Blades of Glory
A samurai father, stoic and doughy, pushes his three-year old son in a crude wooden carriage. This is the central seriocomic image in the six-part Lone Wolf and Cub series (and manga on which they are based). Here is the maternal, transferred to an assassin, protecting his son and avenging his wife’s death. Their forward movement connects the disparate, often confusing episodes that make up their epic story. The repetition emphasizes the thrust of their journey—as grim and relentless as Michael Myers.
The first two Lone Wolf films were packaged for American consumption in the early ‘80s as the barely intelligible Shogun Assassin. This mash-up has since become a cult favorite and AnimEigo has followed up with an “official” DVD release of its lesser known sequel Shogun Assassin 2: Lightning Swords of Death, which is actually the poorly dubbed third Lone Wolf film. In parsing various bootlegged and other releases AnimEigo, according to their cheeky notes, pursued a policy that “to add to the confusion…uses the most famous title and the best title film elements available (which have a more literal translation of the title).” Their subtitles didn’t work on my copy and I had to listen to the lousy dubbed cartoon voices.
The original Japanese title, Baby Cart to Hades, is a better description for this darkly entertaining installment that, though senselessly plotted, skillfully reveals the aimless sacrifices and tragedies that shape the feudal Japan over which Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and his son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) wander. Itto is a former executioner for a shogun who now works as an assassin for hire. Like the hero of Yojimbo, but with less charm and panache, he plays whatever side will take him and operates on a loose code of honor that starts scraping at his soul.
The main plot has Itto and Daigoro traveling by boat to Sanshuu, where the swordsman protects a joro (a kind of prostitute) by assuming her debt towards local pleasure palace madam Torizo (Yuko Hamada). He is first subjected to buri-buri torture and then ordered to take on an army and kill its lord in Torizo’s name. Itto also confronts a mercenary samurai named Kanbei (Go Kato), a fellow ronin, in two duels.
Since the Ogamis’ main storyline has already been established in the previous films, director Kenji Misumi provides almost no background and the story has little to do with their ultimate quest to destroy the Yagyu clan. The back-story flashbacks (enunciated with their own color palettes) mostly relate to supporting characters like Kanbei and Torizo. The effect is to place the two central characters almost on the periphery; their actions aren’t justified by anything other than improvisational survival instincts.
Immorality is this film’s morality, and Misumi uses this film to detail a society ruled by mercenary and bloodlust and how it ultimately affects Itto passing through. “We have entered the gates of hell,” Itto announces before a battle. Hacking his way across the countryside on “the road to hell”. it is his hope that the end will offer redemption. But the road is sticky territory. In his first face-off with Kanbei Itto says, “Both he [Daigoro] and I live in an area between heaven and hell. We expect hardships at all times in life as well as in death.” He actively involves the cherubic infant in battle. Twice he uses his son as decoy to trick fighters and the carriage is revealed to house a volley gun.
That characters start to favor guns over swords is another marker of this society’s drift into lawlessness and violence without honor. Codes of conduct have dissipated until byzantine bureaucratic rules are all that remain. A recurring source of dry humor has characters parsing the proper rules of conduct when negotiating over whether someone should be executed or tortured. The character’s actions are largely determined by Torizo, identified by AnimEigo’s onscreen footnotes as a “boohachimono”. or ruler over people who have “forgotten principles that govern life”.
Kanbei, who was banished from his post after performing a heroic act that nonetheless violated the samurai code, is the tragic lost soul of this world and the film’s fascinating defining sad sack character. He is first introduced with a group of samurai-for-hire who rape a daughter and her mother. Kanbei orders the men to stop, kills the women and their escort, then one of his own men as punishment—an odd brand of chivalry. He then meets Itto and immediately challenges him to a duel, but Itto refuses. “Once again I have failed to die,” he moans. When he later faces off against Itto again he says, “What is a true samurai? Is there such a thing and was there ever?...Is this the way…only those who die stupidly?” After Kanbei tells him his story of banishment Itto, in the film’s one instance of unguarded compassion, comforts the dying man by telling him he would have done the same thing.
In this closing moment Itto tries to locate his own lost honor by identifying with another lone fighter. Fighting alleviates the characters’ tension, but ends up epitomizing their ridiculous and tragic circumstances. The inclusion of ninjas, swordfights, armored baby carts, blood spurting like a popped zit, and Western-style horse and gunplay is entertaining, but the violence is usually joyless. After watching a pimp trying to rape his newly acquired property, then seeing the girl bite off his tongue, and spit it on the floor in close-up, how should one react? “Cool”? More than for entertainment (or exploitation), Misumi uses ridiculous violence to emphasize its absurd horror. The hectic episodic structure creates the sense of a suffocating existential slaughter without beginning or end. For audience orientation, he returns to Itto pushing the carriage.
Despite his adversarial yet sympathetic relationship with Kanbei, there is no evidence that Itto changes over the course of the film and it’s not clear how admirable he’s supposed to be. The photography, which frequently juxtaposes low-angle wide shots with hand-held movement, emphasizes this heroic uncertainty. The unevenly plotted action suddenly comes into sharp focus at the punch-to-the-gut closing and it’s plain what’s happened to Itto. As he trudges away from his final battle like a supernatural creature out of a folk tale a soldier yells, “He’s not a real man but a cold-blooded monster.” The cart moves on. And over the credits a song warns, “the wolves are coming.”