Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx [IMDB]
Directed by Kenji Misumi
Starring Tomisaburo Wakayama
In the second instalment of the Lone Wolf and Cub Series – released in Japan just two months after the first – Ogami Itto and his son Daigoro continue to live a “life of evil” as wandering assassins-for-hire. Ogami accepts a mission which would protect the Awa clan from financial ruin at the hands of the shogunate, but the target is protected by the feared bodyguards known as the “Gods of Death”. At the same time, two ruthless factions in league with the Yagyu clan will stop at nothing to kill Ogami and Daigoro.
In a sense, this second entry is the best-known part of the Lone Wolf and Cub saga because the bulk of the film was made into Shogun Assassin. However, to see the original film is a very different experience. Much of the appeal of the American version is retained here – not least the copious violent action and impeccable sense of style – but the details are very different. River Styx is more layered, with much more emphasis on the intricacies of conflict between clans and the oppressive nature of the shogunate.
The film excels at picking up a theme established in the first film – the moral bankruptcy of Tokugawa-era Japan and the ruthlessness and greed hidden under a veil of order and honour. The mission Ogami embarks upon on behalf of the Awa clan is typical of this; the master swordsman agrees to kill an essentially innocent man caught in a web of intrigue. Both the Awa and the shogunate which covets the clan's knowledge are presented as equally cruel and self-interested.
Of course, this storyline underscores something else made clear in Sword of Vengeance: the fact that Ogami Itto is very much an antihero. Having wilfully embarked on his path along the fringes of a metaphorical underworld, he has no compunction in taking the life of his almost blameless target. As with the first film, it's Ogami's flashes of morality which are among the most fascinating aspects of the film. Again, a surrogate mother figure fulfils this role in River Styx.
Two major elements really mark his film as being very different from the original. The first is the dramatically enhanced level of action and violence, which was presumably one of the reasons for the footage being used for the openly exploitative Shogun Assassin. Sure enough, the battle sequences are gripping and visceral, as Ogami takes on three groups of deadly Akashi clanswomen – female killers in disguise – and a dozen or so Kurokuwa ninja well before the climax against the enigmatic “Gods of Death”.
The second element is the greater role for Daigoro, who really becomes a character in his own right here. Although he has no significant dialogue, he's a terrific and frankly adorable presence in the film. Over the course of the action, little Daigoro helps nurse his wounded father and assists in the destruction of the Kurokuwa force. It seems safe to assume that a three year-old's even passive involvement in such a massacre is one of the elements which so offended British sensors when Shogun Assassin was made.
Baby Cart at the River Styx is an assured, brutal sequel which significantly expands and builds upon what Kenji Misumi achieved with Sword of Vengeance not just in terms of action and style, but in terms of some quite deep-seated themes which Shogun Assassin understandably omitted. Very propulsive and economical at just 82 minutes, it leaves the viewer very keen indeed to see the further adventures of Ogami and Daigoro – and above all, that's the point.
Bodycount Ogami drops 37 opponents.
Best Moment Ogami and Daigoro calmly escape a burning ship.
Sometime film reviewer, Letterboxd user, novice Blu-Ray collector. Top 3 directors: Woo, Hill, Leone.
Henry V (UK, 1989) ★★★★½
The Fast and the Furious (USA, 2001) ★★★★
Goodfellas (USA, 1990) ★★★★★
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