samurai florist might be much more useful than perfecting the art of the sword. Ironically, however, it drags him back towards the court and intrigue when he’s invited to craft a flower garden to cheer up the present young lord who seems to be succumbing to the same “madness” as his mother. The trouble starts when the garden is completed to the lord’s satisfaction but marred by the sudden and apparently unexpected arrival of a bumblebee which damages the lord’s tranquility and provokes a violent outburst in which he begins to hack at the flowers hoping to punish the one which “rudely” invited the bee to the garden. Hiding behind a tree, Hanpei perfectly aims a rock at the lord’s head to prevent him destroying his precious work and is spotted by his chief retainer, Kanbei (Kei Sato), who earmarks him for future use in his nascent conspiracy. 

Hanpei finds himself at the centre of intrigue, increasingly seduced by promises of advancement that he might be “titleless” no more and perhaps in fact escape his lowly position as the son of a dog. He ingratiates himself by, like his mother, being one of the few servants willing to bear the lord’s violent rages in volunteering to accompany his horse even though he has none of his own and has to run along behind thereby demonstrating his slightly supernatural athletic ability that gives further credence to his canine origins. In similar fashion he learns by observation, captivated rather than appalled on witnessing an old ronin practicing his sword technique by cutting in half a butterfly in the forest. Preoccupied by his lowly status and consequent lack of sword skills, Hanpei is reassured by the man’s explanation that there’s nothing more to it than draw, strike, and sheath but takes yet another step towards the samurai dark side in accepting the gift of a sword. Later he breaks it, meaning to break with the cruel path on which fate has set him, only to pick up another, supposedly cursed sword to which he was attracted because of its “evil spirit”.

Osaki (Michiko Sugata), a kind and innocent woman seemingly attracted to Hanpei because of his difference in his gentle sensitivity in contrast to the rough men around her, refuses to believe the rumours he has become an assassin working for Kanbei because no one who loves flowers like he does could be a coldblooded killer. This is in fact what he has become, sent, like a dog, after Kanbei’s enemies killing without even knowing who it is who must die only to be remorseful on discovering he has killed someone known to him. There is division and sedition within the court caused by the lord’s madness, Kanbei and his associates keen to rule in his stead while keeping his mania secret from the shogun while others, a small group of lower samurai rebels, prefer to depose him in favour of his adopted heir. Hanpei is once again a pawn, taking no side in this debate but unthinkingly doing Kanbei’s dirty work in the service of his sword. He hopes that by taking the “evil” instrument in his hands he might double his bad luck to overcome his unhappy destiny, gazing at his distorted face in its reflection, but discovers himself merely outcast once again as the villagers begin to realise he is an obstacle to their rebellion and responsible for the assassinations of their loved ones. 

The ironic conclusion finds the hero’s planned flower garden, a shared endeavour with love interest Osaki, rendered a bloody graveyard, men cut down like weeds as Hanpei’s quick draw philosophy makes a mockery of their fancy samurai fencing. The poisonous samurai legacy, infected with madnesses literal and figural, destroys everything, all beauty and grace falling under Hanpei’s “evil” sword as he finds himself, quite literally, chased out of town like a stray dog condemned to wander exiled from human society. 


Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (子連れ狼 子を貸し腕貸しつかまつる, Kenji Misumi, 1972)

lone-wolf-and-cub-sword-of-vengeanceWhen it comes to period exploitation films of the 1970s, one name looms large – Kazuo Koike. A prolific mangaka, Koike also moved into writing screenplays for the various adaptations of his manga including the much loved Lady Snowblood and an original series in the form of Hanzo the Razor. Lone Wolf and Cub was one of his earliest successes, published between 1970 and 1976 the series spanned 28 volumes and was quickly turned into a movie franchise following the usual pattern of the time which saw six instalments released from 1972 to 1974. Martial arts specialist Tomisaburo Wakayama starred as the ill fated “Lone Wolf”, Ogami, in each of the theatrical movies as the former shogun executioner fights to clear his name and get revenge on the people who framed him for treason and murdered his wife, all with his adorable little son ensconced in a bamboo cart.

