Sanzu No Kawa No Ubagurama (Lone Wolf and Cub: Perambulator of the River Sanzu
(aka Baby Cart at the River Styx)
Synopsis: As the Lone Wolf, Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama), and his young son, Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa), continue to “tread the path of demons”, their deadly enemies, the Yagyu clan, plot revenge. The Yagyu clan strategist, Lord Retsudo, sends Ozugu (Izumi Ayukawa) of the Kuroguwa, allies to the Yagyu, to the Lady Sayaka (Kayo Matsuo), leader of the Akashi branch clan. Ozugu tells her of the fatal duel between Ogami and the chosen swordsman of the Black Yagyu. Sayaka is outraged. Ozugu further explains the terms under which the duel was fought: that Ogami being victorious, he and Daigoro must be left in peace by the Yagyu; and also that, while the Lone Wolf must go unmolested by the central clan, Retsudo sees no reason why one of the branch clans should not carry out the family’s vengeance – thus adhering to the letter of the agreement. Sayaka immediately commits her band of female ninja to the cause. Ozugu expresses doubt as to their being able to handle the job, and Sayaka retaliates by ordering him to select the best warrior from amongst his ninja. The chosen warrior is ordered to escape from the room into the garden, and laughs at the ease of the mission he has been given. It is his last laugh…. As Ozugu’s men stare at the dismembered body of their comrade, Sayaka announces that she and her ninja will tackle Ogami alone. Meanwhile, Ogami has been contacted by the officials of the Awa fiefdom, a region grown prosperous through its monopoly of indigo dye production, whose wealth has drawn the jealous scrutiny of the Shogunate. The officials tell Ogami that the Shogun sent spies and rabble-rousers into Awa to cause trouble, and that, while the agents were discovered and killed, the leader of the indigo industry fled to the nearby Takamatsu region, where he currently awaits the Shogun’s official escort. Knowing that should the secret of the indigo reach the Shogun, it will mean the end of the Awa fiefdom, the officials beg Ogami to assassinate the industry leader. However, they also warn him that his target will be guarded by the three Bentenrai brothers, who are known as “the Brothers of Death” for their martial arts skills and the number of their victims. Unmoved, Ogami accepts the assignment, for his usual fee of 500 ryo…. As Ogami and Daigoro travel towards their next meeting with fate, they are hounded and attacked by Sayaka’s ninja but prove up to the challenge, with Daigoro taking a hand in the despatching of the female warriors. Ogami finds himself face to face with Sayaka, but she eludes him. As the travellers pass through a forest, they are set upon by Ozugu’s men, but again emerge victorious. However, Ogami has been wounded, and can only struggle to a dilapidated hut before collapsing, leaving the young Daigoro to try and tend his father. Their followers decimated, Sayaka and Ozugu meet to re-think their plans. Ignoring Sayaka’s protest against the meanness of his tactics, Ozugu proposes a new kind of attack upon Ogami: the kidnapping of Daigoro….
Comments: In my review of Sword Of Vengeance, I made reference to the fact that most Westerners were first exposed to the amazing “Lone Wolf And Cub” films via Shogun Assassin, an English-dubbed, story-light, action-heavy cobbling together of the first two instalments in the series, Sword Of Vengeance itself and its first sequel, Baby Cart At The River Styx. It was, as it happens, the latter film that provided the bulk of Shogun’s footage, and for a very good reason. While sprinkled with unforgettably bloody fight sequences, Sword Of Vengeance spends much of its running-time establishing its historical background, in depicting the fall of its stony-faced anti-hero, Itto Ogami, and in delineating the sequence of events that saw the former Shogunate executioner become a wandering assassin. With this out of the way, Baby Cart At The River Styx was free to focus purely upon Ogami’s quest to carry out his latest assignment, and his inevitable apocalyptic showdown with “the Brothers of Death”; and upon the machinations of the deadly and treacherous Yagyu clan-members as they pursued their vendetta against him. The result is a simply staggering piece of work, one of the most breathtaking action films ever created. Quentin Tarantino’s “hommages” notwithstanding, you’d travel a long way to see a movie with a bigger body count, more severed limbs, or a higher ratio of litres of blood spilled to minutes of film that this one. Yet to call Baby Cart At The River Styx a mere “action film” is to do it a severe disservice. Like its predecessor, the film is an artistic marvel, finding a remarkable beauty, even poetry, in its scenes of carnage. It also boasts as many