Examining The Iconic Japanese Samurai Film That Inspired 'The Mandalorian'

(Welcome to The Movies That Made Star Wars, a series where we explore the films and television properties that inspired George Lucas's iconic universe. In this edition: Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance.)Samurai movies have long held a place in the inspiration of Star Wars. It began with The Hidden Fortress, which was one of the earliest influences on George Lucas's creation of Star Wars, but Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance is perhaps the latest in that line of important Jidaigeki films that brought new life to Star Wars. Even the word, Jidaigeki, which translates to mean "period dramas," had a hand in shaping Star Wars and is thought to be where the word "Jedi" came from. What better place than Japan to take the name for a spiritual, futuristic samurai warrior with a blade and a code of honor?The words "Lone Wolf and Cub" are some of the first to come to mind when one takes a look at The Mandalorian. Watching the Mandalorian (a culture rooted as a Samurai stand-ins) protecting a young baby and fighting through wave after wave of enemies evokes the very same feelings.Lone Wolf and Cub's influence on The Mandalorian is immediately apparent, and makes it a must-watch for cineastes and Star Wars fans alike. But there's so much more to it.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance

Based on the manga comic books that began publishing in 1970 by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance is one of the rare '70s comic book movies that work. That it doubles as a sort of exploitation flick that would rise to prominence in that era certainly didn't hurt its reputation as important either. The Wu-Tang Clan even sampled dialogue from a bastardized English language version of the film and if you squint, it looks very much like a Quentin Tarantino film (particularly Kill Bill). Looking past the offensive marks of its age, the film is thrilling in its execution as it blends the quiet reserve of a Kurosawa film with the violent action of exploitation cinema. Directed by Kenji Misumi, it tells the tale of Itto Ogami, the Shogun's Executioner. When a competing clan frames him for a crime he didn't commit, he goes on the run to seek his vengeance. Unfortunately, the framers have also killed his wife, leaving him with his toddler son, Daigoro, to look after. In a particularly tense scene, he offers Daigoro a sword or a brightly colored ball. The two-year old is given a choice he doesn't comprehend, though his father is convinced his destiny will make the right choice for him. If he chooses the ball, he will join his mother in the afterlife. If he chooses the sword, he takes the life of the assassin with his father.Naturally, he chooses the sword.The aesthetic of the grizzled ronin seeking revenge while pushing a child in a cart is at the heart of The Mandalorian. Granted, the circumstances of the Mandalorian finding the child and Ogami's situation are miles apart, the eventual effect is the same. The fight scenes in Lone Wolf and Cub have a hand-held energy to them and an intensity that feels replicated in The Mandalorian, particularly any time Mando has to face off against the forces of the Empire. There's an tension in the action that finds you laughing when it's released and I find that true of both Lone Wolf and The Mandalorian.

The Climactic Duel

The thing about the Lone Wolf is that he allows everyone to underestimate him, especially since the child's pram is as full of tricks and surprises as a Mandalorian's gauntlets. As we get closer to reaching the climax of the film, the targets he's been hired to assassinate close in on him and he is without his precious sword. Though he is disarmed, he is not defenseless and we find that the baby carriage has been hiding a number of secrets, including weapons.The most surprising might be its bullet proof underside, as one of the targets is a pistol-wielding maniac. It feels much the same as a moment Clint Eastwood has in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), which was also lampooned in Back to the Future III, where he reveals a makeshift bulletproof vest. The Man With No Name Trilogy is often cited as an inspiration for Star Wars, Jeremy Bulloch's portrayal of Boba Fett, in particular.The energy of this action scene in Sword of Vengeance and the reveal of each of the weapons feels very much like numerous fights the Mandalorian has on the show, in particular the use of the whistling birds in the third episode, "The Sin," directed by Deborah Chow.The way the stakes build and we learn more and more of the former executioner's skill and the more danger he faces, the more invested we become in the outcome of the fight. The Mandalorian builds those stakes episode after episode in many of the same ways, creating that perfect balance of character, context, and action.

Classic Cinema

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance is a classic of Japanese filmmaking in the mode of '70s exploitation. It alternates vibrantly between loud and quiet and it has a bombastic sense of violence that will put a smile on your face. You really can't help smiling when you see that much technicolor-red blood gush everywhere. Doubly so when the baddies deserve it.And Tomisaburô Wakayama's portrayal of the Lone Wolf is every bit as stoic as Pedro Pascal's turn in The Mandalorian. In fact, Wakayama's job might have even been harder, as he had to produce the stone-cold sangfroid with his face without the benefit of a Mandalorian helmet.Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance as well as the other five films in the Lone Wolf and Cub series are currently streaming on The Criterion Channel. You can find them in a gorgeous Blu-ray box set from Criterion as well. A warning for viewers: there is a horrifying rape scene in the film and a situation where the Lone Wolf must sleep with a sex worker in order to save both of their lives. It definitely shows its age in ways that modern audiences will find unnecessary and offensive.