The first instalment in the series, Sword of Vengeance (子連れ狼 子を貸し腕貸しつかまつる, Kozure Okami: Kowokashi Udekashi Tsukamatsuru), begins with Itto Ogami’s fall from grace when he’s framed by a rival clan, Yagyu, who have their eyes on his family’s historical position as the Shogun’s official “executioner”. In fact, when we first meet Ogami he’s in the middle of an unusual job – he’s to be the “second” in the seppuku of a noble lord, only this noble lord is a toddler whom Ogami must behead (the child will obviously be spared the horror of cutting his own stomach, but not excused the execution). Returning home after completing his grim task with seemingly no reaction at all, Ogami embraces his own young son, not so different in age from the boy whose head he just removed, and talks warmly with his wife who describes to him an ominous nightmare she’s been having in which some of the lords Ogami has been the second for come back for revenge.

Though Ogami decries his wife’s fears as ridiculous, his house is indeed raided, his wife killed and a tablet bearing the Shogun’s crest placed on his memorial altar neatly incriminating him for plotting against his master. Ogami manages to defeat the Yagyu clan members who’ve been sent to arrest him and sets off on a quest for vengeance, wandering the land as a swordsman for hire with his little son, Daigoro, also apparently for rent too.

Despite his cool exterior and lack of outward expression, Ogami is clearly attached to his son both as the head of his clan and as a father. In deciding what to do with the child, he gives Daigoro a simple test in which he positions a sword and a ball on the floor and instructs his infant son to choose one, even knowing that he can’t understand well enough to make anything other than an instinctual choice. Had he chosen the ball, Ogami would have sent him to meet his mother but Daigoro chooses the way of the sword and so the pair are forced onto the “Demon Way”, a path filled with blood and violence as they journey onward to avenge the death of a wife and mother, and restore the good name of their clan unfairly tarnished by a dark plot.

Though his quest is for bloody vengeance, Ogami is not a cruel man as evidenced by the first job the pair receive which is for little Daigoro who finds himself seized by a woman driven mad by grief following the death of her own infant son but seems to calm down a little after being allowed to breastfeed Ogami’s boy. Though the woman’s mother apologises and offers to pay for “borrowing” Daigoro as it says on the large sign attached to his cart, Ogami refuses to take the money seeing as Daigoro needed feeding anyway. Similarly, when the pair find themselves swordless and trapped among vicious bandits, Ogami saves the life of a prostitute who just attempted to stick up for him by giving in to the bandits’ demands and publicly sleeping with her.

This earns him the woman’s eternal admiration, not only for “degrading” himself by sleeping with such a lowly woman as herself and in such a public way, but apparently making quite a success of it for someone supposedly terrified into silence. No one, she says, could be so considerate and bring such satisfaction to a woman in a state of fear. Indeed, Ogami has been playing the long game, pretending to be just another terrified hostage of this tiny hot spring town but when the bandits suddenly declare it’s time to get rid of anyone who’s seen their faces, Ogami leaps into action with a series of cleverly hidden tools secreted about Daigoro’s cart.

That is to say, he’s there on a job, saving the townspeople is more of a happy byproduct than his ultimate intention. On his entrance into the town, Ogami comes across the scene of a local woman failing to escape the bandits’ clutches before being stripped, molested, raped and murdered in front of the father who has come to try and save her and is also murdered for his pains. Ogami, end game in mind, does nothing. The bandits eventually find their comeuppance on the edge of Ogami’s sword, but it’s too late for a poor young woman and her elderly father.

Inhabiting a similar cinematic world to the also Koike scripted Lady Snowblood, Sword of Vengeance is a Leone-esque, western-tinged tale of a mysterious wandering assassin, albeit one pushing a baby cart. Complete with the more expressionist aesthetics of the Japanese ‘70s exploitation film from the colourful ice and fire opening to the exaggerated blood spray in the genre’s characteristically thick, too bright red, Sword of Vengeance is a worthy start to the cycle which casts Ogami downwards from his elite samurai roots and onto the “Demon Way”, bound for hell by way of vengeance, and all with a smiley faced toddler peeking out from a constantly moving cart.


Original trailer (English subtitles)