“Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx” – A.J Hakari

The cardinal rule of poker is to never play your hand too early. It’s better to take things slow and lull your opponents into a false sense of security before moving in for the kill. The Lone Wolf and Cub series took this rule to heart and applied it to its inaugural picture, Sword of Vengeance. A plenty nutty samurai film in its own right, it managed to provide viewers with loads of carnage while still whetting their appetites with promises of more where that came from. I’m pleased to report that Baby Cart at the River Styx carries on this tradition of craziness, for it’s a sequel every bit as pulpy, blood-soaked, and dementedly fun as its predecessor.

River Styx continues the adventures of Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama), former Shogunate executioner and current sword for hire. Forced to live his life on the run, Ogami divides his time between outsourcing his skills with a blade and searching for the evil Yagyu clansmen who framed him for a terrible crime. Ogami’s latest travels put him in league with a clan desperate to stop the Shogunate from stealing the secrets of a rare dye only they possess. But as it turns out, the Yagyus are still out for blood, as diabolical clanswoman Sayaka (Kayo Matsuo) has dispatched her own army of female ninjas to cut Ogami down in his tracks. Fortunately, Ogami is prepared for whatever the forces of evil can throw at him, be they Sayaka’s nimble warriors or a trio of assassin brothers appropriately called the Gods of Death.

The Lone Wolf and Cub movies have never been the most serious fare samurai cinema has to offer. They exist in the same realm as comic book adaptations, pure fantasies in which everything the characters do must be taken with a grain of salt. River Styx is perched upon the delicate precipice at which it could either fall face first into a pit of self-parody or retreat into a cave of pretension and stuffy seriousness. Thankfully, director Kenji Misumi pulls off this balancing act with the utmost precision, including enough good-natured winks at the audience without treating its mythos as a complete joke. River Styx is a bit less buttoned-up than Sword of Vengeance, but that’s because the latter was saddled with origin story detail. Its responsibility was to draw viewers in and set up the pieces of an overarching saga; all River Styx had to do was keep the action flowing, and that it did, with all the ferocity and zeal of a card-carrying member of the exploitation genre. While Akira Kurosawa and others were dissecting the samurai lifestyle, movies like this were indulging in all the swordplay they could stomach and passing the blood-stained buck onto the viewers.

Running at a slim 80 minutes, River Styx wastes no time jumping right into the action. I guess you could say that this wasn’t a wholly necessary chapter in Ogami Itto’s story, since it doesn’t really further nor hinder the grand scheme of things. It exists pretty much just to entertain, but you can hardly complain when it does so with the amount of energy and creative lunacy it brings to the table. Within the first two minutes, you know that Misumi means business, serving up cutthroat battles that blur the lines between silly and artistic. Ogami’s fight against the Gods of Death (great band name, by the way) at the end is fun, but the centerpiece occurs near the middle, as our hero endures a gauntlet consisting of Sayaka’s shinobi legion. The action comes fast and furious, yet at the same time, the film isn’t a completely frothy affair. There is some substance to speak of, an indication that the filmmakers were thinking of those who were seriously invested in the story. Sayaka isn’t a one-dimensional harpy but a somewhat complex villain, one whose quest for vengeance is quelled the more she witnesses Ogami’s personal pain. The picture even finds room for a sweet moment or two, including one in which Ogami’s little son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) tends to his injured papa.

If the Zatoichi franchise was Japan’s equivalent of James Bond, then the Lone Wolf and Cub movies are on the same level as Lethal Weapon. Its cinematic legacy arguably isn’t as impressionable, but it has its fans, for whom over-the-top violence and just the right amount of goofiness are all that’s necessary to have a good time. Baby Cart at the River Styx recognizes this and proceeds to deliver viewers with exactly what they want — plus a teensy bit more for good measure.

Rating: ★★★☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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