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Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons – Review

by Dane Benko

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In the fifth installment of the Lone Wolf and Cub series, Ogami must assassinate a traitorous priest before he reveals the sordid secrets of the Kuroda clan to the conspiratorial Yagyu.

Kenji Misumi returns to helm this penultimate adventure of the roving ronin and his three-year-old child. Opening with a montage of little Daigoro placing offerings of cherry tomatoes on rows of graves, the Lone Wolf and Cub series then thematically crosses the threshold to which Ogami and Daigoro are spiraling into hell.

Gatekeepers of this threshold are five Kuroda clansmembers with the “Beasts of Hell” design veiling their face, who challenge Ogami sequentially to test his abilities for conscription. Each holds 100gp, a fifth of the price of Ogami’s services, and each holds further information about the job.

It seems the Lord of Kuroda has fathered a daughter that he has placed in the role of prince, displacing his own son. This taboo act is being kept hidden from the Shogunate, and the secret has been kept safe on a note bequeathed to the loved and admired Abbot Jikei, High Priest of the Soufuku-Ji temple – who is also a spy for the traitorous Yagyu clan. Now Ogami must hunt down Abbot Jikei and return order to the House of Kuroda, the latter a political act that Ogami is hesitant to get involved with.

The hell theme is brought to burden when Ogami faces off with Jikei and is calmly told that this particular assassination will set Ogami’s soul on the permanent path away from enlightenment, as opposed to the liminal path he’s been following thus far. Jikei’s challenge is surprisingly referenced with an abstract double-exposure montage of the threaded ball Ogami offered to Daigoro in Sword of Vengeance (1972), creating  a graphic match between the first threshold the duo had to cross and this new, possibly final one.

Worse, Lord Retsudo seems to be back from the dead – or, rather, it does not seem like he died in the previous film at all, as his eye is now covered with a patch that indicates some amount of continuity between the two installments, since Ogami slashed out his eye before committing. This may have been a save put in by Misumi to reclaim the narrative arc from Buichi Saito, who directed the previous feature, or maybe the blow delivered wasn’t meant to be terminal. Since the series was consistently written to this point by Kazuo Koike and produced by the same company (Shintaro Katsu’s production company, actually, the same man behind the famous Zatoichi series), it’s more likely that this was a last minute reworking of how the series should continue that had nothing to do with the separate directors specifically.

Nevertheless, even if Retsudo’s ‘death’ in the last movie wasn’t intended, his reappearance here gives him a tinge of ghostliness. Also, as Ogami gets closer to Kuroda, he comes across their famous masked cavalry who wear traditional mengu masks as “the dying fear to look into our eyes.”

Each movie has had a somewhat different flavor to its action and storytelling despite shared elements, and so this one is much more riddled with spiritual loss and cold contemplation. Ogami, despite always claiming to be a demon, again has to step in the midst of human trial and tribulation to dictate the right path of action that should be stated. Even the House of Kuroda itself seems like a tormented state eager for a disruptive spirit to break them out of their moral suffering.

Unfortunately in a lot of ways this installment is one of the most disappointing. Very little new is offered to its style or action sequences, and less happens than in most previous installments (the five veiled tests themselves seem like an excessive protraction of the basic inciting incident of each previous adventure). Daigoro has nothing to do or add to the adventure except for one tangential sequence where he runs into an infamous pickpocket nicknamed “Quick Change” and compels her to change her ways by sacrificing himself to be beaten by the police. It’s a nice sequence because it shows he’s internalizing and mastering the stoic moral high ground of his father but otherwise has nothing to do with anything else that happens in the movie. Finally, this movie does nothing new to amp up or push the rivalry of Ogami and the Yagyu Shadow Clan any further than what had already been set up before.

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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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