As the Lone Wolf and Cub franchise trundled their weaponized, baby cart of death into a staggering fourth release in a single year, some changes obviously had to be made. In order to frantically keep pace with the original anime by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, original helmer Kenji Misumi was applauded off the field and tagged in director Buichi Saitô for no other reason than he was probably exhausted with the relentless schedule Toho had set (don’t worry – he returned for the next one).
However, compared to Misumi’s more spiritual and deliberate approach, Saitô’s turn guiding the ridiculously dangerous pram into further adventures took a more, plot-heavy turn, heaping on a sizable, side order of nudity with it’s hearty serving of franchise building, sub plots and a continuously revolving door of faceless assailants to literally chop down to size.
This fourth entry in the series literally gets right down to business as ex-executioner for the Shogunate and current wandering Ronin/assassin Ogami Ittõ is hired to seek out and end the life of Oyuki, a member of the daimyo’s bodyguards who has suddenly gone rogue, slicing up any man sent to bring her in and removing his top knot which immediately brings dishonor and shame to the victim’s entire family.
While Ogami attempt to get a lead by interviewing the man responsible for her striking tattoos, his restless infant son, Daigoro, toddles off to go exploring and, after following some performing clowns after they’ve clocked off for the day, gets hopelessly lost. It’s here that the three year-old eventually encounters Gunbei Yagyū, the outcast son of Ogami’s mortal enemy, Retsudo Yagyū (what are the odds!), who was cast out by his father by losing the original post of the Shogun’s executioner to Ogami by a technicality despite being the superior swordsman. Unaware that he’s in the company of the infant son of a hated foe, Gunbei becomes obsessed with the child’s thousand yard stare which signifies that he’s seen and done some serious shit (he ain’t wrong), but after putting Daigoro into some dangerous situations to see if he’ll survive, Ogami arrives to settle things and leaves his adversary alive, but reduced to permanently being a lefty thanks to a well aimed slice.
With this little speed bump overcome and the father and son slaughter team reunited, they head off to deal with the matter of the rarely clothed Oyuki, only to find that her circumstances are far more complicated than they figured. On top of that, Retsudo, finally reacting to the carnage Ogami has inflicted on his clan for the past three movies, finally makes a move to ensure and kill his nemesis, but does this mean that the Lone Wolf and Cub can finally claim their vengence and hop off that guelling Demon Road to Hell – the virtual army by Retsudo’s side say otherwise…
Compared to the earlier, more measured trio of Lone Wolf and Cub, there seems to be a bit of a trade off going on here. While Kenji Misumi’s second and third entries were more singular affairs that dealt with isolated adventures that had an accumulated effect on our heroes unseen foe, Buichi Saitõ’s Baby Cart In Peril grabs the overarching plot with both hands and hurls it back into the spotlight for the first time since the orginal Sword Of Vengeance. Whether this was a desire of the director, the demands of Toho, or just necessary due to the path taken by the source material, I’m honestly unsure, but it’s made super apparent by the return of arch-bastard Retsudo Yagyū (now played by Tatsuo Endõ) the twisted old shit whose sinister machinations caused all this trouble in the first place. On top of that, the introduction, backstory and subsequent maining of his weirdo, outcast son, Gunbei, also hints at further encounters down the road which strips the series of its arthouse-meets-exploitation leanings and feels more like a super-busy bout of franchise filmmaking that deals out continuing plot threads within it’s already dense story.
However, how you rate Baby Cart In Peril comes from what you’re actually expecting from the series as a whole. Those seeking the spiritual silences mixed with random stylish violence will probably Saitõ’s entry clumsy and more than a little crass, however, despite its episodic plot (almost none of the competing plot line actually have that much to do with one another), Baby Cart In Peril moves like shit off a shovel, never really giving you a moments pause while constantly dropping in enough plots and cast at a moment’s notice to fill two movies.
Some of it admittedly suffers as the genuinely intriguing (if somewhat tone deaf) storyline concerning Oyuki’s bare breasted thirst for vengence is overshadowed by the return of the series’ uber-villain like if Darth Vader suddenly decided to barge into the middle of the Jabba The Hutt storyline in Return Of The Jedi. However – and maybe this is the franchise loving westerner in me talking – watching Ogami and Retsudo actually face off in the climax to a bloody draw must have been what watching Dumbledore and Voldemort face off in The Order Of The Phoenix had been like if I’d actually gave a crap about Harry Potter.
However, when focused on separately, Baby Cart In Peril’s individual parts prove to be greater than their whole with Daigoro cutting loose once more to get the spotlight as Gunbei becomes obsessed with his steely glare and the little tyke proving that beyond his blank cuteness lies a guile that rival’s his old man’s. On the other hand, while the Oyuki plot smacks a little of misogyny – no one cares that she’s on a rampage because she was raped, only that she’s dishonoring men, plus she exclusively duels with her boobs out – it still contains enough funky details like flaming swords and hypnotic eyes to keep up with the crazy, comic book aesthetic the series has maintained up until now.
In fact, thanks to the careering pace and furious sequel baiting, Baby Cart In Peril slices through its flaws to be, pound for pound, the second most consistently fun entry after the second film – something that’s reinforced by the ass-kicking finale that throws realism to the dogs and sees Tomisaburõ Wakayama’s portly lead take on a whole fucking army and Retsudo while sustaining a ridiculous amount of damage before wheeling his son off while obviously on the verge of death. More smash-mouth than the elegance we’ve gotten used to up until now, Baby Cart In Peril happily sacrifices a stand alone story on the altar of serial storytelling and provides a fun, violent, muddled romp as logic spills out all over the floor like so many quarts of ruptured lifeblood.