Eye For Film >> Movies >> Lone Wolf And Cub: White Heaven In Hell (1974) Film Review
Lone Wolf And Cub: White Heaven In Hell
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
After the lush landscapes we've seen at the start of most earlier Lone Wolf And Cub/Baby Cart/Sword Of Vengeance films, the final episode, White Heaven In Hell, sets its tone at the outset with a bleak snowscape. The baby cart has now been mounted on skis and little Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) gazes fearfully at the strange shapes of snow-covered rocks as they pass by. His father, Ogami Itto (Tomisaburô Wakayama) has, after all, raised him to believe that they are among demons. Perhaps they have finally reached Hell.
Our heroes' sworn enemy, Yagyu Retsudo (Minoru Ôki), has also begun to reach his limit. Having run out of samurai sons to send against them, he sends his daughter Kaori (Junko Hitomi), a knife fighter with impressive skills whose weakness is, perhaps, that she is more humane than Itto - despite her fondness for stabbing her foes in the head. He also seeks out his illegitimate son, Hyoe (Isao Kimura), who understandably doesn't want to help him (a salutary lesson for any parents who have been tempted to abandon their offspring on a mountainside at the age of five), but who decides to take on Itto anyway in the hopes of making a name for himself. Lacking both humanity and a fully developed sense of honour, he makes a disturbing opponent, and Itto must use psychology as well as swordsmanship to keep him at bay.
In light of these developments, White Heaven In Hell is the darkest episode in the series, well suited to the talents of director Yoshiyuki Kuroda, who - with the biggest budget of the series at his disposal - pulls off some impressive set pieces but also builds up a brooding atmosphere, letting the tension build throughout rather than come and go as it did in previous installments. Although the film ultimately ducks the ending that Kazuo Koike fought for in his manga, there's a sense that our heroes are coming towards the end of their journey, Itto borne down by the weight of the lives he has taken. Retsudo is ready to step in himself and see it all ended.
All this culminates, as it rightly should, in the series' most spectacular set piece battle. Snatches of James Bond themes in the music set the stage for a snowy showdown in which skiers armed with spears leap overhead as Daigoro shelters in the armoured baby cart and Itto strives to fend them off, one after another. The sequence is impressively shot and allows Wakayama room to show off his fighting skills at their finest. Famously, this was the only scene ever to exhaust him, and ended up having to be filmed in two parts. You won't see the join. Cinematographer Chikashi Makiura perfectly matches light and tone to make a complicated series of shots blend seamlessly, and it's impossible not to be focused on the action.
Though that altered ending robs the series of some of its power, Kuroda is skillful enough to ensure that it retains its poetry. Wakayama delivers as an actor as well as as a swordsman, and brief moments in which we see the bond he has with Tomikawa add depth to the story, perhaps changing the viewer's opinion of a father who use his son as a shield. Perhaps, even in the Bushido era, revenge isn't everything.Reviewed on: 24 Mar 2017