These first two films from the violent and flamboyantly explicit Lone Wolf and Cub film series, Sword of Vengeance (1972) and Baby Cart at the River Styk (1972) are — according to me — the two most essential films from this infamous chambara epic. Directed by Kenji Misumi (The Tale of Zatoichi), both films follow Ogami Itto, a rōnin who embarks on a crusade of revenge with his infant son, Daigoro, after the Yagyu Clan frame him for disloyalty towards the Shogun and murder his wife.
The literal meaning of rōnin is “wave man” — a poetic reference to “wandering” or “drifting” and is used to describe a samurai without a master. This transient and secluded existence made it difficult for the rōnin to fit into Japan’s then feudalistic society, and in contrast to the in-service samurai — who were seen as cultured and well-kept — they had a reputation for being rude and shabby. The most famous rōnin amongst international audiences is likely the nameless anti-hero in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) — an autonomous entity who exists outside of — and at odds with — the feudal system.
Ogami echoes these sentiments by proclaiming that he will abandon his samurai vows and “become a true demon, bound by no rules.” Adam McKenzie argues that Ogami’s self-appointed status as a metaphorical demon renders him even more of an individual than other rōnin, as even they must perform rituals and ceremonies related to their caste. On an allegorical level, the only way to truly escape society is to become an entity outside of the living realm, which in this case, is Ogami’s figurative demon. This newly acquired freewill allows him to use his skills as a master samurai to become a mercenary and pursue his vengeance off-grid.
Distributed by the Toho Company, the films actually function as a useful window into the studio’s struggles during the turbulent 1970s. Amidst the decline of the Japanese film industry after 1964, Toho was still able to maintain its formula of balancing customary productions with more ambitious and esteemed projects. However, by the early-1970s the local industry almost collapsed — seeing major studios like Daiei going bankrupt and Nikkatsu reorganising to produce its notorious Roman Porno films.
Despite Toho surviving, the decrease in theatre attendance and continuing dominance of television and imported releases forced the company to make major changes. With massive budget reductions, letting go of key contract players, and the gradual reduction of in-house productions — the types of films Toho produced changed drastically. Eventually the company were distributing more films than they were producing and began making what Stuart Galbraith categorises as a “schizophrenic” variety of productions. According to Galbraith, this ranged from “acclaimed art house films, instantly forgettable comedies and melodramas, violent chambara, features adapted from successful television shows and manga (comic books), and imported films.” The Lone Wolf and Cub series was a paradigm of this summary — they were violent chambara films, adapted from a popular manga, and co-produced by an external company (Katsu Pro).
Chambara refers to a sword fighting genre that gained prominence during the second half of the 20th century — often focusing on characters from Japan’s underclass. Unlike the costume dramas (jidaigeki) that were popular prior — which tended to explore the more nuanced facets of drama — chambara stories centred on more simplistic thematic motivations, like vengeance.
The manga that the films were adapted from went by the same title and was written by the legendary Kazuo Koike – who was responsible for other important manga titles like Lady Snowblood and became an inspiration for Western writers like Frank Miller (Sin City) and Allan Collin (Road to Perdition). Koike was also heavily involved with the writing of the films – penning the screenplays for the first four instalments – resulting in the films inheriting the original manga’s dedication to character depth and intricacy.
The first of the films is Sword of Vengeance, and as expected, it lays down the foundations of the series — introducing us to Ogami’s life before he became a rōnin. Ogami held a prestigious position that made him responsible for ensuring those who offend the Shogun commit ritual suicide (Seppuku). Ironically, after being framed for that very crime, he refuses to perform the ritual, and instead becomes a private assassin — hoping to eventually inflict his revenge. Ogami’s stoic dedication to his new life is encapsulated perfectly when he gives his infant son the choice to crawl to either a ball or a sword — one meaning he will join his mother in death, and the other to live the life of a demon with his father. The boy chooses the latter and goes on to act as the more empathetic and generous half of their unusual partnership.
The second film, Baby Cart on River Styx, is often regarded as the best of the series. Ronald Throne even claims that if you only see one of the films, make sure it is this one, as it “combines all the best elements.”
One of the most notable accomplishments River Styx achieves over the first film — and arguably the succeeding films in the series — is Daigoro’s development. One particularly compelling scene in the film is where Ogami has been debilitated from his injuries and the infant Daigoro attempts to bring him water from a stream. After failing to transport the water due to his hands being too small to hold it properly, he resorts to feeding it to his father the only way he can — by carrying it in his mouth. This almost suggests a parental role reversal and cements Daigoro’s significance within this dynamic father-son team.
Yet, the principal reason why Rivet Styx is the best film of the series — to which Throne, somewhat ironically, describes — is because it was freer to develop onto its bloody story due to the backstory already being established in the first film. Therefore, only by seeing Sword of Vengeance first, are the superior elements of the second instalment possible to appreciate.
 Andrew McKenzie (2006), A True Demon Bound by No Rules: an introduction to character and vengeance in the Lone Wolf and Cub films. Metro Magazine, p.113.
 Stuart Galbraith, IV (2008), The Toho Studios Story: A History and Complete Filmography. The Scarecrow Press.
 Roland Thorne (2010), Samurai Films. Oldcastle Books.
By Matt Carter.
Matt Carter runs the East Asian Cinema History YouTube channel.