Criterion puts together a rather cool special edition for the series that I think should make a lot of fans fairly giddy, especially since it appears to be the most complete and comprehensive version that exists. Outside of the theatrical trailers that accompany their respective films over the first two discs, the bulk of the setís special features are found on the third dual-layer disc.
The most impressive inclusion (as I thought the rights were tied up with other entities) is the inclusion of the English language version of the first and second film, Shogun Assassin. The film actually contains very little from the first film, really only taking the origin story of Itto, and ignoring pretty much the rest of the plot. It takes most of its story from the second film, I assume because itís the bloodier one of the two. It would have been easy to just make a mess out of this but Iím actually rather impressed with what was constructed here: we actually do get a fairly coherent film. Thanks to dubbing (and then a voice over from the young Daigoro) the plot is adjusted as needed but the last half follows closely to the rest of the second film. Some exposition is also cut out and the action is more of the focus, explaining the filmís rather short running time of 85-minutes, which is shorter than both the original versions of the first and second films on their own.
Unfortunately it looks like Criterion is using an older high-definition master and havenít given it a thorough run-through. Damage is still pretty heavy and compression is apparent. Colours are a bit washed and black levels arenít all that strong. Still, I think the very fact Criterion included this version is a huge selling point and makes this release feel pretty complete all on its own. The features is also accompanied with notes explaining the backstory to this edit along with the original theatrical trailer.
Continuing on through the features Criterion next includes the very thorough 2005 French produced making-of Lame díun pŤre, lí‚me díun sabre, which I think roughly translates to Blade of a Father, the Soul of a Sword. The documentary only runs 52-minutes but it wonderfully covers the series from its early beginnings as a Manga series (with writer Kazuo Koike appearing) through its six films and the eventual television series, which ended up killing the film franchise. Its participants (which also includes but not limited to director Buichi Saito, producer Masanori Sanada, and director of photography Fujio Morita) also talk about this particular time period in Japanese cinema, where the studios had to compete with television and had present more extreme content to attract audiences, like the graphic violence (at least for the time) and sex/nudity found in these films. We also hear various stories around the productions, particularly between star Tomisaburo Wakayama and his producer brother, Zatoichiís Shintaro Katsu (thereís a humourous one about Katsu hating a song by Wakayama at the end of one of the films), along with budget concerns (the last film cost a ridiculous amount of money at the time), and the process of adapting the original stories to film. I was impressed with this documentary as it not only manages to cram in so much in its short running time but it also manages to be very entertaining.
Criterion manages to get another interview with Kazuo Koike (who previously participated for Criterionís Lady Snowblood release), writer of the original Manga series. Running less than 12-minutes the writer gives a backstory to how the original Manga series was born and his intent with the characters, while also sharing stories about the early development process of the film series. These stories include Koike receiving a series of never ending calls from Wakayama, who passionately wanted the lead role, despite being overweight and looking nothing like the character. He was eventually able to demonstrate to Koike why he felt he could do the part and Koike eventually relented, though this led to the fight scenes having to be customized a bit to fit Wakayamaís frame. He likes the films but admits to not being too fond of the television series, and explains some of the opposition he had faced from its producers. Since we donít get much else about the original graphic books getting an interview with the original author is the next best thing, and getting his first-hand feelings on the series adds weight.
The series had a few directors, but the director of the first one, Kensi Misumi, laid out the ground work, directing four of the films, and in this short 12-minute discussion, biographer Kazuma Nozawa talks about his career and how he ended up working on the Lone Wolf films. He also talks about his style and points out how it shows through in the films he worked on.
Criterion then includes a couple of rather interesting features on the swords and swordplay in the film. With On Suio-ryu Criterion provides an interview with Sensei Yoshimitsu Katsuse at his own Dojo, who talks about the style of swordsmanship. His discussion is only 13-minutes long but he covers a lot of ground, offering a history of the art, explaining how itís taught (using real weapons, admitting there have been close calls), and even offers demonstrations with weapons. He also talks about martial arts films and his disappointment in how they present the various styles, even talking about the Lone Wolf films. Itís a wonderful piece and probably my favourite feature on here.
The disc then closes with the 1939 silent short film The Sword of the Samurai, which is a 30-minute documentary about the making of a traditional Samurai sword through the various steps. It doesnít directly relate to the films but I found it an intriguing addition and I doubt I would have seen this otherwise.
The discs come in a nice looking digipak and it includes a booklet featuring an essay on the series and then a write-up on each individual film. In a clever bit of design, Criterion also has hidden a folded up diagram of the baby cart of death in the spine of the outer slip: just open the tab of the spine and youíll find the folded up piece of paper.
Thereís more that could have been added for sure: more on the original Manga books and then maybe even some more about the television series. Still, as it is, this is a pretty loaded edition that has obviously kept fans of the series in mind. 9/10