My experiences with the first two Lone Wolf and Cub movies didn’t fill me with excitement for the remaining four films in Criterion’s box set. I don’t regret watching them, but I was starting to regret owning the collection – all the more reason to be sad Amazon was shuttering its LoveFilm rental service. And yet! Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (1972) performs the nigh impossible task of course-correcting from the previous films, with drastically improved cinematography and fight scenes, as well as more interesting character interactions. While still by no means a perfect film, it took me by surprise, and reinvigorated my interest in the series.
Continuing the episodic nature of the previous films, which surely harks back to its origin as a long-running manga, Baby Cart to Hades is another series of vignettes. The reliance on this episodic structure is both a blessing and a curse, with some vignettes being far more interesting than others. It still follows Itto Ogami and his son Daigoro on the road through Shogunate-era Japan, but the overall series arc involving itinerant ronin Ogami and his enemies in the Yagyu clan hunting him down is almost completely absent. The Yagyu material – and beardy villain Retsudo Yagyu – was the worst part of Sword of Vengeance, though handled better in Baby Cart at the River Styx, and I didn’t miss it for a moment. The one thread loosely connecting everything in Baby Cart to Hades is bushido, the way of the samurai.
Where bushido barely got a mention in the previous film, Hades is obsessed with it. This can be fascinating, but it also means many character motivations are somewhat opaque. Early in the film, Ogami encounters a group of mercenaries who have ambushed and attempted to rape some female travellers. The ronin in their group intervenes to kill everyone involved so as not to bring shame to the master currently employing them – even though that means killing innocent people. For witnessing it, he challenges Ogami to a duel, but before it even begins Ogami calls it a draw. He has no wish to stop this ronin from continuing to live as a ‘true samurai’. These baffling questions of honour and duty and what makes a ‘true samurai’ dog the rest of the film.
The weakest vignette involves Ogami coming to the aid of a young woman sold into prostitution, with him fending off the yakuza running the brothel she had been sold to and accepting a bizarre punishment in her place. It rather stops the film dead in its tracks, but does set up the final arc, with Ogami once more hired as an assassin for another hit. Once more, questions of honour and duty come into play as a backstory involving a lord gone mad and refusing to commit ritual suicide unfolds (if nothing else, this whole sequence reminded me heavily of Miike’s remake of 13 Assassins).
It’s hard to pin down exactly why this film works better than Sword of Vengeance or Baby Cart at the River Styx. Much of it appears to come down to either an improvement in production value or sheer luck. Vengeance came out in January ‘72, so it was probably filmed in the winter of ‘71. Styx was likely filmed in early ‘72. Released in August or September 1972 (depending on the source), Hades looks like it was filmed in high summer. Every environment is lush and green, the sound of cicadas bombards most scenes, and the atmosphere of oppressive, humid heat infects everything. This is a good thing, because the previous two films were completely devoid of atmosphere. As far as I can see looking at IMDB’s cast and crew listings, there’s no obvious reason for the improvement in the visuals; everyone from the director, Kenji Misumi, to the cinematographer, art director, fight choreographer, and editor seems to have remained the same. Perhaps everyone was simply inspired by the natural world in full summer, or maybe they just had a much larger budget to work with. If nothing else, the final sequence involves dozens more extras in a giant action sequence larger and busier than anything attempted in the earlier films – a sure sign more money was involved.
So, everything looks better, and the film lands on some more intriguing storylines, even if the emphasis on bushido can be harder to interpret. It also, finally, seems to develop some humour and warmth between Ogami and Daigoro, like in the scene during the opening credits where the two are splashing and play-fighting while bathing in a river.
It’s not without flaws. The interlude with the yakuza and their bondage-water torture is a huge misfire, and the much improved fight choreography is undermined by the final duel – but it can’t completely undermine the impressive sequence beforehand in which Ogami takes on ridiculously improbable odds with his signature, equally improbable baby cart full of weapons. Despite those flaws, though, Baby Cart to Hades suddenly makes the series exciting and watchable, and I’m hoping this burst of creative energy (and improved budget) carries forward into the final three episodes. Of course, Kenji Misumi, only just seeming to get a grip on Lone Wolf and Cub, only returns to direct the fifth film, so the other directors will be unknown quantities.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades / 子連れ狼 死に風に向う乳母車
Director: Kenji Misumi
Japanese Release Date: 2nd September 1972
Version Watched: 89 min (Criterion Collection)