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Let me set the scene: in 1974 I had volunteered to round up studio screening prints for various film series running at the UCLA Film School's beautiful Melnitz Hall, now re-named the James Bridges Theater. I went onto the Columbia (TBS), MGM, and Paramount lots to do this. When Nick Petersen decided to show some Samurai films I also picked up a few prints at the Toho office, a bare storefront across the street from the old Toho La Brea Theater, now long gone. I remember cruising in with a big smile and the title of the feature I needed written out on a piece of notepaper: Baby Cart at the River Styx, aka Lone Wolf and Cub #2. Only one of the employees even looked in my direction, a young woman apparently given the unpleasant job of dealing with Americans not wearing suits and a tie. She pulled the three Goldberg shipping cases out for me. I looked at the all-Japanese labels and had to take their word for it that it was the right feature. I was shown out cautiously, to be careful that I wasn't stealing anything. I'm sure that they were all probably quite fluent in English -- although nobody would so much as make eye contact with me.
That Sunday night at Melnitz this wild, wild Japanese movie ushered me into a new dimension of dynamic screen violence, as if I'd never seen violent action on a screen before. This 'baby cart' movie began in a flurry of graphic sword fighting that looked like ritualized dance, with blocking and editing that highlighted the impression of people being sliced, skewered and split in half by swords so sharp that bone and muscle were cleaved as if they were made of butter. Blood didn't flow but instead shot out in geysers. Nobody got 'nicked', either -- body parts flew every which way, with arms and legs thudding to the ground. The duels were all to the death, anyway.
I watched Baby Cart at the River Styx with my mouth hanging open. The film was only a couple of years old at the time, yet it seemed to have come from twenty years in the future. In 1974 the range of film fare readily available to Americans was so narrow that even film students had little notion that, for sensational content, Japanese films had been ranging far ahead of us since the late 1950s. This first experience with a Lone Wolf and Cub movie was like mental eyewash: obviously nothing was taboo any more.
The film's hero is an impossibly dour, unbeatable swordsman named Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama), a rogue Samurai with unkempt hair, who wanders the roads of feudal-era Japan pushing a bamboo baby cart. Inside is his son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa), a wide-eyed toddler. If the father or son smiles in the course of the six films, it slipped by me. The equally fearless Daigoro instead watches as his father does battle. They get separated and Daigoro is threatened once or twice, but the little Ronin turns out to be a handy helper, throwing weapons Itto's way when things get tough. The baby cart is itself a weapon. Various pieces fold out into spears and sword-holders; and the rim is lined with barrels that fire off like a Gatling gun. Any more complicated, and the baby cart would have to be a Transformer toy.
By seeing other installments at the Los Angeles Kokusai Theater, I got the basic plot elements worked out, even if the details escaped me. When characters were being introduced and important exposition laid out, I was still recovering from the latest explosion of bloodletting. It eventually became clear that star/co-producer Wakayama, writers Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima and primary director Kenji Misumi had built this hybrid Samurai epic by adding elements from fanciful Spaghetti westerns. The jazzy music makes no attempt to conjure a period flavor. Ogami Itto's James Bond-ish baby cart is a flagrant anachronism. The action editing created a new benchmark in dynamic clarity, contrasting with a directing style that continually discovers visually stunning compositions. The Tohoscope vistas of sand dunes and silhouetted figures seem to come directly from Sergio Leone.
Derived from a Japanese Manga by Koike Zazuo that eventually grew to over 100 titles, the six Lone Wolf and Cub movies were already generically known by other names: the "Sword of Vengeance" Series, the "Baby Cart" series. The basic Japanese title is Kozure Okami. The AnimEigo site offers a comparison of the Japanese and English dubbed "Shogun Assassin/Lightning Swords of Death" American releases at this link. Thanks to the American dubbed-version, this became the Samurai series best-known to American audiences. A long-running TV series followed.
Here's my breakdown of the six original films:
1. Sword of Vengeance (Kozure Okami: Ko wo kashi ude kashi tsukamatsuru) Directed by Kenji Misumi
2. Baby Cart at the River Styx (Kozure Okami: Sanzu no kawa no ubaguruma) Directed by Kenji Misumi
3. Baby Cart to Hades (Kozure Okami: Shinikazeni mukau ubaguruma) Directed by Kenji Misumi
4. Baby Cart in Peril (Kozure Okami: Oya no kokoro ko no kokoro) Directed by Buichi Saito
5. Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (Kozure Okami: Meifumado) Directed by Kenji Misumi
6. White Heaven in Hell (Kozure Okami: Jigoku e ikuzo! Daigoro) Directed by Yoshiyuki Kuroda
In a nutshell, the first episode begins with Ogami Itto serving as the official Shogunate executioner, a respected position. Living with his wife and baby son Daigoro in the Shogun's castle, Itto beheads those that offend the Shogun, and also finishes off those committing ritual suicide, with a coup de grace decapitation. In one shocking scene Itto must execute a very small boy. Unfortunately, the jealous Yagyu clan frames Ogami Itto, and sends assassins to murder his wife. Unjustly expelled from his position, Itto must become a wandering Ronin, knowing that the Yagyus will continue to try to finish him off. He solves the question of what to do with Daigoro by placing a colorful ball and a shiny knife in front of the baby boy. If the boy reaches for the ball, he'll kill him. If Daigoro reaches for the knife Itto will take him along into the bloody future.
