Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973)
Directed by Kenji Misumi

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons
Kozure Okami: Meifumado
Starring Tomisaburo Wakayama (Itto Ogami), Akihiro Tomikawa (Daigoro), Michiyo Okusu (Shiranui), Hideji Otaki (Abbot Jikei), Shingo Yamashiro, Eiji Okada (Wakita), Tomomi Sato (Quick Change Oyo), Bin Amatsu (Inspector Senzo), Minoru Oki (Retsudo Yagyu)
Screenplay by Kazuo Koike

Toho Company/Katsu Productions, 89 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: AnimEigo

Baby Cart in the Land of Demons features Itto Ogami being hired for an assassination in the most roundabout way imaginable. The Kuroda clan needs some killing done, but being not quite convinced that Ogami is the man for the job, they dispatch five samurai messengers to put him through an elaborate test. If Ogami can defeat each messenger, he gets a 20% installment of his fee and a few more details on his mission. It's quite a risky scheme not just because the samurai are putting their lives on the line, but also because it depends on each man being able to deliver his instruction speech with his last dying breaths. So they're banking on Ogami not killing them instantly, which is puzzling if they're out to make sure he's a skilled killer. But anyway, Lone Wolf and Cub isn't a series that stands up to logical scrutiny. It is a bad-ass way to deliver a bunch of exposition, admittedly.

The situation is that the lord of the Kuroda clan has disguised his young illegitimate daughter as a boy and set her up as the heir to the clan, all because he favors the concubine who bore the girl over his wife. The masquerade is a closely guarded secret that could ruin the clan if word gets out. The truth has been written down on a secret scroll in the protective custody of the fearsome Abbot Jikei, a high-ranking priest who runs a network of ninja spies. So the scroll is the MacGuffin everyone's after, and Ogami's assignment is to kill Jikei.

Now, I've watched Baby Cart in the Land of Demons several times, and this whole plot just doesn't add up to me. If there's a dark secret that could destroy one's own clan, why write it down and create such dangerous material evidence? And what purpose does killing Jikei serve exactly? What's to keep the secret of the young lord's disguise from getting out in any number of other ways, such as the inevitable onset of puberty? Maybe I'm just dense, but I really feel like I'm missing the point of this convoluted exercise.

That aside, things get interesting when Ogami goes to kill the the Abbot. When Ogami announces his intent to kill the old priest, he just laughs calmly and claims he can't be killed, since he has achieved a Buddhist state of perfect void. Jikei has become one with the universe, so he can't be destroyed. Sure enough, Ogami finds himself gripped with paralysis and unable to strike the defenseless old man. It's impressive to find Ogami at any sort of disadvantage when it comes to swordplay, and the subsequent White Heaven in Hell goes a few steps further with the notion of the metaphysical as Ogami's kryptonite.

In the midst of the Kuroda secret scroll storyline, Daigoro gets separated from his father and has his most significant solo adventure out of all of the films. While Daigoro wonders at the marvels on display at a street festival, a slick female pickpocket known as Quick Draw Oyo is working the crowd. When she's at risk of getting caught, she passes off a stolen wallet to Daigoro and makes him promise not to tell anyone where it came from. So police officers apprehend the boy and he refuses to tell them anything, even when they subject him to a public flogging to draw out the pickpocket. The policeman in charge, Inspector Senzo, isn't some kind of sadistic monster like you might expect. He's such a well-rounded character that he seems like he should have a series of his own.

Ogami watches the scene from the crowd without lifting a finger, though he could easily kill the officers and free his son. He observes how Daigoro has accepted his father's path on the road to Hell, and must feel his own sort of cold-blooded pride. It's tough to watch an extended scene of a child being tortured, but it makes an extraordinarily powerful statement about the heart and soul of the Lone Wolf and Cub saga.

It's worth noting that many fans consider Baby Cart in the Land of Demons the best of the series, and some think the sidebar about Daigoro and the pickpocket is senseless and out of place. I beg to differ. On the basis of the overly complex and tiresome lead story, I would call this the weakest installment in the series, but the Daigoro story is so extraordinary that it elevates this film to the same high levels as the rest.

The Lone Wolf and Cub Series

The Jidai-Geki Knights
Cinema