moral shades of grey as it does geysers of arterial blood. Far more than the original film, Baby Cart At The River Styx insists upon Ogami’s “killer for hire” status. While the ronin’s Sword Of Vengeance assignment, preventing the overthrow of an heir to a throne by a band of traitors and mercenaries, had some honour to it, you would be hard pressed to find anything very uplifting about the purely financial squabble between the Shogun and the Awa officialdom that sets Ogami in motion here. But no matter: the Awa fiefdom can pay the fee that Ogami demands, and so he accepts the mission. (Ignoble as Ogami’s task may be, given the events of Sword Of Vengeance, the viewer is immediately anti-Shogun; although it is, of course, impossible to judge whether the impassive Ogami feels the same way.) That Ogami’s assignment will inevitably bring him into direct and fatal conflict with the Bentenrai brothers, three men of honour as refined as his own, who have committed no crime or discreditable act, muddies the waters still further. And finally, we learn in time that Daigoro – talking now, but still just a toddler, and as gosh-darn cute as ever – has joined his father in the family business. Baby Cart At The River Styx is one of those movies that provides a salutary reminder of the profound philosophical differences between Eastern and Western film-making. Given the extreme Western sensitivity about the juxtapositioning of children and violence in motion pictures, whether they be the victims or the perpetrators, it is likely that for some viewers, the sight of Daigoro not just in the most extreme peril, but playing an active role in his father’s wholesale slaughter of his enemies, will be the most controversial part of this film, and the most difficult to watch.
Baby Cart At The River Styx wastes no time getting down to business. Its opening scene reminds us what it’s all about by showing Ogami under attack by two Yagyus, the first of whom has a sword slammed – with the most perfect symmetry – into his head and down the middle of his forehead, while the second is impaled midair with a naginata assembled from parts of Daigoro’s cart. “Our Yagyu clan has kin in every corner of the country. Wherever you go, you’ll never escape our hands!” the first Yagyu warns Ogami, before remembering that he has, you know, a sword embedded in his skull, and finally keeling over; while in the foreground, his colleague releases the first of the many, many gushers of blood destined to redecorate the Japanese countryside. This pursuance of the Yagyu vendetta leads us to the film’s most intriguing feature, the introduction of the Lady Sayaka, leader of the Akashi-Yagyu branch clan handed the task of disposing of Ogami. When we first meet Sayaka, she’s in full psycho-bitch mode, punctuating her enraged threats against Ogami with lengthy shrieks of laughter – “AAAH-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!!” – before abruptly subsiding into mask-like gravity. Fittingly, Sayaka is served by an all-female death squad, the members of which trip about demurely like the dozen little maids from school before whipping out their knives to demonstrate their talents upon the person of Ozugu Kuroguwa’s “best warrior”: ears, fingers, a nose and various limbs go flying before the hubristic ninja is finally dispatched. (We see, too, that the ladies are not without a certain grim sense of humour: the doomed warrior having bragged of his escape that, “For a ninja like me, it’s only a hop away!”, they take care to leave him with just one leg.) Despite this display of martial proficiency, Ozugu expresses a lingering doubt that Sayaka’s ninja are up to the task of disposing of Ogami – and as I need hardly say, he’s right. Still, the encounters between Ogami and these lethal ladies are a joy to behold, with the she-ninja demonstrating that femininity and homicidal mania can go hand-in-hand by attacking with high kicks, razor-edged fashion accessories and, yes, killer vegetables. (To be specific – killer daikon radishes!) After making their first appearance posing as roadside acrobats (let’s just say that the gathered peasantry got its money’s worth that day!), the ladies launch an attack that sees Daigoro directly in the line of fire (he loses his ponytail in the assault!); while during a third skirmish the boy is forced to defend himself, tripping a lever to release a long blade at the front of his cart, on which an on-rushing assassin impales herself. (At the conclusion of this battle, Ogami must shake the baby cart free of all the punctured females attached to it.) The slaughter of her warriors brings Sayaka herself into the fray, and while she proves superior to most of Ogami’s opponents by remaining in one piece, she is soon overpowered, and must elude the ronin’s blade by literally leaping out of her clothes!
