As a serial discusser of movies, I often run into this thing where I find that other people put a way higher premium than I do on things being logical, or realistic, or believable. They complain about characters making a bad choice or a strange choice or not doing the obvious choice. They seem to think it’s better for characters and stories to be normal, or sane.
Yeah, sometimes, occasionally, maybe, in moderation. Sure. But there are also times when it’s an intentional artistic approach, and clearly a great one, to depict the way the world works, and the way humans behave, in a heightened manner. It can be way more interesting for characters to be extreme, to act unreasonably. It can even be more true to show life how it feels, instead of how it actually is. Or it can just be way more fun to show life how it’s not.
Case in point: LONE WOLF AND CUB: BABY CART IN THE LAND OF DEMONS (1973), the fifth of the six LONE WOLF AND CUB movies. As always it’s a story about traveling assassin Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama, THE BAD NEWS BEARS GO TO JAPAN), a.k.a. Lone Wolf and Cub, being hired to kill someone. Usually people hire him by leaving money at a shrine. This time there’s a much more complicated method. A guy gets his attention by walking around wearing a veil with ox-head and stallion-head demons painted on it. When Ogami asks him about it the guy pulls out a sword and quickly loses a duel to him.
As this man dies he gives Ogami 100 ryo. He explains that yes, he knows it costs 500 ryo to hire him, and yes he knows Ogami will have to hear “the reasons and secrets” behind the assassination before he can decide if he accepts it. But there will be four more members of his clan that will find him, and they will also try to kill him, in order to test his skills. They will each give him 100 ryo, and when he’s killed all of them he’ll have passed the test and have his fee.
So that’s the way it goes. Ogami keeps traveling with his young son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) and he’ll see another guy with that veil on. Or sometimes they’re in the woods roasting corn cobs over a fire and suddenly he holds his hat up and blocks the three darts he senses thrown at his face. Each of the five messengers fight him in a different way, they generally express being impressed by his skills, and as they die they tell him more information about who it is they want him to kill and why. They’ve got a sword in them or a big slash and they’re bleeding out and giving him this exposition. My favorite is the dart thrower, who explains that he will keep talking until he can’t anymore, and during his speech he actually catches on fire and keeps talking as he burns. A real trooper. You gotta respect it.
Then there’s a narrative digression, a little mini-adventure in the middle, which these movies often have since they mix together different stories from the manga written by Kazuo Koike and illustrated by Goseki Kojima. A notorious pickpocket/master of disguise called Quick-Change O-Yo (Tomomi Sato, GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL) is in a town during a festival, stealing purses, but a group of cops led by Senzo the True Heart (Akira Yamanouchi, HANZO THE RAZOR: SWORD OF JUSTICE) have tracked her to the town and are scouring to find her. She actually manages to steal from one of them, but he realizes it and they chase her through a crowd. She gets ahead briefly, is out of their sight, and who should be standing there but little Daigoro.
One thing about Ogami Itto, he just lets his kid wander around sometimes. He’s not a helicopter parent. Some of the coolest adventures are Daigoro on his own. Adults encounter him and don’t know what the fuck to make of him. So anyway she hands the stolen purse to him and says “Don’t tell anyone, promise?” before taking off.
When the cops find the kid there they try to get him to describe the woman who gave the purse to him, but he won’t say shit. They figure he might be her kid, but even if not, that flogging him in the town square could draw her out. Senzo claims, while leading the little boy through the town square on a rope, “I wish I didn’t have to, but if I don’t, evil triumphs and more people will suffer.” He thinks it’s worth beating an innocent little kid to potentially catch a petty thief. Yep. ACAB.
So heres another point where extreme behavior comes in. Senzo and friends are flabbergasted that when they get ready to flog Daigoro he doesn’t react at all. He’s not scared of them. They can’t believe it. When they’re about to strike him, O-Yo comes out of the crowd and confesses that she’s Quick Change, that she doesn’t know this kid, begs them to let him go.
Senzo thanks her for confessing, says they’ll go easier on her because of it. Just one last ’t’ to cross first. He asks the kid if this is the lady who gave him the stolen property.
“No,” he says. They keep asking. He keeps denying. They start thinking she’s not really O-Yo, she’s just a random lady who feels sorry for the kid. She tells him it’s okay, he doesn’t have to keep the secret anymore, but he keeps saying no. He made a promise. And he’s not a snitch.
So then they actually do flog him, trying to get the “real” O-Yo to reveal herself. And again they’re stunned because he barely flinches. Tough little kid. Even crazier, did I mention that Ogami is in the crowd the whole time, doesn’t say anything, doesn’t flinch either? He knows his son can take it.
After that detour he’s still got the assassination to do. He’s supposed to kill this abbot (Hideji Otaki, KAGEMUSHA) who holds a secret letter that would destroy the clan if Ogami’s nemesis Yagyu Retsido (Minoru Oki, HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN) got ahold of it. (You know how fuckin Yagyu is.) The plot thickens when another member of the clan, a woman named Shiranui (Michiyo Okusu, ZATOICHI ) approaches Ogami. He already has his money but she gives him a full 500 ryo more to complicate the mission. Now after he kills the abbot he needs to deliver the letter to the clan leader Lord Kuroda (Yoshi Kato, TAMPOPO) himself… as a way to get close enough to kill him and his family. See, the scandalous information on the letter that could end that clan is that the so-called Prince is actually a girl, the daughter of Kuroda’s concubine. He has a real son but he keeps him locked up. She wants Ogami to kill the lord, his mistress and their daughter to restore the true heir. Pretty hardcore.
The assassination of the abbot and stealing of the letter is a great sequence – he waits until his ninja entourage is crossing a river, goes under the covered boat, cuts a circular hole through the bottom and pulls him under without anyone seeing it! To make it even more awesome, that fucker Yagyu is in charge of security, and waiting on the other side. And there’s a part where Ogami goes underwater and splashes around and then five dead ninjas float to the surface.
If there’s one thing that’s questionable in the movie it’s Ogami’s choice of beach wear. Not very flattering in my opinion. But maybe I should respect him for not caring about his looks.
Not knowing his ultimate plans, Kuroda’s masked bodyguards escort him to the castle and help battle the Yagyu ninjas, including in an epic scene where he’s towing the babycart behind a horse. At the castle he gets an official audience with Lord Kuroda and openly confronts him about the fake prince. The great thing about this scene is that while he provokes violence from the seven elite warriors before committing a massacre, Daigoro and the fake prince are bored and make faces at each other from across the room.
Now, in real life I very much do not support this, but in the irrational world of this movie that I’ve been describing, it’s pretty funny to see Kuroda cornered, his bodyguards having died honorably, his underling telling him it’s time to commit seppuku, and he throws a fit and won’t do it. Daigoro is a pre-school aged kid who did nothing wrong but took his undeserved flogging without complaint, and his opposite is this old man who almost doomed his clan for his own personal failings and can’t accept the punishment.
Ideally neither of these things would happen, but the world is bad. The kind of world where the protagonist completes his mission of decapitating an old man begging for his life, plus a woman and a young girl. (Who admittedly told the soldiers to kill them, but she’s like four years old or something. She’s a brat. She doesn’t deserve death.) He doesn’t hesitate, he doesn’t (as far as I can tell) give a look that signals he feels bad about it. You don’t get an ending like that in most comic book movies, or in most part fives. Dom didn’t do that in FAST FIVE, as great of a movie as that is.
Anyway, Lord Kuroda’s boy puts in a good word for him, so it’s a happy ending.