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Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril – Review

by Dane Benko

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This fourth film in the Lone Wolf and Cub series burns with the vengeance narrative of a pinku eiga film while pushing the assassin duo to further limits than ever before in its major story arc. Unlike the somewhat diversionary third installment, Baby Cart in Peril fits right in with what was established in the first and second parts, though sizzles with a new style brought on board by director Buichi Saito.

The very first frame is the topless figure of Oyuki, a trained Besshiki-me (swordswoman) who is repelling the attack of several Owari clansmen. Oyuki was the daughter of Goumune Jindayu, head of an outsider group of street performers who feature prominently in this episode. The travelling Lord Owari saw Oyuki performing a dance after the “kodachi” (small weapons) style of fighting and hired her to train the Owari clanswomen; however, she was humiliated and raped by clansman Kozuka Enki, and abandoned her post to seek vengeance against the Owari.

Inspired by what she learned from Kozuka Enki about the advantage of distracting one’s enemy with a flaming blade, Oyuki seeks out a tattoo artist to print on her ‘alarming tattoos’ that turn out to be a witch on her back and a Kintaro, which looks like a demonic red baby, around her right breast. Kintaro dolls are offered to children Tango no Sekku holiday to inspire them bravery and strength: Oyuki uses the witch and the Kintaro to distract and disturb her enemies to gain the advantage.

These tattoos create a graphic equivalent to the overarching theme of the Lone Wolf and Cub series as a whole. In the first movie, Ogami Itto and his son Daigoro choose to be ‘demons’, and walk ‘the path between life and death on the edge of Hell’ to seek vengeance to the ills done to them by the Yagyu Shadow Clan. Hence Oyaki is sort of Ogami’s feminine opposite in a single figure, and her individual vengeance narrative is only one repeat featured in Baby Cart in Peril to Lone Wolf and Cub’s relationship.

Here is where translation becomes important.  The original translation to the title Baby Cart in Peril is “Heart of the Parent, Heart of the Child.” In addition to creating a graphic match of mother and child of vengeance with Oyaki’s tattoos, the ripple effects of her actions seem to be an inversion of Lone Wolf and Cub’s effect on the politics of the countryside; they are equal and opposite figures, which is why Ogami gets hired by the Owari to assassinate Oyaki.

Unfortunately this further complicates things.  On the way to seek out Oyaki, Ogami stumbles across Yagyu Gunbei, disgraced member of the Yagyu Clan and Ogami’s rival for Executioner for the Shogunate. Gunbei had won the duel that was supposed to claim him the role of Executioner but due to a technicality of his sword pointing at the Shogun, he was dismissed and Ogami gained the position. He was ordered to commit hara-kiri but the villainous Retsudo, long-haired elder from the first film, switched his identity and features with another man and delivered the head to the Shogunate. Here was the seed that sprouted Retsudo’s hatred of Ogami and the Yagyu conspiracy against his family. And now that Ogami is tracking down the outsider Oyaki, Retsudo has an opportunity to turn the Owari clan against him, while Gunbei vows a fateful vendetta.

Hence Oyaki’s actions against a major clan upset the balance of power in the region such that Ogami’s respect among them comes into question and possibly switches their allegiance to the Yagyu side, deepening the conspiracy against him. Ogami also cannot merely confront Oyaki as her own personal vengeance against Kozuka is a matter of honor, and the saddened decision of her father Guomone to pray for his own daughter’s death steps up these political issues and questions of honor to a grand humanist monologue about the harm and resentment people do to each other. Guomone and Oyaki make the third part of three ‘father and child’ pairings (Ogami and Daigoro and the tattoos as the other) that refers to the movie title’s actual translation “The Heart of the Father and the Heart of the Child.” Even Gunbei acknowledges in Daigoro “The stone heart of an accomplished swordsman,” that shows that the Lone Wolf and Cub’s adventures are where the personal are global and vice versa.

In the meantime, director Buichi Saito dispenses with the minimalism of Kenji Misume’s previous work on the series and adds in jazzy soundtracks, voice over narration, and even a strange children’s song amongst imagery and editing that loves to cut back and forth between arenas and space. A lot of the exposition of the Lone Wolf and Cub series involves flashbacks and long descriptive dialogs but this time the movie seems to delight in them, pointing out whenever possible the meaning the story has to Japanese society and humanist themes instead of hurrying through them to get Ogami into the next setpiece to start hacking limbs. That said, there are still plenty of hacking and slashing and geysers of blood, as per usual.

Finally, the main conflict of Ogami versus the Yagyu clan is pushed to greater levels yet as Ogami is driven to extremes to protect his name for the Owari clan, and finally finds himself in a face to face duel with evil Retsudo.

Each previous installation has had a female character, either a victim Ogami protects or an antagonist, whose involvement with Ogami results in a silly ending where she gazes off admiringly to his passing figure as he wanders away from the previous story and toward the next adventure. It’s interesting to see how the role of women in this movie has changed, but only slightly.  One of the issues with pinku eiga is the question of whether the vengeance narrative justifies the more pornographic, and especially rape, imagery. Though Baby Cart in Peril is not a pinku eiga, only slightly alludes to that genre, nevertheless one of the more interesting but uninvestigated themes of Oyaki’s story is that she uses her sexuality to destroy her enemies in revenge of a rape, and yet severely dislikes being seen and considered nude as a matter of honor.

Kenji Misumi is going to return for the next installment, and it’s sort of interesting to think what would have happened in the series if Buichi Saido was the main director for the series, as he seems to add a special charge to the movies. For fans further interested in his work, he comes back to direct nine episodes of the third season of the Lone Wolf and Cub television series.

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Author: Dane Benko

Dane is an independent filmmaker and freelancer in Albuquerque, NM. Japanese cinema is a particular fascination of his.

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