When Lone Wolf is finished dealing out death he positions his sword at the mouth of his scabbard through a beautiful series of swipes that reverse the sword’s orientation and angle it in preparation for sheathing. The flourish and theatricality of the move is only made more beautiful by its economy. There is no fiddling, no hesitation only the execution of a movement that has been practiced and honed. Contained in this brief bit of film is a picture of Japanese culture and filmmaking.
Lone Wolf’s stern and immovable face, his theatrical posture and the gesture itself is reminiscent of Kabuki. It references a reverence for symbolic movements. These highly artificial actions and poses carry with them a long history of performative language. Their echoes are evident throughout Japanese filmmaking and acting technique to this day.
Zen Buddhism is not as old as Kabuki but Zen too focuses on movement and imbues all actions from flower arranging to archery and even the serving of tea with not only meaning but a means to attain enlightenment. Through the careful practice of meticulously perfected movement a practitioner can concentrate their attention so deeply that the task itself becomes transcendent. Critical here is the understanding that it is not the task or its importance that matters, it is the practitioner’s complete investment in the moment of execution that is crucial.
Haruo Nakajima was the man inside the Gojira suit. Movie goers would ever see his face and all he had to do was stomp around on a sound stage but he took the role very seriously. The suit was rubber. When it was all zipped up and the movie lights were turned on it got so hot that his boots would fill up with sweat. He had to undergo stamina training just to be able to get through the film. It may have been just a role as a Kaiju but he dedicated himself to it. It was a task that required discipline and dedication and he made sure he was up to it in order to honor not just the vision of the filmmakers, but the act itself. He had to do justice to his performance.
Tomisaburō Wakayama who played Lone Wolf must have practiced for hours to perfect the sheathing of his character’s sword, but even its gravity is not without humor as well. Lone Wolf has just finished committing the most spectacular display of gory violence which is humorous in its being so over the top but then he completes the brutal butchery with this colorful, dance like flourish. We see through his macho visage and we smile at the preposterous nature of what we are witnessing. The Lone Wolf series courts the ridiculous. Lone Wolf’s victims spray blood like a firehose or fountain. This exaggerated absurdity is a common element Japanese film. There are other film series like Female Prisoner Scorpion, or Hanzo The Razor that push past the bounds of possibility, but there is also a direct line to shows like The Power Rangers.
Lone Wolf also provides us with the iconic image of the ronin, like Kurosaway’s Yojimbo or Katsu’s Zatuichi. The image that would resonate around the world along with the western gunfighter, the questing knight, and the hard boiled private detective. All solitary men tinged with tragedy and often morally gray.
Lone Wolf exists in a deeply murky morality. He presents himself as a representative from hell, but his actions often result in a kind of justice. He lives both within the codes of his culture as well as outside them. He is the scape goat to be expelled from the city in hopes of purifying society, but he is also the outsider who sees through society’s hypocrisy. Japan has struggled for generations with its values. A system that provided identity but was often rigid and suffocating. All the way back to Tale of Genji or The 47 Ronin Japan has wrestled with how to adhere to strict discipline while still being humane.
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