Sunday, 8 January 2017

Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell

The baby cart series ends with Yoshiyuki Kuroda's Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell, an off-piste entry with supernatural underpinnings that, while it doesn't adapt the titanic showdown that closed Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima's manga, does allow an element of closure to creep in around the edges. White Heaven opens with a desperate Yagyu Retsudo facing political irrelevance. In an effort to forestall any further disgrace, the ageing ninja decides to gamble the lives of his remaining heirs on a final push against our heroes.

Retsudo's illegitimate son Hyouei has been raised by the ghostly Tsuchigumo clan, an army of theatrical psychopaths who bury their best warriors in graves for weeks on end until their very existence blurs the line between life and death. Once dispatched, these phantoms haunt Itto and Daigoro, killing every person they come into contact with. These tactics are an exciting change of pace for the series, rolling an unpredictable, spectral sense of horror into the film. So while Itto never quite boils over into a full-on frenzy, it's exciting to see the implacable samurai genuinely rattled by an enemy.

Disappointingly, the Tsuchigumo assassins' eventual death (not to mention the fate of the legion of skiing ninja that follow them) has less to do with Itto meditating on, then overcoming their omniscient terror and more to do with this episode's gadget-laden perambulator. It's a strange choice because, as Tomisaburo Wakayama has repeatedly proven, stationary special effects aren't anywhere near as exciting as an unbroken take of a middle-aged actor forward-flipping into a slide tumble, then darting up to slash and swipe at goons.

Daigoro's baby cart is to Kuroda's film what Little Nellie was to You Only Live Twice, an improbably invincible gun platform that regimented enemies are inexplicable drawn towards. Thankfully Kuroda is often canny enough to simply get out of Wakayama's way, allowing fight sequences to unfold with a stop-start quality that makes you feel the trepidation simmering in Itto's enemies. Kenji Misumi hurtled in towards Wakayama to stress his speed and unpredictability, Kuroda opens up the confrontations, shooting extremely wide to show us how Itto's strikes carry like waves along the assembled armies, daring them to try their luck.

White Heaven ends with an exhausted Itto standing on a mountain side, surrounded by those that have died by his hand. Yagyu Retsudo has skated away, broken and bereaved, to prepare himself for an apocalyptic sequel that never actually arrived. So while the saga ends unresolved, Tsutomo Nakamura's screenplay has done enough to propose a sort of moral victory for Itto and his son. They may not have claimed Retsudo's head, but they have murdered every last one of his heirs and irreparably damaged the social standing Retsudo sought to improve by acting against them. That, and they still have each other.

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