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|Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell
by Brian McKay
WHITE HEAVEN IN HELL is the last of the LONE WOLF AND CUB films starring Wakayama Tomisaburo. Although Ogami Itto was portrayed by others afterward in various film and television spinoffs, none of them have gained a fan base as endearing, or enduring. Sadly, while this final film is a competent stand-alone entry to the series, it is a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion to an epic saga.In the sixth and final episode of the Lone Wolf and Cub series, it is the winter of the Yagyu clan's discontent. Retsudo, the wizened and plotting leader of the Yagyu, is forced to admit that he has failed at every turn in his efforts to eliminate Ogami Itto (Wakayama Tomisaburo) and his young son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa). Having killed Ogami's wife Azami, and framed him for treason, Retsudo and his hordes of men have been bested at every turn by the father and son duo. He has lost three sons to the Lone Wolf's blade (well, technically only two, but more on that later) and has himself been defeated more than once, though he managed to get away each time. Now the Tokugawa Shogunate has grown weary of the Yagyu's failed vendetta, and is about to take matters into its own hands by declaring Ogami Itto a wanted federal criminal. This will compel every Samurai in the nation to hunt him down, instead of leaving the matter to Retsudo and his Yagyu clan thugs.
"Ogami Itto, R.I.P."
Retsudo's only chance for redemption in the Shogun's eyes is for his daughter, Kaori (Junko Hitomi), to succeed. She is an expert in the "falling dagger" technique, in which she distracts her opponents by juggling daggers, then manages to toss one of them in the air and have it land in her enemy's brainpan as he is attacking. Retsudo hopes that her trick will be enough to defeat Ogami. Naturally, he's wrong.
When his daughter is killed by the Lone Wolf, Retsudo turns in desperation to his illegitimate son, Hyoei. Fathered by Retsudo through a concubine, Hyoei was abandoned by the Yagyu at a young age and was adopted by the Tsuchigumo clan, who dabble in ninja trickery and the black arts. Hyoei rejects Retsudo as a father, as well as his request to hunt down Ogami and son on behalf of the Yagyu clan. He decides, however, to pursue the Lone Wolf and Cub in the name of his adopted clan, thereby exalting himself with the Shogunate and putting the Yagyu to shame. In order to accomplish this end, he ressurrects three buried Samurai warriors who are part human, part zombie, and apparently part earthworm. Not only are they extremely tough and quiet, but they have the ability to dig into the ground and tunnel under the earth in order to sneak up on their prey. They began stalking father and son everywhere they go, and murdering anyone who they come into contact with. After a candy vendor and an entire innkeeper's family are slaughtered, Ogami Itto realizes that he must not interact with anyone lest he put them in danger.
While avoiding the three human earthmovers, Lone Wolf and Cub are beset upon by hordes of both Yagyu and Tsuchigumo lackeys. There are some great swordfights, as usual, and a nearly-defeated Ogami goads Hyoei into giving him a fair fight, thus leveling the playing field so that he can mortally wound him in a fantastic duel. He allows the injured Hyoei to retreat back to his home, where he promptly drags his gorgeous, naked sister Azumi out of the tub and tries to have her "bear his seed - for the sake of the family name!" (I wonder how many guys have tried to nail their sister using that line?). However, the brother and sister are tragically killed in mid-insemination by an irate Retsudo. (Gee, thanks pops. You abandoned me as a child, and now you can't even let me get off one last time with my sister? I HATE YOU DADDY!).
Meanwhile, Ogami lures the three assassins away from populated areas, out into the snow-covered wilderness where their tunneling technique is hindered by the cold and the frozen ground. This puts the advantage in his favor, but also puts him and Daigoro out in the open - where they are pursued by an army of hundreds of Yagyu in short order.
The film already establishes itself as the campiest of the series early on with the tunnel-digging samurai (who was their Sensei, the gopher from Caddyshack?). However, the final snowbound smackdown, featuring scores of samurai on skis and "attack sleds" with 70's Shaft guitar riffs droning on in the background, takes things to a new level of cheese. Not that it's bad cheese, but it's just campy enough to detract slightly from the overall tone set by the previous films. While the final battle has the highest body count yet, and is certainly coreographed with the usual level of technical competence, it feels a bit blase somehow, despite some thrilling moments and great gore. Perhaps part of the problem is the over-reliance on the arsenal of the baby cart (now converted into a baby sled), as Ogami uses the cart's hidden guns to mow down countless men before finally getting down to the real reason we watch these movies - the sword work. But at any rate, while the film ends on an upbeat note, it ends up being an unsatisfying one.
It's hard to say exactly why White Heaven in Hell leaves the fan with that slightly dissapointed taste in the mouth. Perhaps it's the high camp factor, or the plot inconsistencies and loose threads left over. For example, in this film Retsudo's son Gunbei is reputed to have been killed, while in fact he merely lost his arm during a duel with Ogami in Baby Cart in Peril. At the end of that film, the fourth in the series, he vowed to return and duel Ogami Itto again one day - a day which will sadly never arrive for film fans. However, the root of most of the dissapointment can be found in the fact that this was the final film of the series, although it was never meant to be and obviously doesn't live up to the expectations of a "Grand Finale".
It's hard to say why the series ended here. With thousands of pages of source material availiable in the original Lone Wolf and Cub manga books, there was no dearth of stories to explore. Perhaps part of the series' abrupt demise stemmed from the near-disastrous drop in Japanese film attendance in the 70's, or perhaps Wakayama Tomisaburo simply decided to move on to other projects. But for whatever reason, the babycart series came to an end too soon - as all good things usually do.
Carnage and Carnality
-bleeding walls and Edgar Allen Poe ninja
-innkeeper's daughter takes arrow through throat
-dagger rain pierces skull umbrella
-Awesome but poorly-lit swordfight on boat docks (side note: if there's one bitch I have about this series, it's that all the nighttime fight scenes are way too dark - hopefully something that will be adressed in the DVD remastering).
-duel against Ogami Itto leaves Hyoei with broken sword and bloodied backside
-wet naked sister dragged from tub and laid out on floor
-Last Request Incest (brought to you by the "Make a Wish" foundation).
-sibling screw skewered by deadbeat dad's sword (featuring "blade between nipples" cam)
-Three-for-one baby sled stiletto penetration
-hundreds of skiing Samurai participate in first-ever Olympic Downhill Decapitation Decathalon
-Tediously gratuitous use of babycart gun batteries and Yagyu sled cannon
-Skiing samurai slashed by naginata experiences seperation pains - between his waist and ribcage!
-Daigoro does a Sonny Bono in baby sled
-Entire Yagyu clan single-handedly slain except for Retsudo who gets away yet again.
-Father and son reunion hug (awwwww!)Wakayama Tomisaburo left the world on October 1, 1992, at the age of 63. However, he also left the world a richer place for millions of Samurai action fans. It is doubtful that anyone will ever capture the skill or spirit of Ogami Itto as masterfully as he did. So on behalf of fans everywhere, I just want to say, "Thanks, W.T., for the memories and the dismemberments. If I ever make it to Japan, I'll throw back some Sake' at your grave. Peace, brother-man."
link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=6780&reviewer=258
originally posted: 01/12/03 16:51:52