August 12, 2011

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart At the River Styx (1972)

Directed by Kenji Misumi. Starring Tomisaburo Wakayama ("Ogami Itto"), Koya Matsuyo ("Yagyu Sayaka"), Akiji Kobayashi ("Benma Hidari - Master of Death #1), Minoru Oki ("Tenma Hidari - Master of Death #2), and Shin Kishida ("Kuruma Hidari - Master of Death #3). Not Rated.

Source: Region 1 DVD (AnimEiga)
Running time: 01:21:01
Country: Japan

BABY CART AT THE RIVER STYX sees the titular "Lone Wolf" - exiled samurai Ogami Itto - continuing his quest for vengeance with infant son in tow, all while dodging various footsoldiers of his former clan who were sent to kill him. This time around, Itto offers his services as an assassin-for-hire to a clan of peasants and farmers who are basically being bullied by the Shogunate. The Awa clan run a lucrative dye business, and their lead indigo farmer has been captured by a neighboring clan who want to turn him over to the Shogunate, with hopes that he'll spoil the Awa's secretive process of manufacturing their unique dye. The Hidari Brothers - nicknamed the "Masters of Death" - are the official Shogunate escorts and all-around bad-asses, who are sent to pick up the captured indigo farmer and deliver him safely to the Shogunate. Itto's task is to intercept the three brothers - all of whom are skilled fighters who specialize in certain weapons.

Seeing the three Hidari Brothers, I couldn't help but wonder if John Carpenter was directly inspired by this film when he made BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. The three Gods from the Carpenter film bare a striking resemblance to the Hidari Brothers here; not just in terms of appearance, but in terms of their gimmick as well. Perhaps it's just my ignorance of Japanese culture overlooking the possibilities of the aforementioned characters from both films being inspired by historical figures, or characters rooted in folklore, but from a purely cinematic point of view it's an interesting coincidence.

Lest we forget the fact that Itto's former acquaintances want him dead. Itto's former superiors vowed to leave him be due to him winning a fair fight against one of their best men, but it doesn't mean he's in the clear. It's fair game for the spies and assassins of the Yagyu clan, and in this film members of a female clan associated with the Yagyu are given the task of eliminating Itto. This is all set up early on during one of the film's most impressive scenes, in which the female assassins prove their worthiness of such a task by completely dismantling one of the ninjas who was sent to relay the message, reducing him to an armless, legless, and almost faceless human being.

At a certain point, Itto will inevitably cross paths with the female assassins and the Hidari Brothers, not to mention the fact that he has to protect his son the whole time. Nothing more really needs to be said about the plot.

I'm not sure how much longer this takes place after the first film, but Itto's young son appears to be slightly older and bordering an adolescence. Despite the short running time and the potential obstacles that Itto faces throughout, there's a lot of down time in the film in which we really get to see the connection between the former Shogunate executioner and his son. They don't exactly play catch or anything like that, but there are a lot of quiet moments that drive home the point of them having only each other to rely on. And while Itto may not be the most affection father on the surface, you really see his paternal side come out when his son is put in harm's way, which happens at least once in the film. A far-fetched comparison might be to that of Godzilla protecting his seed. Also, there are some AMAZING reveals in the film as it pertains to the titular "baby cart" that Itto pushes his son around in; these reveals are absurd in context with the tone of the rest of the film, but they work.

As is if it weren't clear as to how much of a bad-ass Ogami Itto was in the previous film, here it's revealed that he actually leaves behind a trail so that his enemies can find him easier! He could easily take a more sneaky route, but seeing as he's a man of honor despite the circumstances he's in, he actually challenges his foes to come and find him. It speaks volumes about his character.

BABY CART AT THE RIVER STYX seems slightly smaller in scale than its predecessor, but it's just as fun, if not MORE fun to watch than SWORD OF VENGEANCE. The scenes of swordplay are truly awesome, and there was more than one occasion where my jaw nearly dropped at the sight of how well-executed the action sequences were in this film. My only complaint is that the film drags considerably in the middle; typically this wouldn't be a problem, but everything preceding the middle section of the film really gets your adrenaline going, and thus the momentum of the first half is killed for the time being. Otherwise, one of the more solid (and goriest!) examples of the Chanbara film that I've seen thus far (I haven't seen much, mind you).

Score: 7


  1. Good stuff, Aaron and it's nice to hear you're digging this series. I don't know if this will necessarily be helpful, but this is some stuff I recall from some of the books I have...

    Samurai and ninja were essentially of the same caliber of skill only the samurai followed the code of Bushido and the ninja had their own less honorable code of stealth and duplicitous means to get a job done whether by use of poisons, disguises and "magical" means. The Samurai would only ever fight you head on while the ninja would prefer to hit you from behind. Knowing that makes Ogami's brazen attitude towards them all the more satisfying.

    The Kunoichi, the female ninjas, according to books, weren't thought very highly of. Allegedly, they would be killed for the slightest offense and were even used as carriers of venereal diseases to weaken an enemy encampment. They also had their own form of ritual suicide called Jaiga where they would stab themselves in the throat as opposed to using a short sword to the stomach. Most of these movies and TV shows usually paint the female ninja as strong, if not stronger than the male ninja, though.

    Have you seen Chang Cheh's FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982) yet? That one is balls out wild from start to finish with a truck load of gore and an incredible amount of ingenuity. It, too, takes a lot of historically accurate ninjitsu techniques and weapons, but exaggerates them to an outrageous degree. It's been out legit here from Media Blasters for some time now.

    The ZATOICHI series might be of interest to you somewhere down the road. The violence and gore isn't anywhere near the level of LONE WOLF, but some of the later films did showcase some gory moments. Shintaro Katsu was Wakayama's brother and the two appeared together on occasion such as that MUTE SAMURAI TV show. There's a lot of great Chambara movies out there. It took me a while before I became more open to the films that weren't ultra gory and didn't have HK style choreographed fight scenes. The stories and characters went a long way in the overall enjoyment of the films. Okay, sorry for ramblin' on so long!

  2. I gave you an award!! :D

  3. Brian: Thanks for all of the info! No need to apologize... I appreciate the feedback very much.

    I'm not even gonna pretend to know the history of samurai and ninjas because I don't. I only go by the info provided in the film, and some minor research on the internet to make sure I'm wording things correctly. According to these films, the ninjas are spies for the Shogunate, but by you saying that ninjas follow a less than honorable "code" makes sense given how they're portrayed in cinema.

    I haven't seen FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS, but I added it to my queue. I'll be sure to check it out sooner than later while I'm on my 70's Asian film kick. Also, I plan on getting to the Zatoichi films at some point, especially since my video store actually carries all of them, surprisingly.

    Jenny: Thanks!

  4. These films are fantastic. Especially the ones directed by Kenji Misumi. The cinematography is stunning, which at times is on par with something you would see in a Stanley Kurbick film. Hands down, the best comic book adaptations ever.