on July 24, 2006
Here's a lesson in the value of reading on-disk liner notes. There are four short pages of notes on Animeigo's version of LONE WOLF AND CUB: BABY CART IN PERIL.
Page one tells about the Mountain Witch and Kintaro. Both legendary figures in Japan. The mountain witch, or yamauba, is the `fairy of the mountains,' old and haggard in appearance with a thin face and wild white hair. The mountain witch cares for the mountains; kintaro is a child of super-human strength and skills, something like our Paul Bunyan, I guess. Important stuff to know because the character Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama,) the ronin Lone Wolf, has contracted to kill (for the usual 500 pieces of gold) is the beautiful young Oyuki, who has been slaughtering the Yagyu clansmen sent out to assassinate her. Oyuki has a tattoo of the Mountain Witch on her back and one of a nipple-seeking Kintaro covering her chest. Besides being a superbly skilled warrior, the lovely Oyuki will distract her opponents by removing her blouse while in battle. Whatever it takes to awe and shock.
Page two describes the `Yagyu New Shadow Style' of swordscraft. Lone Wolf and Cub is set in 17th century Japan, and every episode I've seen so far - this is my third - concentrates on sword fighting styles and techniques. The New Shadow Style is the type favored by Yagyu Gunbei, Ogami's bitter rival. Ogami, as we're reminded in every film, was the Shogun's Official Executioner until betrayed by the pernicious Retsudo. Gunbei was a disciple of Retsudo's, and he fought Ogami for the Executioner position and, save for what may have been a technicality (watch the film and decide for yourself,) defeated Ogami. Although each film in the series tells a particular story - in this case that of Oyuki and Ogami's contract to kill her - they all also flesh out the big story. I really should have started these in sequence, but I've been picking them up haphazardly. In any event, the Gunbei-Ogami rivalry is fleshed out in this one, even though it hasn't a whole lot to do with the main story.
Page three tells us about the goumune, or `street beggars,' of feudal Japan. Lone Wolf and Cub spend a lot of time traveling through the poorer communities of Japan and observing the outcasts and the looked down upon. As the goumune clan leader observes to a rude Yagyu thug sent by the Shogun to bring Ogami back, in a speech that distantly echoes words Shakespeare wrote for Shylock, the goumune may be reviled and looked down upon, but they eat, drink, and expel waste like any other human. And, like any other human, they value courtesy and a show of respect. Translated into terms I can understand - roughly and imperfectly translated, I realize - the goumune are something like the dirt farmers in westerns. Like I said, it's a rough translation - goumune are valued less than `human beings,' according to the notes, at a ratio of about 7 to 1. Still, in terms of firepower a group like the Yagyu clan - Ogami's chief enemies since the betrayal that forced his with-cub exile in a land between heaven and hell, between life and death - a group like the Yagyu clan have it all over the goumune. Not unlike the big bad ranchers pushing around the frightened and huddled sod busters in a lot of westerns.
We learn the Owari fief was a major commercial crossroads during the time the events in this movie took place on page four.
Lone Wolf's willingness to mingle with and befriend, and at times defend, the despised, sets him apart as a true samurai. Or a classic cowboy hero, come to think of it. He's imperturbable to the point of being a sphinx and proficient as heck with the sword. There's a lot of blood in these movies - when a bad guy gets his legs cut off at the knees the prop department empties a couple of quarts of krylon red #5 all over everything. In this movie alone I'd guess they were buying the stuff in 50-gallon drums. It may have played brutal in 1972, but it just seems a little cartoonish today. Not in a bad way, mind you. Lone Wolf and Cub was born of a Japanese comic book series and these movies are vividly visual. If the strange names and customs make watching this movie sound like work, it's not. They're a lot of fun, very well produced, visually pleasing, and containing a hero-and-a-half you can root for.