This is the 5th in the Lone Wolf & Cub series. It also marks the return of Director Kenji Misumi who directed the first three Baby Cart films. It combines the films strong period feel, a convoluted affair and a fantastic amount of onscreen schematic violence. Including some of the best death scenes in the series particularly the deaths of the messengers, each die a spectacular death. For example, Itto slashes one of the poor saps who falls into Itto’s campfire’s red-hot coals living in agony only long enough to relay a complex message before finally he is finally engulfed in flames.
I guess I should explain the reference to the messengers in the preceding paragraph. Ogami is being vetted by five messengers who all try to kill him. That is some original job recruiting by an employer; I don’t think we would have an unemployment problem if more employers took these types of actions in while headhunting. After defeating all the messengers, Ogami learns he must kill a young girl who is being raised as a boy to become heir of a local daimyo, while the real heir, a little boy, is kept locked away in a castle tower. I have to ask wouldn’t someone notice along the way that the child is growing into a woman rather than a man?
The assassination assignment includes murdering the senile old lord, his concubine and the girl masquerading as a boy, plus Ogami must also stop a document revealing this sham from reaching the hands of his mortal enemy, Yagyū Retsudō. While on the job, his son Daigoro is once again separated from his father and proves his courage and sense of honor as he refuses to admit the guilt of a woman pickpocket he promised not to rat on. With his father looking on and giving his son ever so slight nods approving of Diagoro’s refusal rat on the woman, the boy is beaten, doesn’t talk and has taken his first major step to becoming a samurai.
For Itto it can be said that although Tomisaburo Wakayama plays a very stoic, virtually emotionless character, he does it very well. This is perhaps due to his years of real martial arts training. He handles his sword normally without any of over the top moves because of his skills, however, he can pull it off as his movements are focused and intimidating.
Now as a chambara fan, I must confess that the combination of stylized violence and the existential mystical look at both historical Japan and the genre conventions that form chambara, sure come through in this film. It might not be as groundbreaking as the first two entries in the series; it is after all following well-tested tradition, but it is done with such conviction and deliberation that one has to give it its due.
As with other serialized characters of the chambara universe like Zatoichi or Nemuri Kiyoshiro, Baby Cart in the Land of Demons meets one’s expectations as a pure Lone Wolf movie that doesn’t frustrate one the way Hollywood sequels do. Master film-maker Kenji Misumi breaks the traditional forms of the period drama that make even a fifth entry of this tried and tested recipe very palatable.
The idea of the five Samurai, each giving Ogami a part of his mission as their dying words is an imaginative one. The fight scenes were excellent, particularly the underwater fight scene. While the final battle was not as epic as some of the others in the series, Ogami still fights an entire army single-handedly, as fans have come to expect since the second film.
While some may say Baby Cart in the Land of Demons isn’t as enjoyable as some of its predecessors, I think otherwise. It’s very solid from a technical standpoint and probably the most beautifully-filmed of the bunch. The Spaghetti Western cinematic influences are present throughout in the form of tight Leone-esque camera shots and certain musical cues. At times, there’s also a subtle otherworldly atmosphere, which may or may not be suggestive of Itto and son’s further descent into the depths of hell. Even the supporting characters in the film are somewhat allegorical in a way: the clansmen of the Kuroda wear demon masks, and the initial five Kuroda representatives that Itto battles in the first act of the film wear veils that feature drawings of the “Beasts of Hell”.
As with anyone of the series see it, you won’t regret it.