Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril or Kozure Ōkami: Oya no kokoro ko no kokoro (literally Wolf with Child in Tow: The Heart of a Parent, the Heart of a Child) is the fourth of in our look at the Lone Wolf and Cub series about Ogami Ittō, the wandering assassin for hire who keeps his young son, Daigoro, in tow. This film has also been released as Shogun Assassin 3: Slashing Blades of Carnage, the second sequel to Shogun Assassin.
Baby Cart in Peril is the first of the series that was not directed by Kenji Misumi, who directed the first three, and the fourth entry to this samurai series. Instead, relatively unknown director Buichi Saito pulls off a unique atmosphere of elegance in an otherwise series of bloody conflicts. As I have stated in the past, the Lone Wolf and Cub series should be seen in chronological order since each one of the movies has its own particular features.
Baby Car in Peril starts with a tattooed female assassin, Oyuki, who is a renegade member of a daimyo’s personal bodyguard detail. She is killing all the flunkies who are sent up against her. Along with her deadly use of the short blade, she strips to the waist while fighting to reveal elaborate tattoos on her chest and back. On her front is a kintarō grasping her left breast. A portrait of a mountain witch covers her back. She then cuts off her victims’ topknots, which is particularly shameful to the dead man and his family. Oyuki has had her breasts and back tattooed specifically to distract her enemies. That means she frequently fights with her upper torso exposed. This could have been a simple exploitation gimmick with poorly choreographed moves but Saito and his fight coordinator Eiichi Kusumoto do not waste an opportunity to show a different style of fighting that is every bit as interesting as Ogami’s Suio-ryu sword fighting techniques. Because of her short blade, Oyama fights close in to her enemies where their long swords are ineffective. She’s able to do this by dodging attacks and spinning in close or ensnaring her enemy’s weapons with an object such as a basket.
Ogami Ittō is hired to kill Oyuki with little fan fair by the families she has disgraced via the topknot removal. Ittō begins at the source and tracks down the tattoo artist, who explains that she was a “fine” woman who did not scream as he dug into her flesh with his needles and that she must have been involved in the martial arts.
While waiting for his father, Daigoro needs a little fun and goes exploring and finds a pair of performing clowns on the street. When the clowns finish their act, Daigoro follows them, hoping to see more, but is told that it’s time to go home. Now, Daigoro has wandered too far. He is lost, and has become separated from his father.
A procession of Ittō’s mortal enemies is not far and a group of them are near. Accompanied by the sound of gongs and loud shrieks, Daigoro darts into hiding. Ittō must give up the search for his son rather than risk an entanglement with the men, so he travels on alone.
Daigoro spends several days looking for his father, searching in every temple in the countryside. He enters one temple and sees a figure at the altar praying, but it is not his father. Rather, it is a man whom Daigoro immediately recognizes as someone who is unfriendly. The man follows Daigoro, who wanders into a grass field as it is being lit on fire by farmers to fertilize the soil. Daigoro is surrounded by the flames, but he proves his prowess by burying himself to hide from the fire and surviving.
The man then turns his sword on Daigoro, who raises a stick to defend himself in the same manner and style as his father does, and in that instant the man realizes who Daigoro is. Ittō enters the scene and the two recognize each other. The man, it turns out, is Gunbei Yagyū, the outcast son of Retsudo Yagyū. Gunbei and Ittō had competed for the post of shogun’s executioner, and Gunbei’s fierce swordsmanship surely would have won him the post, but in his over zealousness, he ends up pointing his sword at the shogun – a taboo movement that costs him the job and makes him an outcast.
A note on Gunbei: we are treated to a flashback when he lost the job to Ittō and Retsudo goes ballistic. To save face, he has one of his minions who is an expert at disguise make himself up to look like Gunbei and has him beheaded and put on display so the world thinks that Gunbei has been killed for his failure.
Ittō and Gunbei now have a rematch, but Ittō is much improved and is ready for Gunbei. With a swift stroke, he chops off Gunbei’s right arm. Gunbei then begs Ittō to kill him, but Ittō refuses, saying there is nothing to be gained from slaying a man who is already dead. Looks like Ittō got the last laugh on that one.
With Gunbei rendered ineffective and father and son reunited, the action then turns on finding the prey, tattooed killer Oyuki. Ittō stops at a settlement of street actors that Oyuki was said to be a part of. He talks to the elder and hears more of her story, and it happens that the elder is Oyuki’s father, who is appalled by her actions, and cooperates with Ittō to end her reign of terror.
Ittō finally locates Oyuki at a hot spring resort and witnesses her skills in action against more vassals-fools who have come to try to kill her. Then her arch nemesis, her former instructor who raped her and set her on this bloody vendetta, shows up with his flaming sword and blazing eyes. But she is no longer in his sway, and when he sees her tattoos, he is distracted and killed.
Finally, Ittō has a job to do and he makes quick work of her. She dies a splendid death, as Ittō says, without having to disrobe.
Retsudo Yagyū, meanwhile, has been playing politics. He manipulates a local daimyo into bringing in Ittō, but Ittō is able to use the baby cart and its weapons to escape from the daimyo’s palace and take the man hostage. As Ittō is leaving the area with the daimyo along for safety, he is attacked by the Yagyū. The daimyo is killed by some musketeers and Ittō goes headlong into battle, telling his son Daigoro that he is entering the “crossroads to hell.” It is a fierce battle, ending with Ittō and Retsudo in combat. They trade blows – Retsudo gets a blade in his right eye and Ittō a sword in his back. Ittō kills the swordsman who stabs him, but Retsudo gets away.
Daigoro finds his father and with great effort, pulls the sword from his father’s back. Despite being severely wounded, Ittō carries Daigoro to the cart and slowly pushes it away, seeking medical treatment for himself. Watching over the scene is the now one-armed Gunbei, who is happy to see Ittō live to fight another day.
The story works well in spite of some weaknesses. O-Yuki’s tattoos are provocative but the idea of men ready to cut a woman to ribbons – men who likely have some experience with rape and murder – getting distracted by a little skin art just never rang true to me.
The world of Lone Wolf & Cub is brutal and unforgiving, and children are not immune to its cruelty. Even the bond between parent and child – of particular relevance considering Lone Wolf & Cub’s premise – is given little consideration in the face of violently enforced standards of duty and honor. Though it seems like the connection is coincidental, all three films leading up to Lone Wolf & Cub Vol. 4 share the similar threads of either violence befalling children or parents aiding in the bloody ends of sons and daughters. In volume 4, the father must sell out his daughter to comply with his perceptions of duty and honor owed to society as a whole.