In this second instalment of the cult Lone Wolf and Cub, Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and infant son Daigoro take on a Shogunate plot to steal a region’s indigo dye techniques, do battle with a legion of ninjas and plenty of sword maidens, and spray buckets of luminously-red blood. It’s Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972)! When I reviewed the first film in the series, I wrote how deeply disappointed I was; it was not the vital action classic I was imagining. Does the sequel manage to right those wrongs?
The blunt answer is no: Baby Cart at the River Styx does not suddenly make the series a must-see, though it is certainly an improvement over the original film. It does away with much of the narration and exposition that so dragged out Sword of Vengeance, meaning that even though both films have a very similar run time, Styx feels mercifully shorter. There’s hardly any exposition at all, or even a recap of the first film’s events that set Ogami and his son on their wandering path through feudal Japan. Instead it starts as it means to continue with a ludicrous fight sequence that establishes the Yagyu clan are still seeking Ogami’s head and moves swiftly on.
The bulk of the plot sees Ogami, still working as an assassin for hire, agreeing to stop the Shogunate from stealing a region’s dye techniques, which will lead to their financial ruin. It’s a remarkably niche concern and probably gets the most dialogue in the entire film. To do so, he’ll have to get through the ‘BenTenRai’, a trio of warriors wielding esoteric weapons, all the while pursued by a ninja clan and the Aya-Yagyu dispatched to hunt him down.
Lone Wolf and Cub is not high concept, and I feel any criticism about the depth of plot is misplaced. I have plenty of time for “bad” movies, especially “bad” martial arts action movies. Give me any of the nonsensical Jackie Chan movies from the 80s or 90s, or one of Tony Jaa’s incoherent outings, so long as they’re entertaining to watch. Lone Wolf and Cub leans in this direction, swapping kung fu or muay thai for Japanese swordplay, but it feels hopelessly inauthentic. Wakayama, reprising his role as Ogami, looks perfectly comfortable with a sword – especially when performing chiburi, or flicking blood from his sword, and sheathing it – but the fight choreography is all over the place. It’s bogged down by cheap early ‘70s special effects that in 2017 just look goofy.
Of course, context is important: perhaps when first viewed in 1972, or in the early ‘80s when it came to the US as Shogun Assassin (spliced together with a chunk of Sword of Vengeance), audiences hadn’t seen anything like it. It certainly runs at its manga source material with gusto. Ninjas leap onto the ceiling, limbs fly off, huge geysers of paint-red blood spurt everywhere, and the titular baby cart is once again riddled with bizarre weapons ready to pop out at a moment’s notice. Now, though, viewed without a filter of nostalgia, it seems completely overshadowed by more modern, similarly terrible films – terrible, but more accomplished at the same goal, like Versus or one of Takashi Miike’s gorier, less artistically successful films. It’s hard for me to read a modern critic like Stuart Galbraith IV look back at Shogun Assassin and find the time to praise its “memorable scenes” or “attention to mise-en-scene” without feeling bewildered, though I am now fascinated by the prospect of the “strange but effective electronic score” the American edit supposedly introduces.
Cartoonish ultra-violence aside, Baby Cart at the River Styx does at least seem to make more of an effort at building a relationship between Ogami and his son Daigoro, but Wakayama is completely leaden throughout. He’s utterly mirthless. If he seemed to be having fun with the over-the-top film, that might be enough to get me on board, but it doesn’t seem like he enjoyed a second of it. Again looking over at Shogun Assassin, the conceit added for that film is that the whole thing is narrated by a dubbed Daigoro, which is meant to be “pricelessly funny”. With no joy, and almost no warmth towards Daigoro, there seems to be nothing to cling on to. It should be easy to milk that relationship, but the film fails almost completely at getting me invested. If it’s a genre tale of a parent (or surrogate parent) on the road with a child in tow, dragged through violent situations and trying to keep them both alive, there are dozens of better examples: Logan, The Road, and The Last of Us immediately spring to mind (inexplicably, I can find no particular TV Trope to describe this scenario, though Papa Wolf and Mama Bear are frequently invoked).
With two films down, I remain baffled by the enduring popularity of Lone Wolf and Cub as this cult relic. I never want to completely dismiss a film: even a terrible movie can have an enduring impact. Yet with four films to go, I’m increasingly sceptical of Lone Wolf and Cub’s place in Japanese movie canon.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx / 子連れ狼 三途の川の乳母車
Director: Kenji Misumi
Japanese Release Date: 27th April 1972
Version Watched: 81 min (Criterion Collection)