Lone Wolf and Cub: Babycart at the River Styx (Katsu Productions Ltd/Toho International, 1970)

This chambara (Japanese swordplay) film, also known by the overly literal title of Perambulator at the River of Sanzu, is a great example of the Hollywood term "high concept." A high concept is one which, when encapsulated in a single sentence, makes people say, "I want to see that!"

Classic high concepts include "A bus is wired to explode if it goes below fifty miles an hour," "Two men meet on a train and decide to exchange murders," and "A man-eating shark terrorizes a sleepy beachfront town." But few high concepts can beat this one: "A disgraced samurai bent on vengeance becomes Japan's most deadly assassin... while taking his three-year-old son in a babycart with him wherever he goes."

Hello, Hollywood? This is sooo much better than "A man is trapped in a phone booth by a sniper." And that's even without mentioning that the babycart has been modified so that one kick of little Daigoro's foot makes it bristle with exotic weapons.

The Lone Wolf and Cub film series was adopted from the comic series of the same name, written by Kazuo Koike, illustrated by Goseki Kojima, and now available in elegant pocket-sized editions from Dark Horse Comics. Koike and Kojima also wrote the movie, which was directed by Kenji Misumi.

Samurai Ogami Itto is the shogun's executioner in Tokugawa-era Japan. But the perfidious Yagyu clan, equal to the Ogami clan in the eyes of the shogun, murders his wife, frames him, and demands that he commit suicide. Instead, he takes his baby son Daigoro, becomes an assassin (ronin have to earn a living somehow), and wanders Japan seeking revenge. They walk the path of meifumado: the road to Hell.

In Babycart at the River Styx, Ogami Itto and Daigoro are assailed by a clan of female ninjas hired by the Yagyu clan. Elegantly choreographed bloody slaughter ensues, followed by a touching scene in which the toddler Daigoro cares for his wounded father. The ninjas return and try to blackmail Ogami Itto by dangling Daigoro down a well. Further slaughter ensues. Ogami Itto is then hired to kill a man who is guarded by the three Hidari Brothers, who are more commonly known as Masters of Death # 1, 2, and 3. (Hidari means left, but this doesn't seem to be significant.) The brothers each have a preferred weapon: a spiked club, a nasty bladed gauntlet, and a really nasty hooked gauntlet. Can you guess what happens next? Yep. Slaughter.

The comics focus on the mythos of Bushido, the code of the samurai, but that's not much in evidence in this film. The layered ironies and complex plots (both the sort imagined by the author and the sort conceived of by the characters, in hushed tones and darkened rooms, while looking over their shoulders) are also less emphasized. What's left is imaginative killing, narrow escapes, and a peculiarly believable and understated father-and-son relationship at the heart of it all. The elegance of the filmic compositions also echoes the exquisite layouts of the comic.

The actor playing Ogami Itto, Tomisaburo Wakayama, has a rounded body and puddingy face which is most unlike the angular planes and hawk-like profile of the comic book character. But the child who plays his son looks exactly like the comic's Daigoro, as much so as Hugh Jackson was Wolverine. Their relationship, sweetly human against the cold steel and flying heads surrounding them, is also straight from the comic.

The main difference between the comics and the films is not of plot but of tone. It's easy to compare the comics to haikus of blood and tenderness, but the films don't bring any other medium to mind. They're sword-swinging orgies of extreme violence punctuated by quiet moments of father-and-son bonding, and do not take me lightly when I use the word extreme.

The comics are violent, true, but in black and white, still frames of ink on a page. The films are up there with just about anything you've ever seen before. Body parts are chopped off and shown in close-up, hooks drive into faces, and enough blood to fill a swimming pool flows and sprays and spatters the camera lens. During some fight scenes blood spurts in trajectories that have nothing to do with the action on screen, as if the earth itself is wounded. The Lone Wolf and Cub films are what splatter flicks would be if they were made by artists instead of hacks.

[Rachel Brown]