While American comic-book superheroes have only recently become a dominant cinematic genre, Japanese comics (manga) have inspired decades’ worth of animated film and TV adaptations (anime). While many live-action manga adaptations also exist, they’re generally lesser known–and their following is certainly less fervent than the massive fan cultures structured around anime and manga. Perhaps that’s because manga’s oversized physical features and exaggerated action can be easily replicated at the hands of an animator.
A live-action manga adaptation, however, opens up unique opportunities for a filmmaker to both echo the printed page and establish his own artistic vision. In the 1972 film Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance, director Kenji Misumi does both. The film, which screens February 3 as part of the State Theatre’s CineManga series, is the first of six based on the lengthy Lone Wolf and Cub saga, originally published from 1970 to 1976.
The film follows Ogami Itto, a notorious samurai who was the executioner for a brutal shogun until his rivals in the government killed his wife in an attempt to frame him for treason. With his toddler son, Daigoro, in tow, Itto sets out on the road as an assassin for hire–disgraced, masterless, but still unquestionably deadly.
A filmmaker could take a straightforward approach in telling this story with no nods to the source material’s aesthetics, or take the slavish route of trying to replicate printed images on celluloid. The first approach can be less visually interesting than its printed forebear; the second runs the risk of prioritizing visuals over story (see Zack Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation of the landmark graphic novel Watchmen). Misumi, however, finds a memorable middle ground in Sword of Vengeance. In its lower-key, dialogue-driven scenes, the film achieves a stately visual grace comparable to manga in its more elegant moments while also still embracing camera movement and visual manipulation. In its blood-soaked battle scenes, the film takes on a distinctive staccato rhythm that doesn’t necessarily look like manga but certainly captures its explosive energy. There’s one memorable slo-mo shot during a sunrise swordfight that clearly aims to replicate the frozen kinetic energy of the page, but in general Misumi successfully emulates the spirit of the source material rather than simply aping its look.
Perhaps even more importantly, Misumi gives ample attention to performance and character. Sword of Vengeance is a brutal story, but its protagonists are noble people. As Itto, Tomisaburo Wakayama is engagingly stoic, a force of both shocking violence and deep-rooted humanity. Tomoko Mayama brings surprising depth to the unevenly written role of a prostitute, essentially the only other redeeming character in this story besides Daigoro, the innocent youngster. It’s unlikely that these performances would come across quite as well in the anime format. Lone Wolf and Cub remains best known as a printed work, but it’s hard to imagine this material being done any better on-screen than it is in Sword of Vengeance.