Original series director Kenji Misumi returns for one final film in Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973). This fifth instalment again portrays an episodic series of events in which Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and his infant son are hired from their life on the road to commit an assassination, all the while pursued by the villainous Yagyu clan that schemed to have Ogami cut loose as a ronin way back in Sword of Vengeance. I wrote extensively about how the first and second films, both directed by Misumi, left me cold, but that his Baby Cart to Hades finally turned things around. I was disappointed by his being replaced with Buichi Saito for the fourth film just when it seemed like Misumi was getting into his stride, but Baby Cart in the Land of Demons gives him another chance. Would this be another series high point, or a disappointment like the first couple of films?
It’s almost impossible to answer that question without spoiling the climax of the film, which is something I normally try to avoid on Kino 893. Even if I think a film is rubbish (and that’s not exactly the case here), someone else might enjoy it, and I don’t want to ruin it for them. The end of Baby Cart in the Land of Demons, though, features such a significant event that I think it’s impossible to discuss the film without it, so keep an eye out for a spoiler warning if you wish to read ahead but haven’t watched the film yet and want to avoid a significant story detail.
Once again, Ogami is an itinerant wanderer, keeping on the road as he travels across feudal Japan, with his infant son Daigoro in an oddball wooden baby carriage packed to the brim with unlikely weaponry. Sticking to the vignette structure set up in the earlier films, that feels very strongly like it was adapted from individual issues of the original manga even if that’s not actually the case, the opening act sees the Kuroda clan trying to hire Ogami’s services as an assassin. It’s actually a pretty good sequence: five Kuroda vassals approach and challenge Ogami in an apparent test. They’re willing to sacrifice their lives in order for Ogami to prove his worthiness as an assassin, and with their dying breaths they explain who they need to have killed and the ‘secrets and reasons’ behind it. Their willingness to throw their lives away for the clan harks back to the similar emphasis on bushido and the somewhat mystifying motivations that spring out of that philosophy that featured so heavily in Baby Cart to Hades – incidentally, the Lone Wolf film Misumi last directed before this one.
Here, the film actually threw me for a loop, and for a moment I thought it had a fascinatingly progressive twist. The gist is that the Kuroda are led by the former lord’s male heir – except in actuality, they’re pretending the lord’s daughter is the male heir, and if that information gets out it will be the end of the clan. They want Ogami to kill an abbot who was entrusted with that very information but has turned out to have ties to the villainous Yagyu. I thought this was an interesting idea – that the clan was actually happy with it’s princess masquerading as a prince, and it was an interesting take on Japan’s patriarchal lineages. Only recently, discussion over whether to allow female succession to the imperial throne was a huge issue of debate, until the birth of a male heir put it on the backburner.
Unfortunately, I was completely wrong, and this is where I issue my spoiler warning.
I would need to rewatch Baby Cart in the Land of Demons to be completely sure, but I either misunderstood the initial plot or the film successfully misdirected me. Either way, Ogami eventually learns of the actual situation: the daughter masquerading as a prince is in fact the former lord’s mistress’ daughter, and the prince – his trueborn heir – is being held prisoner. Having acquired the letter the abbot was carrying to the Yagyu, Ogami insists on an audience with the ‘prince’ so he can hand it over, but that’s just an excuse to get close to the abdicated lord, his mistress, and the phony prince. What follows is a bloody battle with more of the Kuroda, one which leaves the former lord, his lover, and his daughter as the only survivors. And then Ogami fulfills his second contract of the film, and kills all three. That’s right: Ogami straight up decapitates a young child.
It’s hard to imagine most protagonists recovering from such an act, so it’s probably a testament to just how wooden and unlikeable Itto Ogami (or the portrayal by Tomisaburo Wakayama) is that I’m still not sure how much it really matters. I had no strong positive feelings about Ogami before he murdered a child for money, so it’s not like I feel betrayed by the characterisation. It’s not that I think the film was unnecessarily brutal in depicting the death of a child – as it happens, I’m re-reading The Walking Dead as I work my way towards the end of Lone Wolf and Cub, and that series also features the deaths (and indeed murder) of a number of children. That, however, is a zombie horror series that uses the deaths to push emotional buttons, telegraph the fallen state of the world, and say something about the characters who are doing the killing. The counterargument would be that Lone Wolf and Cub is trying to say something about the value of life in shogun-era Japan or the kind of man Ogami is, or has become, after losing his official role as executioner and becoming an assassin-for-hire. Yet the moment is barely allowed time to breathe before the film ends. There’s no contemplation of how the child Ogami killed is roughly the same age as his son Daigoro – indeed, the two had been pulling faces at each other only moments earlier.
It goes back to the recurring problem with the series which is that there’s basically no investment in the relationship between Ogami and his son. In an earlier review, I picked out one scene where the two are bathing in a river together and it stands out as just about the only time in the entire series, five films in, when the two seem to have any kind of relationship beyond being physically located in roughly the same space. In several films, including this one, Daigoro gets into scrapes because he wanders off; here, he meanders through a festival and gets caught up in a vignette about a pickpocket, eventually taking a thrashing from the police because he refuses to give up the pickpocket. During his punishment, Ogami watches silently from the crowd. Should we assume he is proud of his son for keeping his word to the pickpocket? Probably so – but we can also take away that Ogami will not intervene to protect his son from punishment, does not chastise Daigoro for running away and getting into trouble, and frequently puts his son into further danger anyway during his assassination missions. It often feels like Daigoro is entirely incidental to the story. He could be replaced with a sack of potatoes as long as Ogami still put it in the cart full of weapons.
I hate the cliché or trope that Japanese and/or Eastern motivations are inscrutable to a Western eye, but perhaps films like Lone Wolf and Cub are where those stereotypes come from. So much of the storytelling, such as it is, hinges upon blaming codes of honour – it’s why the vassals throw away their lives, it’s why Daigoro will not reveal the pickpocket, it’s why Ogami will murder a child to fulfil his contract. It creates a set of characters with at times utterly unrelatable, alien behaviour and motivations. What’s worse, though, is that the film does not follow through on what it is creating. Many times throughout the series, Ogami has told his son that they are “on the demon road to hell” or some variation thereof. Is the willingness to kill a child the end result of that philosophy, that descent into depravity? Perhaps. Without a willingness to explore the aftermath – of Ogami or Daigoro’s reaction – it’s very difficult to parse how the film wants you to interpret those actions. There is of course one film remaining, White Heaven in Hell, but I have very little confidence in that film picking up where this one left off.
Bonkers ending aside, Baby Cart in the Land of Demons is on par with Buichi Sato’s fourth film in the series. It doesn’t reach as high as Baby Cart to Hades but it isn’t a bore like the first two films either. I just can’t unwrap my reaction to the film from my bewilderment over the story and character choices of the finale.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons / 子連れ狼 冥府魔道
Director: Kenji Misumi
Japanese Release Date: 11th August 1973
Version Watched: 89 min (Criterion Collection)