We soon learn that the failure of Sayaka’s ninja is, at any rate, not gender-related. As Ogami and Daigoro travel through a forest, they find themselves confronted by Ozugu’s warriors. It is here that Daigoro’s role becomes pro-active, as Ogami thrusts the child’s cart towards his enemies. As the warriors stare in bemusement, the cart rolls downhill towards them, gaining momentum. Daigoro trips more levers, and blades spring from the wheels of the cart, cutting several of the warriors off at the ankles. Ogami disposes of the rest of them, with only Ozugu himself and two of his men escaping with their lives. Ozugu and Sayaka – who has lost all of her ninja – meet again to make new plans, and the enigmatic Sakaya surprises us – although no more, we feel, than she does herself – by becoming the very first Yagyu to show signs of possessing something resembling a conscience, as she finds herself disgusted by Ozugu’s plan to strike at Ogami through Daigoro. Sayaka’s loyalty to her clan takes precedence over her personal qualms, however, and she unwillingly lends Ozugu her services.
One of the supreme pleasures of the “Lone Wolf And Cub” films is their ability, in the midst of an orgy of bloodletting, suddenly to blindside the viewer with scenes of amazing tenderness and emotional complexity. It happens in Sword Of Vengeance when, as if by accident, we are granted a glimpse of Ogami playing with Daigoro as the two of them bathe. After that, we are in no doubt of the depth and sincerity of Ogami’s love for his son, so an early scene in Baby Cart At The River Styx, in which the fearsome ronin takes enormous pride in his small child’s ability to count to five, is not so unexpected, although still totally charming. The relationship between the two lifts to a new level, however, after Ogami’s battle with Ozugu’s warriors, which leaves him badly wounded. Staggering to a derelict hut, Ogami collapses, leaving Daigoro with the task of caring for his father. We watch as the tiny boy makes his dogged way to a nearby river and, when his attempt to carry water in his fingers twice fails, as he carries the life-giving liquid back in his mouth. Setting himself to find some food, Daigoro soon stumbles across a small shrine before which an offering of buns has been placed. Rigidly well-brought-up child that he is, Daigoro struggles manfully with himself before taking the buns, salving his conscience by leaving his jacket as an offering in their place before scurrying back to the hut to feed his incapacitated father. (Really, considering the age of Akihiro Tomikawa when this film was made, these scenes are nothing short of amazing.) But the Yagyus are not far away, and set upon kidnapping the boy; an act that, after the scenes of Daigoro tending his father, seems even more despicable than it already did. With his child threatened, Ogami makes the monumental effort required of him and heads out to the rescue, only to find Daigoro suspended on a rope over an immeasurably deep well, the one standing thing between the boy and death, the hand of Ogami’s bitter enemy, Ozugu Kuroguwa.
And where is Sayaka? Oh, she’s there; reluctantly, but there; flinching under Ogami’s contempt for the “dirty Yagyu trick” – which, significantly enough, is more or less the same phrase she used to Ozugu, in objecting to the scheme. Ogami’s rescue of Daigoro is one of the series’ most celebrated set pieces. At a signal from his father, the dangling boy kicks off a sandal, which – eventually – hits the water far below. Ogami then attacks, knowing to the last fraction of a second how long he has to prevent the boy’s death. Slamming his foot down upon the unspooling rope, Ogami butchers the three remaining Kuroguwas, then reels in his son – who is soaking wet up to his waist. His concern for Daigoro all-encompassing, Ogami makes no move against Sayaka – who could not suppress a cry of horror and protest as the child plunged to his seeming death – and in turn, though Ogami is for a moment completely vulnerable, she does not raise a hand against him. The two part without a word.
But we soon see Sayaka again, and assume that she is, shall we say, feeling herself again; she certainly has Ogami’s demise firmly back on her agenda. Ogami and Daigoro have taken passage on a boat to the Takamatsu fiefdom, where Ogami’s target, Makuya Chuzaemon, has taken refuge. Also on board are the three Bentenrai brothers, sent by the Shogun to escort Chuzaemon to Edo; an assassination squad from Awa, there to take on the brothers; a random hit-man also after the brothers (he was hired for considerably less than Ogami, we learn, and also soon learn why!); and, oh yes, Sayaka. (I swear, you need a scorecard for this movie!) Needless to say, the journey to Takamatsu is rather lively; and in fact, the boat never reaches its destination, being engulfed in flames before it can arrive. The brothers make their escape overboard, and so do Ogami and Daigoro. (Wonder of wonders, not only is Daigoro’s cart amphibious, but Ogami may have invented the pole vault!) And so does Sayaka, who makes an attack upon her enemy while they are still in the water! Ogami manages to disarm her but, intriguingly, neither stabs nor drowns her, but instead hauls her into shore. The three find a rude shelter, and Sayaka backs away in terror, obviously expecting summary execution; but again, Ogami’s first concern is for Daigoro. Swiftly, he strips the wet clothing off the boy, and then off himself – and then, approaching the bewildered Sayaka, he begins ripping her clothes off, too. Sayaka leaps to the obvious conclusion, but Ogami has nothing on his mind but survival: if they do not put their hatreds aside and co-operate for this one night, they will all three freeze to death. So saying, Ogami draws his deadly enemy into his embrace, with Daigoro tucked snugly between the two of them. And Sayaka begins, slowly, to reach for a disregarded sword….only to be stopped by the touch of Daigoro’s hand upon her bare breast.