The features that follow see Ogami Itto and Daigoro challenged by countless swordsmen, treacherous women, groups of assassins and an entire army or two. The primary bad guy is a fierce white haired Yagyu chieftain, who delivers hateful threats and dispatches a seemingly endless line of swordsmen to fight Itto. What's amazing is how the directors keep the formula fresh. The first four movies never seem to repeat a setup or situation. They have pace and feeling, and frequently dazzle us with textured visuals filmed in the wind, or among fallen leaves.
Ogami Itto takes other jobs along the way, finding that some relate back to his personal tragedy. He takes no lovers: face it, if Itto were any more emotionally rigid he would resemble The Golem. Yet each show provides at least one sexy encounter. In one delirious sequence, artful superimpositions show a tattoo artist covering a beautiful female assassin with elaborate designs. Curious little Diagoro proves sort of a sexual surrogate for audiences seeking skin. In one hot springs scene he swims over to a beautiful woman for comfort, and proceeds to play with her breasts! Talk about content that would get a filmmaker arrested here in America...
The Italian western's knack for fine-art compositions are done one better in some of the Lone Wolf episodes. In #2 we get perhaps the most dynamic build-up to a battle ever. An enemy column sees the tiny Daigoro standing atop a sand dune, pointing away to the right -- and a blast of guitar music heralds the reveal of Ogami Itto, challenging the entire group to fight. Three sadistic super-killers detect an ambush of soldiers buried beneath the sand. One of them thrusts his steel-clawed glove into the sand, and drags an ambusher out, a claw buried in the man's head!
Elsewhere director Misumi surprises us by his pacing of action scenes, which can erupt at any time, from any direction. Using longer focal length lenses helps with the illusion of danger, and a slight film speed adjustment may be employed as well, but it really looks as if someone could get seriously hurt amid the whirling blades. We can see for ourselves that at least some of the sword edges are razor sharp. For the early 1970s the action cutting was incredibly fast, yet after the first couple of surprise moves it becomes apparent that the action does make sense, and that the angles are chosen for clarity as well as "coolness". One maneuver that repeatedly won applause in theaters saw Ogami dodge forward past a lunging foe, reverse his sword in his hands and stab backwards -- practically under his own armpit -- to nail his opponent in the back.
We also get our fair share of competing styles of sword fighting, where Samurai attempt to intimidate opponents with talk of their "butterlfly stork" style, etc. One style uses hypnotism and in another the sword sprouts flames. The tattooed lady Ronin bares her breasts suddenly during a fight, to gain an advantage. Don't expect Ogami Itto to be fooled by any of these tactics.
AnimEigo's Blu-ray set of Lone Wolf and Cub Complete 6-Film Blu-ray Collection contains the whole cycle in HD, on two discs in one keep case. I remember borrowing fuzzy VHS boots of the series in the early 1980s from a friend that spent upwards of $30 per title. The previous authorized Animeigo DVDs are very good but these Blu-ray transfers fully capture the rich colors and sharp cinematography that wowed us on the big screen. Simply put, this is a very exciting release.
The presentation is up to AnimEigo's high standard, with accurate subtitles and 'extra' subs that explain arcane references as they pop up in the dialogue.
AnimEigo has already released a similar set of the American-adapted Shogun Assassin version of this series. Without admitting to being a purist, I prefer these Japanese originals with the proper language. Subtitles don't get in the way of the action scenes, as grunts and death rattles sound the same in either tongue. The subtitled originals also reassure us that the English translators have not invented the occasionally crazy dialogue. At the conclusion of one show, one of Ogami Itto's cocky opponents dies slowly in the sand, his throat sliced neatly open. Even in this near-death state of agony he musters the wherewithal to recite a dreamy self-eulogy: "That was... beautiful.... I always wanted to cut somebody that way. (Pause) But to happen to me..... IT'S RIDICULOUS!"
It's priceless. Ogami Itto lays 'em out like that all through the series.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.