Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972) Dir. Kenji Misumi
Guest review by Pasukaru
In the early seventies, Shintaro Katsu, of “Zatoichi” fame, produced a series of samurai films, based on the popular manga “Lone Wolf and Cub,” starring his older brother Tomisaburo Wakayama. These hyper-violent jidaigeki were to be so impressive and utterly original that some American producers would later compile the first two parts into “Shogun Assassin,” which subsequently influenced many filmmakers including Quentin Tarantino (“Kill Bill”). Although I could recommend this version too, it’s only fair that I first endorse the original due to the significant differences of the American remix (i.e. voice over, soundtrack, dubbing, etc).
“Baby Cart at the River Styx” is the second part in a series of six, which is in fact an incomplete series (to the chagrin of this author), and the best, though all are excellent. Some have even sub-categorized it in the horror genre, because it’s that gory, but I don’t agree. It’s always stylized and absurd enough to not disgust. Seriously, it’s never been more fun chopping off a person’s extremities. One poor fellow has everything, and I mean everything, sliced off. Good stuff.
The glorious opening scene wastes no frame in setting the bloody tone, and it’s balls-to-the-wall until the fantastic finale. The story follows Ogami Itto, the former executioner to the Shogun, who wanders the countryside with his young son, Daigoro, as an assassin for hire. Alright, I could get into plot, which is solid, but who cares. What is so cool about this movie is that, despite the over-the-top gore and nudity, it manages to avoid being outright exploitive and maintain its artistic veracity. The scene in which Itto’s sworn enemy, Sayaka, breast-feeds Daigoro, for instance, is amazingly beautiful and poignant (yes, that’s right). You’d never see a scene like that in American films without it being painfully awkward, wrong-headed, or moralized. It just wouldn’t fly. But here, director Misumi Kenji has found ways to weave in humanistic touches with the grand-guignol sensationalism. It’s well paced and exceptionally choreographed. This director is a master, period. Also, Ogami’s relationship with his son Daigoro is devoid of sentimentality yet their bond is palpable. The picture of Ogami pushing his (adorable) son in a rickety baby cart (basically a Swiss army knife on wheels) is one of the most iconic images in the pantheon of chambara cinema.
Something worth mentioning is that 70’s cinema in Japan really was a free-for-all decade, like America, that produced inimitable samurai films (that were almost reactionary to the traditional samurai films made by the greats like Kurosawa, Okamoto, and Inagaki) such as ”Lone Wolf and Cub” brethren “Lady Snowblood,” “Shogun’s Samurai: The Yagyu Conspiracy,” and of course the original “Zatoichi” films. Oh, and rumor has it that Darren Aronofsky (“Pi,” “The Fountain”) is planning a remake of “Lone Wolf and Cub,” which makes me nauseous, but it’s understandable since these films really are touchstones of the genre.
Again, this film is a blast! It’s so visually stunning and mind-blowingly inventive, it stands out as a bold example of Japanese audacity. The sequence (among countless) on the rural trail in which Ogami must dispense of countless female ninja is out of this world, and downright surreal. This movie rocks!
Okay, I could keep going and drop more superlatives but I’ll stop here and let you discover it for yourself. This samurai film is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Check it out.