This is a beautiful, fascinating moment. The camera stays with Sayaka as her eyes – the same eyes earlier seen displaying a frankly psychotic twitch – widen in confusion and alarm, as this simple contact between herself and the child reduces her almost to a state of paralysis, unable to take action against her sworn enemy even if she would. And yet, there is no real sense that Daigoro’s touch has made Sayaka feel “womanly” or “maternal” or, indeed, anything so simplistic. Nor, for that matter, is Daigoro seeking a mother-substitute. The boy is clearly motivated simply by curiosity about the strange differences in anatomy that are on display before him. He delivers a light slap to his father’s flat but well-muscled chest, then follows up with an equally companionable pat to Sayaka’s breast. And the deadly Akashi-Yagyu is instantly stopped in her tracks, finally withdrawing her fingers from the handle of the sword. We see her next some time later, dressed again, and standing upon the shore staring meditatively into the pounding surf. This is almost the last of Sayaka in Baby Cart At The River Styx: she disappears from our story at this point….only to reappear once more, fleetingly and ambiguously, just before the end.
But this quietude, of course, cannot and does not last. Having disposed, one way or another, of his Yagyu enemies, Ogami must still track down Makuya Chuzaemon, and fight his way through the three Bentenrai brothers to get to him. One of the reasons that Baby Cart At The River Styx is so renowned for its body count is that it isn’t only Ogami dishing out the carnage; the “Brothers of Death” also pitch in, gruesomely wiping out the squads of second- and third-rate assassins sent against them by the optimistic Awa officialdom. In the brothers, Ogami has found opponents worthy of his sword – although it is not actually the sword that the brothers themselves favour as a weapon. Instead, Kuruma uses a hooked cudgel; Temma wraps his fists in sheaths of iron spikes; while Bemma prefers a razor-fingered hand cover, which he wields in a way that makes Freddy Krueger look like a total pantywaist. The brothers’ aptitude with these death-dealing items is graphically illustrated during the journey to Takamatsu, as they literally take apart the first of the Awa death squads. After this, the remaining passengers are understandably reluctant to share quarters with the brothers, with only Ogami and Daigoro unmoved by the events that have transpired. Ogami has been warned about the brothers, of course, and it has taken them little time, in turn, to recognise the infamous Lone Wolf; everyone knows why everyone else is there. As the boat on which they are travelling goes up in flames thanks to yet another assassin, we get what might well be – in historical terms, anyway! – the earliest recorded instance of the bad guys telling the good guy exactly what their plans are, revealing the route by which they intend to take Chuzaemon to Edo so that, in the unlikely [sic.] event that Ogami survives the fire, he’ll know where to stay away from! (Not, of course, that the Bentenrais are “bad guys”, in the usual sense of the expression, any more than Ogami is your conventional “good guy”. They’re all just men doing a job, a fact which lends an unsettling edge to the final conflict between them: such bloodshed is hard to take, in the absence of “right” and “wrong”.) While Ogami deals with Sayaka, the Bentenrais travel to Takamatsu to collect their charge. Their path to Edo leads them through a desert, where their instinct that they are not alone proves staggeringly correct as Bemma leaps forward and repeatedly slams his knife-hand into the sand, dragging forth the members of yet another Awa death squad, who are swiftly slaughtered. But the Bentenrais’ troubles are only just beginning. Before long, they find their way blocked by – Daigoro, who simply points. At the crest of a nearby dune stands Itto Ogami, sword in hand….
