Excellent samurai drama starring the great Raizo Ichikawa
I had never even heard of LONE WOLF ISAZO (HITORI OKAMI, 1968) before finding it for sale by a dealer who specializes in classic foreign films on DVD. This is another one of those unsung Japanese classics that has flown under the radar of American fans (well, this one at least) for the last four decades. It stars Raizo Ichikawa (1931-1969), best known stateside for playing Kyoshiro Nemuri in the SLEEPY EYES OF DEATH film series and one of the more intense samurai actors, notable for bringing a more modern look and style of acting to his period films. In this one, he plays Isazo, a legendary gambler/swordsman in 19th century Japan whose story is related by a yakuza hanger-on, Magoshichi of Agematsu (Isamu Nagato), a shrewd but likable fellow whose path crosses with that of Isazo at various points in the narrative. They have a friendly relationship for much of the film, despite Isazo's fierce independent streak, until the big finale, when they are on opposite sides of a yakuza clan war. We gradually learn Isazo's back story, in which he was an orphan taken in by a nobleman who is outraged when Isazo grows up and falls in love with Lady Yoshino (Mayumi Ogawa), the noble's daughter. When Yoshino, who is pregnant, balks at running away with him out of fears for the baby's future, Isazo goes off on his own for a life of gambling and serving as a sword for hire. Eventually, he comes back to the town where it all started and reconnects with Yoshino and meets his son, now eight years old, for the first time and manages to find opportunities to give the brave boy some practical advice and object lessons.
Although there are plenty of brief swordfighting confrontations and a big action finale, I hesitate to call it an action film. It's more of a drama about how Isazo comes to terms with the decisions he's made and how he must cope with the shock of seeing Yoshino again and meeting his son. There are plenty of gambling scenes as well, always a pleasure in films like this. It's interesting to watch the shifting relationships Isazo has with Magoshichi (spelled Magohachi in the subtitles of the copy I have) and the latter's young disciple, Hanji. It's all beautifully shot in color and widescreen on a mixture of locations and atmospheric studio sets. There's an effective dramatic score provided by Takeo Watanabe.
I wasn't familiar with anyone in the cast aside from Ichikawa, but I was most intrigued by Isamu Nagato, who plays Magoshichi with a knowing, insouciant air, taking in everything and acting only when propitious until his moral sense kicks in and compels him to take a stand. I look forward to seeing him in more movies from that era. The child actor who plays Isazo's son shows great poise and has a remarkable resemblance to Ichikawa. The director is Kazuo Ikehiro, who also directed several entries in the ZATOICHI and SLEEPY EYES OF DEATH series. What other undiscovered samurai and yakuza classics await me?
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