1970s, 2/4, Action, Kenji Misumi, Review

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx

Amazon.com: Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart At River Styx: Tomisaburô  Wakayama, Kayo Matsuo, Akiji Kobayashi, Kenji Misumi: Movies & TV

#4 in my ranking of the Lone Wolf and Cub franchise.

I’m beginning to feel like there’s a disconnect between me and these films that many of their fans do not share. I can appreciate the action elements, but the artistic ones feel shallow and poorly assembled to me. I had expected the narrative construction problems from the first film to get addressed in the second because the second no longer needed to tell Ogami’s origin story, however Baby Cart at the River Styx continued the dual story construction, and, once again, I think the film suffers for it.

The Shadow Yagyu are still determined to kill Ogami in their effort to cement their claim to the Executioner position, and so they decide to send a two small armies: one of ninjas and the other of female warriors. Is there ever any doubt that Ogami will slice through each and every one of them by this point? I don’t think there is, so the joys of the sequences can’t fall into anything tension based. They have to fall in more with aesthetic and visceral pleasures, and this is really the movie’s main strength. The near-constant action of the first half of the movie moves quickly with Ogami dispatching foe after foe in entertaining fashion, using his katana as well as pieces of the cart he pushes his small boy around in as weapons he can assemble and disassemble quickly. The bright red arterial sprays that ensue provide wonderful color to the image. The variety of attacks from ninjas in an en-masse attack as well as the women who attack in smaller groups and always in disguise provides the kind of varied action that makes action movies fun.

However, outside of the actual action elements I find the movie rather tiresome. On the one hand there is the story of the Yagyu attacking Ogami again, with Ogami easily fending them all off. On the other is Ogami taking up a new assassination contract against a man who is going to tell the secret of a special dye to the shogun, crippling a particular region’s finances. The leaders of this region desperately hire Ogami, and he sets out to find the man who will be guarded by three brothers, each with expertise in unique weaponry. It’s all just basic setup for the final confrontation where we will watch Ogami take all three apart. Again, there’s no real tension around it, but there are aesthetic things to appreciate about the violence.

There’s one moment, though, that I think exemplifies everything wrong with these movies up to this point. One of the brothers, the last one to die, receives a perfect cut from Ogami that leaves his neck open just enough so that Mogaribue escapes, a whishing sound from the next. He spends this moment talking about how he had always wished to make such a perfect cut on an enemy, but the irony is that he dies from it himself. That seems like a nice moment, but up until then the brothers were little more than walking antagonists only differentiated by their weapons. Suddenly trying to have this touching moment with nothing backing it up ends up making it feel empty and shallow. Instead of having a scene where the three brothers, perhaps on the ship ride they share with Ogami earlier in the film, where the brother could explain this to his other siblings, that one day he hopes to make the Mogaribue escape from an enemy. And then, when he dies by the cut, he can have the moment of realization without needing to explain what it is while he’s dying.

The brothers aren’t characters because they don’t have the time dedicated to building anything since the movie is, again, really short for the two stories that get crammed inside it. Yet, despite the complete lack of work to make the brothers characters, we still have a moment at the end that tries to create some kind of emotional catharsis at his death, but the focus has been on action and violence.

Another interesting thing I’m seeing about these movies is Ogami’s continued dedication to the shogunate system even after it was manipulated to destroy his family and the shogun does nothing to help him. It’s the mirror image of Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion where Isaburo’s maltreatment by the shogunate does end up leaving him questioning and even rebelling against the system that degrades him, his son, and his daughter-in-law. Lone Wolf and Cub seems to want to take the opposite direction, which is fine, but there’s no introspection about the choice. It’s blind and just accepted and never really considered.

I have a bad feeling about this franchise.

Rating: 2/4

5 thoughts on “Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx”

  1. The thing to understand about Lone Wolf and Cub, and almost all chambarra films, is they’re basically video games. Or old school superheroes. They are an exercise in watching a badass kick everyone’s ass.

    Superman doesn’t lose a fist fight, neither does Ogami lose a sword fight. You watch these movies to watch your hero win.

    Honestly, I like the little grace notes like the bad guy giving a dying compliment to the man who kills him. It’s a very Bushi moment. And I think you are bumping up against Bushido and Japanese society in general. Rebellion against a corrupt system is unthinkable. The most you can expect it ‘avoidance’. A samurai needs a master, needs a Shogun, it’s baked into their identity. They are servants of the hall, they are programmed to serve.

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    1. I have no problem with the films wanting to embrace the samurai code. Not every samurai film needs to be Kobayashi finding ways to rail against his contemporary problems with Japanese society. I want to see the embrace of Bushido every so often.

      My problem is really that Ogami is kind of boring. There’s a complete lack of introspection on his part about what he’s doing. It seems more appropriate for a movie about, as you say, a superhero’s continuing adventures rather than a samurai looking for vengeance against a specific foe for specific ills. When the protagonist is just a monolith of purpose, the characters around him become more important to draw interest and create things like theme, and that’s where the movie’s inability to tell an adventure story that well gets to me.

      It wants to tell two separate adventures, but it makes little effort to connect them. Then the side characters are no more than their weapons with a speech for one of them thrown in as he’s dying to give him any depth, which feels like too little too late.

      The warrior dying and giving his long speech is one thing this series does a lot of: create cool scenarios that don’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s frustrating to me that I can imagine the same moment but better built and supported from material that should have been inserted earlier on.

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      1. A LOT of Japanese entertainment would benefit from Western storytelling. It’s why Akira, Kuroasawa and Miyazaki resonate so well overseas.

        Lone Wolf and Cub is trash cinema. The people who love it, love it because it’s trash….ok ‘trash’ is a bit harsh sounding, but I think you know what I mean by that.

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      2. That’s what I’ve gathered from my viewing. The appeal is in the violence and the attitude.

        The reason I can’t just get into it is because there’s more to the storytelling here than those two things, and pretty much everything else makes getting into the violence and the attitude that much harder.

        I think I expected more from the movies because of the Criterion connection (not that their record was 100% before this, by any means, they did release Salo). That they ended up as largely simplistic vehicles for increasingly absurd violent confrontations was disappointing. I could have gotten into it more (I actually did end up liking the third one a good bit) had the movies not tried to tell some disconnected tales at the same time. Give me 90 minutes of Ogami having to work hard to hack and slash through a series of challenges towards a single goal. Don’t even bother with anything approaching high brow, just give me a solid adventure.

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