After wisely taking a brief time-out after churning out the first three Lone Wolf And Cub movies in under a year, Kenji Misumi returned to helm the fourth series of the magnificent Ronin-gone-wild anime adaptation. His absence from the series was noticable as previous director, Buichi Saitõ, gave his installment a grungier, nastier feel that still dealt out stunningly visual duels, but also lingered more on the seedier side of things by focusing on torture and lots of nudity, but upon his return, Misumi elected to give the latest installment more introspective drama and overt spiritualism then ever before. Well, that and plenty of gushing sword wounds.
Thus we got Baby Cart In The Land Of Demons, arguably the most complicated of all the Lone Wolf And Cub plots that steers the series away from a lot of the exploitation aspects of the franchise and almost pushes it gently into the realms of the art house – despite featuring a scene where the Lone Wolf assassinates a target by sawing through the underside of a boat like a fucking cartoon character.
The last time we saw Lone Wolf And Cub (aka. master assassin Ogami Itto and his offensively cute son Daigoro), they were staggering away from a massacre where the vengeful parent had managed to achieve a slight measure of revenge against his mortal enemy Yagyū Restudõ after stabbing the whispy-haired fucker in the eyeball.
After an undetermined amount of time later, Ogami has healed from his many wounds (yet Daigoro is still three) and has resumed being an assasin for hire with his legendary reputation intact and as he and his son continue on the Demon Road To Hell, he is approached by a succession of five messengers who give their lives to test the Ronin’s skill and helpfully croak out parts of the job they want to hire the Lone Wolf for before they crumble and die. Once Ogami has dispatched all five, he not has combined the full description of who he has to annihilate, but full payment was also spread out between his quintet of victims who gave their lives for the honor of their clan. It seems that there is a conspiracy in action involving a daimyõ’s decision to disguise and install the illegitimate female child he had with his side thing as the prince while having his actual heir imprisoned away. A confessional letter detailing the plot lies in the hands of of a high priest who also is a spy who plans to deliver it to the Shogun and thus cause the clan to be dissolved – but as Ogami moves to retrieve the letter, various complications arise that add extra dimensions to the mission. Firstly, a mysterious woman introduces herself as Shiranui and adds and extra level to the mission at hand by demanding the the daimyõ, his lover and their daughter also be killed, secondly, the high priest will be under the protection of none other than Restudõ himself – but none of this can be addressed until little Daigoro has his own mini adventure as he totters into a side story involving a pickpocket.
The first thing you notice about Baby Cart In The Land Of Demons, is that the returning Misumi has taken this already morally murky world and made it infinitely more complex. Tomisaburõ Wakayama’s superhumanly stoic anti-hero has turned his blade on innocent people before (hell, the first time we met him, he was executing a child), but in comparison to the leering, comic book villains he’s dispatched in the past, the majority of souls he slices into strips here are mostly neutral beings working on behalf of their clan. The five messengers Ogami locks swords with may have been tasked to kill our lead by any means necessary (one sneaky bugger even attempts poison to test the Lone Wolf’s guile which he simply spits out after stabbing the dude), but they are only acting for the good of their clan despite some of the gruesome ends that they meet. The most memorable of this being the guy who slumps into a bonfire after receiving a katana appendectomy and manages to continue briefing Ogami on his mission as he burns alive! Elsewhere, the Lone Wolf’s extra mission to slice up the daimyõ and his illegitimate family (including a little girl his son’s age) has him brutally carving up soldiers he previously was fighting alongside against Restudõ’s agents barely a scene earlier.
Interestingly, Misume doesn’t take the easy route and leans heavily into the fact that character’s motivations are layered with more shades of greys than the floor of a senior citizen’s barber shop. Watch Diagoro and the daimyõ’s disguised daughter playfully pull faces at each other mere moments before Ogami reveals his true intentions to the clan, or the fact that the masked bodyguards all earn splattery deaths that spray blood everywhere like a fiendish sprinkler despite them only trying to protect their leader.
However, in an attempt to balance the fact that our hero will shred anyone into pieces if honor (or payment) demands it, a strong vein of spiritually pumps through Baby Cart In The Land Of Demons that sees Ogami initially hold off on assassinating the high priest after engaging in a spot of philosophical debate. Also Daigoro’s now obligatory side mission sees the little tyke get caught up with a famous pickpocket and even fingered as an accomplice, but inspires the woman to renounce her ways after he withstands a nasty whipping like a champ after refusing to name her and it’s a nice break from the weight of the main story.
While the Lone Wolf And Cub saga was never exactly a carnival of sweetness and smiles, Baby Cart In The Land Of Demons may be the most serious of the bunch – quite the achievement considering it’s one of the only entries that doesn’t feature a single act of sexual assault – and at times it feels like the more fan-favorite, flashier elements of the series is being restrained by the sheer amount of moving parts the plot requires, but while the complex storyline gets weirdly complicated as our heroes flip allegiances like a pancake, the climax still makes room for some signature scenes where Ogami obliterates a room full of people as deftly as someone swatting a fly. Be it stabbing a masked assailant in the face, causing what looks like all of his blood to erupt from the wound, or even going so far to slice another guy in half, the Lone Wolf And Cub series has never skimped on the gore, but the loaded morals of the script make all the nastiness feel more spiteful than the comic book cool of the earlier, more exaggerated movies.
So, the least of the series, then? Well, that’s not exactly a fair statement just because the series actually holds its characters to some sort of accountability – but you can’t argue with the sight of Ogami emerging from a river and fighting enemies dressed only in his skimpy underwear or the moment where Daigoro’s ubiquitous baby cart is dragged behind a horse like a sled.
The Demon Road To Hell may have taken a more somber path, but the blade of the Lone Wolf And Cub still has a sharp edge.