Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972)

Class: Staff
Author: J.L. Carrozza
Score: (4.5/5)
August 25th, 2006 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

I will start this review off with this statement, yes, Seven Samurai (1954) is probably the best samurai film ever made, but is it my favorite? No. My favorite is Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx. Why Baby Cart at the River Styx? It's simple, Baby Cart is more fun to watch, for one thing. It's an absolutely wild film, with loads of intense violence and bloodshed (so intense in fact, that the Shogun Assassin reedit of film was branded a "video nasty" and banned in England for years) and actually doesn't feel all that "Japanese" in it's style, feeling far more akin to the ultraviolent Westerns of Sam Peckinpah and the bloody Shaw Brothers films of Chang Cheh than to the more typically Japanese films of Ozu, Mizoguchi, Oshima and company. Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx is also relentlessly entertaining and is easily The Empire Strikes Back of the Lone Wolf and Cub series.

Ogami Ito and his young son Daigoro are on the run. Their hunters: the Shadow Yagyu Clan. The treacherous Yagyu Retsudo, still obsessed with killing Ogami and his son, enlists a group of female ninjas, headed by Yagyu Sayaka, to hunt down and kill them. Ogami, meanwhile, is hired by the Awa clan to protect the secret of their secret blue dye which has kept them wealthy for many years by killing a defector named Makuya who plans on giving the secret to the Shogunate. However, to kill Makuya, Ogami must first take on the Hidari Brothers, better known as the Gods of Death, a trio of mercenaries hired by Yagyu clan to protect Makuya at all costs.

From frame one, right after the Toho and Katsu Productions logos come up, the film leaps right into action, with Ogami Ito and Daigoro being attacked by a pair of ninjas, who are then dispatched in a rather gruesome fashion, with one of them getting a sword through his skullcap. While not even close to a chambara version of say, Peter Jackson's Dead Alive, the film is quite hyper violent, with sliced off limbs, fountains of gushing blood (Kill Bill allegedly stole that verbatim from the Lone Wolf and Cub films), heads sliced open through the middle and most memorably, a sequence where the Yagyu ninja women demonstrate their skill to a doubting Kurokawa clansman by literally slicing up one of his ninjas like a turkey. Those with weak stomachs had best stay away from this film and the film also contains a fair amount of nudity and sexuality (as do the rest of the Lone Wolf and Cubs, however). In terms of the filmmaking quality, the film is truly stellar. Kenji Misumi is a director who started off working for Daiei and made more or less nothing but period pieces, his best known pre-Lone Wolf and Cub film being Wrath of Daimajin (aka Return of the Giant Majin), which is actually, in my opinion, the most flatly directed and uninteresting film in the trilogy. However, his direction in Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx, while not as off the wall as Buichi Sato's in Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (1972), a later entry, is anything but flat and uninteresting, resembling that of a Sergio Leone film mixed with Shaw Brothers-like camera work with loads of truly impressive shots and set ups that really put you into the action, with the blood actually getting ON the camera at some points. Chishi Makiura's cinematography is highly impressive as well, resembling, in many ways, an Asiatic equivalent of Tonino Delli Colli's breathtaking cinematography for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon A Time in the West and the editing by Toshio Taniguchi is absolutely top notch. The music by Hideaki Sakurai is okay, the film actually doesn't feature a whole lot of music, at least in it's original Japanese cut, so it's really hard to judge. It works fine for the film, but as a standalone listening experience it pales in comparison to the music in the film's Shogun Assassin reedit (see below).

The film's acting is ranges from decent to excellent. Tomisaburo Wakayama, as Ogami Ito, is one word: badass. As Daigoro, Akihiro Tomikawa gives an amazing performance for someone so young. He has next to no dialogue but the expressions on his face are absolutely priceless. Kayo Matsuo, as Sayaka, head of the Yagyu ninja women, is quite decent and Akiji Kobayashi (best known as Captain Muramatsu in Ultraman), Minoru Oki and Shin Kishida (best known for playing the Dracula role in the latter two entries in Michio Yamamoto's Dracula trilogy) are appropriately intimidating as the supremely badass villains the Gods of Death. Given that the film is very action oriented, the film is not particularly character driven, though there is some character development. Ogami and Daigoro's father-son relationship deepens throughout the movie, with both saving each other's lives before the end. Also, in the final sequence of the film, Ogami Ito and Yagyu Sayaka cannot bring themselves to kill each other, instead going their separate paths.

In 1980, Roger Corman's New World Pictures bought the rights to both Sword of Vengeance and Baby Cart at the River Styx and employed future documentarian Robert Houston who reedited them both into one film, using most of River Styx and about 10 minutes of Sword of Vengeance as exposition. The result was Shogun Assassin, a dubbed, 86 minute orgy of screen violence. It actually is not only perhaps the best Americaninzation of a Japanese or Asian film in history but is in some ways even better than the original version! The dubbing, with talent such as Lamont Johnson and Sandra Bernhard, is actually done, for once, with exquisite care. The film also adds a whole new score, which basically sounds like what would happen if the Italian rock group Goblin (who scored many Dario Argento films such as Suspiria and George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead) were to try to attempt music with an Asian motif, which I personally much prefer to the original. Shogun Assassin also makes another major improvement over Baby Cart at the River Styx, it adds a narration track by Daigoro, courtesy of one Gibran Evans. The narration track really adds a whole new level to the movie, it's best usage being during a scene where Daigoro talks about how he likes to keep track of all the ninja that his father kills so he'll know just how many souls to pray for, at the start of the scene, it stands at 342, by the end of the scene, it's 345. There is actually only one single bit of gore that was cut of the film, a shot of a ninja woman's breasts being sliced open, apparently at the insistence of the MPAA. That said, the plot has been rather watered down, apparently Houston thought Americans wouldn't be able to fully comprehend the idea of the Shogunate being manipulated by the shady Shadow Yagyu clan, so Yagyu Retsudo was turned into the Shogun himself. The film also ends with the defeat of the Gods (in this case, Masters) of Death and not with Yagyu Sayaka and Ogami Ito's final confrontation. Those minor gripes aside, while I like River Styx better as a piece of filmmaking, Shogun Assassin is, to me, a better piece of entertainment.

I often give Sin City or Batman Begins the title of my favorite comic book movie, but then I remember that the Lone Wolf and Cub films are, in fact, adaptations of Kazuo Koike's lurid manga and thus qualify completely. So yeah, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx and its reedit Shogun Assassin are simultaneously my favorite samurai films, comic book films and yes, films in general. If you're a fan of samurai films, gore films, exploitation films or are, like myself, a fan of all three, you really owe it to yourself to check this out. You will not be disappointed, though it is, as I said, an acquired taste to others.