This is the second in a series of BLIND SPOT essays on the Lone Wolf and Cub series. The master list, with links to the other films, is here.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx is a fantastic action picture, one of the best ever made. Though it stands on its own, it reinforces and deepens the characters and thematic threads of the first film, Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance. Director Kenji Misumi snatches the aesthetic of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns and plops it down into samurai territory. The result is a thrilling, adrenaline-surging adventure, sure to please action fans and Tarantino devotees.
It’s difficult not to compare Baby Cart at the River Styx to Shogun Assassin at least a little, since the latter film is almost entirely made up of footage from the former. I expected to be slightly bored, since I’d seen the images before; I couldn’t have been more wrong! They should teach these two movies in film schools, not only to show how editing scenes and sequences differently can produce different results—that’s a given. But to show how this, combined with radically different sounds and music, provoke vastly different emotional experiences in an audience.
Frankly, scenes here didn’t seem all that familiar, even though I watched Shogun mere days ago; I just felt brief swellings of déjà vu. If the American remix is thrilling because of its abstractness, Baby Cart at the River Styx is thrilling because you know the characters and the stakes. And, naturally, this film has a much different plot than the American version. So some of the stakes weren’t even present before. I realise I’m talking as though they released Shogun Assassin before the original, but that’s the order I saw them in, as did most of the US and UK.
Anyway, the story here involves our hero, Ogami Itto, and his son, Ogami Daigoro, performing another assassination for hire. A remote village has a special process for producing indigo dye. The shogun wants this formula, and has sent people to incite unrest in the village’s workers: demanding better working conditions, pay, etc. The agitation becomes so great, one of the workers schemes to sell the dye process to the shogun. The village elders task Ogami with killing the defector.
There’s very nearly something political here: the idea that the shogun instigates what are basically union strikes into the village. It’s interesting to me that Ogami always asks his patrons to reveal all the ‘secrets and reasons’ behind their requests to kill. But Ogami never cares about them, ultimately. Here, he doesn’t asks about the workers’ conditions, or comment upon them. He gets his money, and does his job.
While all this is goes on, the Kurokawa network of spies (introduced in the last film) tasks a group of Yagyu ninja with killing Ogami. These ‘sword mistresses’ are an all-female group of assassins, so the Kurokawa are initially unsure if they are up to the task. Some kind of test is needed.
So here’s something I didn’t really get about the testing of the female ninja. The head of the sword mistresses, Sayaka, asks for the most skilled of the Kurokawa. The women attack him, slowly severing parts of his body, first an ear, then his nose, then arms and legs, etc. But, they attack him all at once. It’s not really fair, is it? Okay, so the sword mistresses can kill the best ninja if they attack all at once. Is this really a test of their skill? They’ve really just proven that a dozen of them can kill one attacker. This seems to satisfy the Kurokawa, however; the women get the job. But when the Yagyu assassins finally meet Ogami, they attack him in small groups or pairs! How foolish this seems. They do manage to make radishes deadly weapons, however, which clearly takes some stupendous ninja skill.
Through both of these films, and especially Baby Cart at the River Styx, I’ve wondered what keeps Ogami so damn calm in the face of all this danger. Of course, you can assume it’s because of his unrivalled prowess, but he’s not invincible. He does sustain a critical injury in his encounter with the female ninja, and Daigoro must look after him for a spell. No, his calm is deeper, psychic. Once he has rested, the Kurokawa ninja kidnap his son, and he races after them. One of the assassins actually asks why he doesn’t seem perturbed, leading to this response:
‘My son and I walk the demon way in Hell, so we’re not ordinary humans. …If I am to lose everything here, then I must accept the destiny of the demon way.’ Ah! But if you’re just accepting what comes, why chase after your son, or do much of anything? ‘…Who would allow everything to take its own course? I shall do my best, and then wait for destiny.’ He then tells Daigoro to prepare to meet his mother by the River Styx, should it come to that.
This supports my thesis for why the violence is the way it is, referenced in the earlier essay. A ronin is in a different class to ordinary humans, and therefore subject to a different class of violence. Normal, everyday human concerns fade into background noise.
This also helps to explain a scene that initially baffled me. After the business on the ship, Sayaka follows Ogami and Daigoro to a nearby shelter. Ogami disrobes himself, and then launches at Sayaka, forcing her down and stripping her of her clothing. Seriously? I thought. He’s going to rape her? With his son right there? But, no. Once he removes the last of her clothing, he explains that there is no fire. He places Daigoro between them and says they must all cling together to be warm. So why would Misumi mislead the audience into thinking that our hero is about to engage in a primal, barbaric act? To reinforce the point that such instincts are beneath him, for he is no longer some quotidian human. He’s above desire, and above the need to explain himself.
Don’t get the wrong idea from this analysis; I might be making everything seem a bit more weighty than I mean to. The most important thing to know about Baby Cart at the River Styx is that it is damned exciting all the way through. It’s the sort of film where the action never really lets up, but modulates itself so that it doesn’t become flat. It’s thrilling, enthralling, and has set the bar high for the rest of the series.