Since these films are part of a series, it’s hardly giving anything away to say that Ogami emerges victorious from this final battle. Nevertheless, Baby Cart At The River Styx ends on a particularly bitter note, as Ogami’s final victim, Makuya Chuzaemon, turns out to be a spineless little weasel not worth one of the lives that have been lost in his defence. Furthermore, not only do we have nothing against the Bentenrai brothers personally, but they further win our respect by taking their deaths not just with philosophy, but with good humour! And indeed, one of the things that really strikes the viewer throughout this film is how polite everyone is as they go about their bloody business. It is, perhaps, the ultimate mark of the Yagyus’ ill-breeding that they alone feel compelled to accompany their actions with threats and blustering and jeers, while all the other characters display unfailing good manners. The Awa officials, for instance, having hired Ogami to kill a man for them, conclude their pitch with, “Kindly oblige us by attending to this matter!”; while on board the boat to Takamatsu, Bemma likewise solicits a favour from Ogami: “Sorry to bother you, but will you throw my knife back?” – the knife in question having ended up embedded in the wall three inches from Ogami’s head. (Ogami does return the knife, tossing it back into its sheath from across the room.) And as it happens, “Sorry to bother you” is Ogami’s choice of phrase, too, as – having been requested yet again to prove his identity – he asks the men from Awa if they would kindly retrieve his sword from its resting place in the body of yet another Yagyu…. It is Bemma Bentenrai, however, who take this behaviour to its absolute extreme. After despatching Kuruma with a flying sword through the gut (“Who would have thought he’d throw his sword?” he remarks as he dies), and of Temma by (hold onto your stomachs for this one, folks!) splitting his head open from crown to neck, Ogami delivers to Bemma a slash to the throat, which the experienced warrior recognises only too well. It is a blow, struck aslant, that results in “lattice-whistling”, the “sound of the wintry wind”, which escapes along with the victim’s blood from the wound. As he dies, Temma stops to admire his opponent’s prowess, reflecting that he always wanted to strike a blow like that. “But I never dreamt of hearing my own neck whistling – how amusing!” he comments, before collapsing to release his life’s blood in a literal torrent upon the sand….
his, then, is Baby Cart At The River Styx: gruesome, beautiful, suspenseful, exciting, touching and funny in turns. Tomisaburo Wakayama and Akihiro Tomikawa both give wonderful performances, and they are well-supported by the multi-faceted offering of Kayo Matsuo as Sayaka, and by Akiji Kobayashi, Minoru Ohki and Shin Kishida as the three baddest-of-the-bad-asses Bentenrai brothers. Like Sword Of Vengeance, the film is excellently directed by Kenji Misumi, and even more so than its predecessor, is bolstered by the superb cinematography of Chishi Makiura, not only with regard to the grandeur of the battle sequences, but also in his capturing of every fleeting nuance of emotion that crosses the faces of the three main characters. Once again, much of the film’s power comes from the contrast between its horrendous scenes of violence, and the beauty and serenity of the landscapes in which those scenes are enacted. There is a strange irony in the final conflict taking place amongst the rolling dunes of a desert, since the predominant motif of Baby Cart At The River Styx is water. The characters, one and all, travel towards their various destinies across seas and along rivers – as we recall that the “River Styx” of the title is the Anglicised translation of the Sanzu no Kawa, the River Sanzu, across which, in Japanese mythology, souls are ferried after death; and where, Ogami assures Daigoro, should he die at the hands of the Yagyu, his murdered mother will be waiting for him. And indeed, it is Daigoro whom this recurrent water imagery chiefly surrounds. The film opens with the boy having his feet washed, a playful scene balanced by the terrifying moment in which he almost plunges to his death in the waters of the Kuroguwa well. (It is the sight of Ogami tenderly wringing the water from his child’s clothing that first – literally and metaphorically – disarms Sayaka.) Daigoro’s determination to carry water to his injured father helps save the wounded ronin’s life, and ultimately his own; while the conflict that rages within Sayaka, her inability to strike a fatal blow as she holds and is held by Ogami, helping to warm his child, is conveyed visually by the drops of icy water that slide across the soft swelling of her breast, and are flicked away from her chilled, erect nipple under the boy’s gentle touch. In terms of the film series as a whole, however, and of its ongoing themes, the most important scene is that of the burning boat upon the river, which is explicitly reminiscent of the opening credits of Sword Of Vengeance, in which we see Ogami and Daigoro travelling a road encompassed on one side by fire, on the other by water; a stylised rendering of the existence of the father and son, who voluntarily inhabit the “demonic world” that lies between Right and Wrong, Good and Evil….Heaven and Hell.