Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972)
Directed by Kenji Misumi

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx
Kozure Okami: Sanzu no kawa no ubaguruma
Starring Tomisaburo Wakayama (Itto Ogami), Akihiro Tomikawa (Daigoro), Kayo Matsuo (Sayaka Yagyu), Akiji Kobayashi (Benma Hidari), Minoru Oki (Tenma Hidari), Shin Kishida (Kuruma Hidari), Izumi Ayukawa (Ozunu)
Screenplay by Kazuo Koike
Produced by Shintaro Katsu

Toho Company/Katsu Productions, 81 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: AnimEigo

If Sword of Vengeance was a bit slow-moving, what with all the backstory and a main plot largely consisting of Itto Ogami turning the other cheek, Baby Cart at the River Styx definitely cranks things up several notches. It's a parade of insane fight scenes progressively throwing more outrageous adversaries at our lone wolf and his cub. Many fans consider this one the best of the series, and its footage made up the bulk of the edited and dubbed Shogun Assassin that gained a cult following in the English-speaking world.

Baby Cart at the River Styx kicks off with that unforgettable image of Ogami lodging his sword down the center of a guy's forehead, whereupon an associate of the profusely bleeding assailant jumps up on his shoulders to continue the attack. And that's just the pre-titles sequence. The main thrust of the story concerns elders of the Awa clan hiring Ogami to kill Chuzaemon, a traitor threatening to sell out their lucrative secret method for making indigo dye. He will be escorted by the three Hidari brothers, known as the Gods of Death. Meanwhile the Kurokuwa group, official shogunate spies and allies of the Yagyu shadow clan, are conspiring with the deadly Akashi Yagyu clanswomen to kill Ogami.

Even though Baby Cart at the River Styx leaves the impression of being non-stop action, in truth there are well-placed stretches of calm. Following the opening melee we get two extend scenes of Ogami and Daigoro spending quiet time together, with voyeuristic zooming camera movement and foreboding chimes in the distance suggesting that our heroes are being watched. An ambush feels imminent and Ogami is on guard. The tension is relentless and powerful.

When the first attack finally comes, it's the Akashi Yagyu kunoichi gang in disguise as traveling acrobats and common pedestrians along the road. Even though we've seen them hack a skilled ninja to pieces to demonstrate their prowess, Ogami makes short work of the ladies. Immediately thereafter he faces the Kurokuwa men. Here we encounter probably the single stupidest fight stunt in the whole Lone Wolf and Cub series. Ogami pushes the baby cart at the gang of assassins, Daigoro flips a switch to release horizontal blades, then the gently rolling cart slices the foot off a hapless ninja on either side. Those are some damn delicate ankles for master assassins! It's totally a Monty Python moment, but we just have to accept it as part of the awesomeness of Itto Ogami and get on with it.

A tad more on the realistic scale of things, Ogami is severely wounded after withstanding these successive assaults. He staggers away with the baby cart to shelter before collapsing in a bruised and beaten heap. Showing his resourcefulness, Daigoro takes good care of his father in an extended wordless sequence. It's a touching vignette replicated faithfully from the original comics.

Licking their own wounds, the surviving leaders of the Akashi Yagyu and Kurokuwa gangs come up with a new tactic against Ogami: they abduct Daigoro and threaten to drop him down a well with the aim of breaking the lone wolf's spirit. Of course, this notion just proves how little they understand the fatalistic mentality of Itto Ogami and his path on the crossroads of hell.

Finally Ogami gets on with his assignment of tracking down the traitor for the Awa clan. He meets up with the Hidari brothers on a sea voyage to rendezvous for their escort duty. Like cool villains from a chop-socky kung fu movie, the three fearsome Gods of Death each specialize in a distinctive weapon: Benma wields a handheld armor-claw, Tenma uses a spiked club, and Kuruma sports a mailed fist. We learn that the Hidaris aren't just evil thugs; they carry a sense of honor and claim they will not harm anyone except those who attack them or stand in the way of their duties. They promptly suss out Ogami as a hired threat, gauging his abilities in a trick knife-throwing scene straight out of the Zatoichi playbook. The Hidari brothers and Ogami establish a weird sort of professional respect for one another.

Their big showdown comes in a memorable desert dunes sequence, which opens with a Lawrence of Arabia shot of the Hidari and their entourage escorting the Awa turncoat as little dark specks on the horizon. The ensuing maelstrom of blood spilled on the sands is worthy of this defining Lone Wolf and Cub extravaganza.

The Lone Wolf and Cub Series

The Jidai-Geki Knights
Cinema