This is the third 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 the literal Japanese translation of Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades’s title is ‘Child-friendly Wolf: A Pram that Dies in the Wind’? (Thanks, anonymous online translation service!) That name actually isn’t as descriptive as the original English-language title, Shogun Assassin 2: Lightning Swords of Death. Like lightning, the swords on display are swift, injurious, and in this instalment, rare.
But not too rare. Director Kenji Misumi dials back the nonstop action of the previous episode, Baby Cart at the River Styx, and does so in such a manner that makes Baby Cart to Hades even more exciting. By limiting the action sequences to just a few, he is able to explore ways to craft indelible, Sergio Leone-style suspense.
You know, the prospect of synopsising this entry is quite wearying. By now, I’m realising that keeping straight the slew of proper nouns, character names, and ancient locations thrown at the audience every chapter isn’t really necessary. It’s all mostly just a pretext to keep the action going. Certainly, it helps to keep in mind that the Yagyu clan is after our hero, and the Kurokawa clan maintain the spy network of ninja about the country, but the specifics of the plot are seldom very important.
But here, there are a few plot points that illuminate new facets of the taciturn main character, Ogami. The first two reels deal in part with a young woman, recently sold into prostitution. In a small hotel, her pimp attempts to rape her, but she succeeds in biting off his tongue—an injury from which he rapidly and inexplicably dies. (Seriously, it wasn’t even his whole tongue; it looked like just the tip.) The girl flees into Ogami’s room by chance, as the madame of the local brothel comes to collect her. He refuses to give her up, and offers himself as payment for the slain pimp.
Now, why exactly does Ogami offer himself up to save this woman? The madame doesn’t want him for prostitution, of course, but she seems willing to torture him a bit and call it even. He notices the young girl is in possession of a memorial tablet, suggesting she lost someone close to her. He knows all about this, of course; the Yagyu murdered his wife in the first episode, Sword of Vengeance. Does he feel a kind of kinship with her? Or is this about saving face? After all, he initially defended her after she took refuge in his room, and hid her for a spell. Maybe he feels he’s in too deep.
Or maybe, you know, he has a bit of a heart. He stated in the last movie that his road was a demonic one, and how he and his son aren’t like other humans… maybe he has a bit of a heart after all. In any case, his exact motivations are never explored, but he endures a form of water torture and much flogging to pay off the woman’s debt.
We also learn another interesting tidbit. Eventually the madame hires Ogami to kill the man responsible for the fall of her clan, a man named Sawatari, and all of his henchmen. He agrees. By a startling coincidence, Sawatari himself summons Ogami to a meeting; he wants to hire out the Lone Wolf and Cub to kill a visiting minister. Ogami refuses. Now, I’m not a highly skilled ronin, but what I would do is kill the minister, then kill Sawatari, and collect the money for each. But Ogami just retreats, after a tense and suspenseful refusal. Even Sawatari senses that the refusal is odd, and surmises that this must mean he is a mark.
So, it’s notable that Ogami refused the second hire. I deduce that this means, once an assassination has been agreed to, the mark is as good as dead, and a samurai will therefore enter into no agreements with one. It’s also clear that our hero has no real need for extra money. Oh, yeah; I don’t know if I mentioned it before, but Ogami’s fee for an assassination is 500 ryō. Note that this is not 500 per assassination, but 500 per job. In agreeing to dispatch Sawatari and his men, Ogami agreed to basically kill 200 men, and collect only 500 ryō in return. The demonic path does not involve profit, it seems.
I mentioned before that Baby Cart to Hades has less action than its predecessor, but this allows time for other things. Now we can notice what a master Misumi is at staging. His arrangement of actors and mise-en-scène is impeccable.
Consider the first scene after the opening credits. (I apologise—I was unable to procure screenshots for discussion, but this will make sense once you see the film.) It’s a simple dialogue scene among four low-level warriors by the side of a highway. The scene is all in one take, and the way the actors move about the screen, always somehow maintaining a balanced composition is entrancing. The static shot ends with a flourish of camera movement that punctuates the scene as well as gently sliding into the introduction of more characters.
I’ve not mentioned cinematographer Chikashi Makiura in this sequence of essays, but that was a horrible oversight. The slower pace allows the beauty of his images to flourish. They seem to exist in this cinematic sweet spot between manga and reality.
I already alluded to the Leone-type suspense throughout Baby Cart to Hades, and this was not an exaggeration. Misumi is brilliant in his ability to sustain the tension in a scene, like a band of rubber pulling taut, until—snap! There is a sudden, cathartic eruption of violence. This is most apparent in the climactic battle scene, where Ogami takes on a phalanx of 200 or so men single-handedly. Man, this baby cart seems to gain new functions and abilities with each passing instalment. Here it has bombs, guns, new blades—a veritable arsenal. More I will not spoil.
This franchise sure is shaping up to be one the best in world cinema. Each subsequent instalment is better than the last. Oh, wait. Crap! I shouldn’t have said that! Now I’m afraid I just jinxed it. Well, I’ll let you know tomorrow, when I review Baby Cart in Peril.