Criterion Corner: The Road to Hell: Lone Wolf and Cub - Part Two

It's his eyes. His eyes belong only to those who have killed hundreds of men and withstood the splatter of their blood. His Death Life Eyes.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (1972)

This was the first film in the franchise that wasn't directed by Kenji Misumi and it definitely has a different feel from the rest of them. Buichi Saito picked up the reins and his take is decidedly more on the exploitation side of the coin. The film literally opens up on a close-up shot of a bare breast which sets the tone for the rest of the story.

The breast belongs to a female assassin named Oyuki (Michie Azuma) who has incredible fighting prowess with her short sword. She has elaborate tattoos on her back and around her breasts and as a diversionary tactic she strips naked from the waist down while fighting. Oyuki is a complex character despite her lewd fighting style and the film fleshes out her backstory making her one of the more sympathetic antagonists in the franchise. Itto ends up being hired to take her out and it's interesting to see him grapple with the morality of this mission.

In the second act, Baby Cart in Peril takes an interesting side route that focuses on Itto's son Daigoro. Diagoro gets separated from his father and wanders the countryside looking for him. This sequence has a haunting childlike song that plays over it and though it sounds a bit out of place for this film it ended up being a huge hit in Japan at the time. Gunbei Yagyu (Yoichi Hayashi), and old nemesis of Itto follows Diagoro and tries to kill him. This is one of the first times we see Diagoro have to defend himself without the help of his father and while he doesn't have much in the way of fighting skill, he has an immense amount of determination and does not fear death. He has seen a great deal of death traveling with his father.

There is a much more mystical feel to this film as there is a swordsman who has an attack where he hypnotizes his foes with his eyes and can make his sword light on fire. Although this iteration is missing the more contemplative feel of the Misumi films, it makes up for it with interesting characters and some extremely well staged fights. The violence hasn't been toned down in the slightest and there are still limbs flying every which way and jets of blood spurting out. This is one of the weaker entries, but it's still quite excellent overall.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973)

Kenji Misumi picks the series back up up as director one last time, infusing it with his signature elegant style and heady philosophies. Itto has to aquire the information for his newest target in a novel way--he has to kill five different messengers to gain both his fee and the knowledge. The first act is his encounters with the five warriors and all the different ways they try to ambush him. Each person gives a lengthy backstory to Itto as they are dying (one individual while burning to death!) and after defeating the final one he is off to kill his prey.

Diagoro is again the focus of a side story as he gets entangled with the plight of a female pickpocket known as "Quick-Change" O-Yo, so-named for her ability to disguise herself at the drop of a hat. Although Diagoro is often used as a plot device in order to give superhuman Itto a weakness, he has his own silent tenacity that defines his personality. He is captured by the police and refuses to give up the whereabouts of O-Yo even after being flogged in front of the entire town. For such a young boy, he has more courage than many men and that is due to his involvement with his father's travels and adventures. Diagoro embodies the concept of bushido just as much as his formidable father.

Baby Cart in the Land of Demons is a return to form and maintains a perfect balance between the profane and the beautiful, which is what the Lone Wolf and Cub films romanticizes. Death and life are equal states of being, and neither is to be feared even if one is traveling on the Demon Road to Hell.

Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (1974)

For the final entry, Yoshiyuki Kuroda takes a stab at the franchise, and brings some of his ghost story expertise from the Yokai Monsters films to this chambara tale.

The main villain Retsudi Yagyu has had every single one of his sons killed by Itto and so is finally forced to send his daughter Kaori to confront the cold-blooded ronin. Her fighting technique is juggling knives and she uses the ability to confuse opponents and stab them in the head from above. As with all the previous battles with Itto this doesn't go well. Up to this point the direction of the film is quite straightforward and much less stylized than all the previous entries.

However, the style takes a hard left into the supernatural after this as Yagyu enlists the help of his illegitimate son Hyoe who uses black magic. Hyoe summons three clan warriors from the dead, but not to directly attack Itto and Diagoro. Instead these demons attack all the innocent people that they come into contact with, such as inn owners and patrons. Visually, this is one of the best sequences as everything is shrouded in fog and shadows with ghostly apparitions murdering people and whispering in their dusty voices to Itto and his son. Director Kuroda has an affinity for horror films and it shows in this side plot.

As is custom, the last act is a giant battle, this time in a giant snow-covered field. This is also the debut of the baby cart sled-mode--Itto can quickly travel across the snow with Diagoro tucked safely inside. To be honest, seeing Itto fight a hundred samurais on skis is a sometimes hilarious and frequently bad ass experience. It's by far the most outlandish and excessive fight in the entire series and ends the franchise on a high note. While there isn't a conclusive ending, it doesn't feel unsatisfying. Itto brushes off the snow and blood off his clothes, gathers up Diagoro in his arms and sets forth, to continue his journey wherever it might take them.

--Michelle Kisner