#1 in my ranking of the Lone Wolf and Cub franchise.
Finally, three movies in, I feel like this franchise pulled together its disparate elements into something approaching a cohesive whole. It’s not entirely successful, but I do think that it’s successful enough to work overall.
The movie starts as has become routine with these films with a moment allowing Itto Ogami, former Shogunate Executioner, to demonstrate his incredible skill with a blade against those sent by the Yagyu Clan to kill him. He dispatches a group of ninjas with ease and skill in an aesthetic display devoid of any real tension but is pretty enough to look at. However, once the movie moves beyond that, things automatically feel better. We get a scene with four mercenary swordsmen, one of whom, Kanbei, was a samurai and still clings to the old ideals of Bushido, where Kanbei stands apart from the other three. The three see an attractive young woman and her mother and immediately run after them to rape them. Kanbei comes across the scene, kills the two women and one of the men, creating the tale that only the one he killed was responsible for the event and that Kanbei and the other two stopped him. However, Ogami wanders by with his cart. Knowing Ogami by reputation, Kanbei wants a duel, which Ogami accepts that then declares a draw before a single blow gets struck. Kanbei, left with the knowledge of his lowered station and Ogami’s demonstration of the samurai ideal, doesn’t know how to react and just stands there as Ogami walks away.
Then, the movie does what its predecessors did and introduces and extended subplot that dominates the film for about half and hour and ultimately doesn’t matter. Ogami protects a newly purchased prostitute on her way to the brothel from the brothel mistress when the young girl kills the man taking her to the brothel. Ogami accepts torture in her place, letting her free. His stoic acceptance of a punishment not his even strikes fear in the torturers’ hearts. This is just another demonstration of Ogami being a badass samurai. I get it. By this point, it’s rather uninteresting. That the brothel mistress appears in the movie’s final third as purely a witness to the later events seems to be proof that Misumi knew that he needed to tie these tales together more tightly, but he didn’t know how to actually bring them together.
The final half or so of the film is dominated by Ogami taking on another assassination contract. The first retainer of a disgraced house hires Ogami to kill the new governor who conspired to have the former daimyo executed because of the daimyo’s insanity. The retainer weeps for the lost positions of hundreds of other retainers. The governor, though, hears of Ogami’s presence in the region and invites Ogami to his residence to discuss a contract to kill the first retainer. This is where Ogami’s completely stoic nature works against the film a bit. The governor dangles a piece of information that could help Ogami take the ultimate revenge against the Yagyu Clan in partial exchange for his services, but Ogami doesn’t even think about it. He flat out refuses the governor because he already has a conflicting contract. There’s no internal conflict that we can discern as the audience, and the pair of moral questions that end up beguiling the audience are completely ignored by Ogami himself. First is the idea that Ogami could gain more from one contract than the other. The other is that the governor was acting in the interests of the region when he let word of the insane daimyo’s inability to govern become known. He was killing his retainers with no reason, so the region is in better hands with the new governor.
I think the movie is trying to set up Ogami as the ideal samurai, and it doesn’t seem to reflect as well upon Ogami as Misumi seems to believe. Ogami is an unthinking killing machine. Cutting through complex moral questions without any real consideration because his interpretation of Bushido requires simple answers. I would consider this lack of address a failing on the part of the movie (much like I addressed in the previous film’s review) save for one event late in the film.
The governor, knowing Ogami’s reputation and figuring out his motive to assassinate him, brings a small army to bear upon Ogami, including with help from retainers from the neighboring region. In the most ridiculous action scene of the franchise up to this point, Ogami kills literally every soldier up against him in shots that show Ogami slowly making killing moves while a dozen enemies are right behind him with swords drawn and no inclination to move against him while he’s unprotected. However, once that silly display of one against many fight logistics is over and Ogami kills the governor with a hidden set of pistols, Kanbei reappears and the movie gains something again. The two duel, and Ogami obviously wins, but Kanbei gets his moment to reflect as he dies much like the third brother got in the previous film. The difference is that Kanbei was actually established well early, so his reflection on Ogami’s perfection as a samurai even outside of the bounds of duty to a specific lord carries some emotional weight. The movie just ends with questions around the perfection of the samurai code without any real answers, and that’s where I feel like the movie works best.
Now, having said all of that, the brothel mistress witnesses the entire battle for no reason and never interacts with Ogami.
If these movies would decide to focus on a single story, giving it all the time it needs to flesh out, they could be really special. As it is, Baby Cart to Hades is the first in the series to rise above mediocrity by simply giving one of its two major tales this kind of room along with a bit more than just samurai swordplay to look at. There’s still room for improvement by incorporating the prostitute storyline more fully into the overall action, but I’m happy with the film as it is.