For all intents and purposes, Baby Cart in Peril is the perfect Lone Wolf and Cub movie. The gorehounds in the audience will be pleased that the picture provides more stylized violence than ever, while cinesnobs can appreciate how the story plumbs thought-provoking thematic depths. With each mindset as passionate as the other, it goes without saying that a good deal of friction is experienced as the film does its thing. But although Baby Cart in Peril falls short of achieving cinematic nirvana, the entertainment it provides along the way is undeniable, a shining example of why this series ranks among the cream of the chambara crop.
For years, Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) has remained a force to be reckoned with. His skills with a blade unmatched, the former Shogunate executioner-turned-assassin for hire may have just met his match. As our story begins, Ogami is hired to take down Oyuki (Michie Azuma), a gifted swordswoman who’s deserted her clan and embarked on a killing spree. But en route to his latest assignment, Ogami ends up confronting his past, in the form disgraced ronin Gunbei (Yoichi Hayashi). It was Gunbei that challenged Ogami for the executioner’s spot all those years ago, with the latter’s subsequent victory being what sent the treacherous Yagyu clan into a vengeful rage. In no time, Ogami finds himself encountering scores of Yagyu soldiers on the road to Oyuki, unaware that there’s more to her story than meets the eye.
As bombastic and cheerfully exploitative as they are, there are a few issues the Lone Wolf and Cub pictures tend to pussyfoot around. Chief among these are recurring themes involving honor and what it means to be a samurai, which the series has addressed but always come just short of diving into. They’re interesting but still mainly treated as pit stops on the way to the slice-and-dice combat. Baby Cart in Peril is just about the same, what with Ogami Itto remaining as unflinchingly emotionless of a hero as he’s always been. Luckily, though, the subplots lend more weight to the production, allowing it to be just a tad more introspective than prior entries. The series continues a tradition of rounded female characters with Oyuki, whose bare, tattooed breasts are emblazoned across the screen in the film’s very first shot. It’s quite the memorable entrance, but the story gives her much more to do than just wait to fight Ogami, her back story tinged with just as much tragedy as her fated opponent’s.
Then we have Gunbei, whose screen time is scant but whose presence in the story remains pretty compelling. Far from a one-dimensional villain (or even a real bad guy at all, since he’s only in a handful of scenes), Gunbei personifies the Bushido code’s darker side. The film comes to reveal why the Yagyu boys have such a beef with Ogami to begin with, in a sequence that doesn’t excuse their reactions but still resonates and provides them with a better motivation than just because. I’m grateful for director Buichi Saito (taking over for Kenji Misumi) scattering dramatic nuggets like these throughout the picture, even if they are a bit hurriedly swept away by the ferocious swordplay. With that in mind, Baby Cart in Peril is a treat to watch for the action alone, which consists of one blood-spattered encounter after another. It’d be a shame to spoil the highlights, but let’s just say that Ogami once again faces impossible odds, squaring off against dozens of Yagyu clansmen in a labyrinthine maze for the film’s riveting climax. Even after four movies, you never get tired of seeing this series serve up a pile of severed limbs on a silver platter.
Baby Cart in Peril came so close to marrying brains and brawn, it’s a shame the picture didn’t get to finish its final vows. Still, I don’t think many chambara fans will walk away disappointed, for whatever its flaws may be, the film is as big, boisterous, and bloody as its fellow franchise brethren. If you’re as much of a stalwart samurai buff as I am, then Baby Cart in Peril is just what the daimyo ordered.