This is the fifth 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.
Did you know that, when Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons first hit the US in DVD form, they listed the title as Shogun Assassin 4: Five Fistfuls of Gold? The only reason I keep mentioning old monikers for the films in this series is that they are actually more descriptive than the real titles. I mean, Baby Cart in Peril? That could be the title of any one of the entries in Lone Wolf and Cub, and it would fit perfectly. I mean, Slashing Blades of Carnage would work for any title as well… Hm.
But Five Fistfuls of Gold works particularly well for Baby Cart in the Land of Demons, for that’s more or less the premise of the movie. Ogami Itto, our placid, unflappable samurai hero, defends himself against a random assassin in the countryside. Except, the swordsman is not so random: as he dies, he offers Ogami 100 ryō for a job. There are four other men to follow, each offering him another hundred; the last man will officially request the assassination.
Of course, money is not enough. We remember that Ogami demands to hear all the ‘secrets and reasons’ for a kill before consenting. Now, here is how we know these films don’t take themselves too seriously: each assassin is supposed to test Ogami’s abilities in a specific way. They don’t actually know the order in which they will meet the Lone Wolf and Cub. Yet, as soon as our hero slays them, they begin to give him (and the audience) the expository background information about the assassination they want. Each picks up the story exactly where the last man left off. Silly, right? But it’s all part of the goofy fun the series gives.
Anyway, turns out that the leader of their clan has fallen in love with his mistress—so much, in fact, that he has locked his legitimate son away so that his illegitimate daughter can pose as the clan’s true daimyo. A Buddhist monk possesses a scroll giving the whole game away; Ogami is to fell the monk so no one can deliver the document to the shogun. The monk is travelling to Yagyu territory for protection, so this will be, you know, very dangerous.
But the plot thickens! A mysterious woman approaches Ogami, offering him an assassin’s wage. She wants him to kill a man, his concubine, and his small child. It isn’t stated straight away, but this matches the description of some characters we just heard about…
Baby Cart in the Land of Demons is probably the slowest-paced of any of the Lone Wolf and Cub films. This isn’t a bug, but a feature. There are two very important character moments in the film, and these require a slower pace to really sink into the audience. The first involves Ogami, in his quest to kill the Buddhist monk. He doesn’t dispatch the monk in their first encounter; the monk presents him with a grave spiritual ultimatum, that seems to shake him to his core. Perhaps ‘Baby Cart in the Land of Demons’ is an apposite title after all.
The second involves a lengthy sojourn featuring Ogami’s son, Daigoro. Though we saw him briefly separated from his father in the previous instalment, here he gets perhaps an entire reel all to himself. During some sort of celebratory festival, a female pickpocket attempts to evade the police. She slips a wallet to the stunned Diagoro, making him swear never to tell where he got it. The police soon find him with the stolen article, and threaten him with public flogging unless he reveals the cutpurse. After a few hits with a switch, the woman comes forward to make the punishment stop. But, even after she confesses to the police, the boy refuses to confirm her identity.
Maybe someone could persuade me that Diagoro’s interlude slows the pace of this individual movie, but when considering the series as a whole, it’s vital. Now, we see that the child has fully internalised the samurai code of his father, and is just as phlegmatic in the face of physical pain. Once he makes an oath, he doggedly sticks to it, no matter the consequences.
Kenji Misumi returns to the helm for this episode, and thank god. His brilliant staging is back, making the savage, bloody climax to Baby Cart in the Land of Demons the best yet. Joining him is newcomer cinematographer Fujio Morita, famous for lensing some of the Zatôichi films. Together the pair craft some of this series’ most indelible images. Note how they frame natural landscapes with the tender eye of a Japanese painter, before blotting them with the savagery of the characters’ actions.
Even if the films in this series aren’t getting progressively better as it goes along, the climaxes are. I cannot wait to see how the next chapter wraps up the narrative. In this one, we again saw Ogami’s perpetual nemesis, the leader of the Yagyu clan; clearly, the two must meet in epic battle.
Or I just up and jinxed everything again. Poop.