Babycart at the River Styx was the second film in the Lone Wolf and Cub series, based on the popular Manga stories of the wandering Japanese swordsman-for-hire Ogami Itto and his young son Daigoro. For years the Babycart movies were best known in the West as Shogun Assassin, the dubbed 1981 American production which edited together the first film (Sword of Vengeance) and this one to surprisingly satisfying effect. But it’s the original movies that are really worth watching, and Babycart at the River Styx is up there with Part 5 (Land of Demons) as the series’ best entry.
Itto may have killed the man responsible for his wife's death – the evil Shogun he once worked for – but he still has plenty of enemies out there. In particular, a group of deadly female samurai have been ordered to destroy Itto by any means necessary. Meanwhile, our taciturn hero and his young lad have been hired by group of dye manufacturers to kill one of their number who is about to fall into the hands of their rivals.
Without the need for a back-story that Sword of Vengeance had, River Styx leaps straight into the action. Within a minute, Lone Wolf has caved in the skull of one would-be assassin and speared another, and as in that first film, the day-glo blood sprays majestically. There’s an unquestionable beauty in the wholesale slaughter that director Kenji Misumi unleashes – many of the fights are conducted in silence, and Itto’s victims often remain rooted to the spot after he has killed, only dropping to the ground once his sword is resheathed. The climatic battle between Lone Wolf and the Hidari brothers, three ‘Masters of Death’ given the task of escorting the dye maker to his enemies, is particularly spectacular. Fought beneath a blazing desert sun, Itto dispatches them one by one, the editing and Misumi’s rich photography creating a graceful, almost dreamlike sequence.
Tomisaburo Wakayama is a grumpy, jowly leading man, and there is little attempt to make Itto a particularly sympathetic character. Granted, his life has been destroyed by the insane Shogun but he readily admits he and his son have chosen a path of evil. It’s pretty hard to cheer when he finally murders the defecting dye maker, who’s only crime is to run in fear from his former employers. Even when Daigoro is kidnapped by the leader of the lady ninjas and dangled above a well, Itto refuses to surrender, stating that both father and son have known they would ultimately die bloodily. Nevertheless, the bond between the pair is central to the film, adding a subtle but important emotional dimension.
Despite the authentically realised period setting, River Styx has a strange, mystical tone and is marked by any number of surreal touches. Itto and Daigoro’s journey is accompanied by intermittant chiming bells – a reminder that death is never far away perhaps? – Lone Wolf and the Hidari brothers stand talking beneath deck on a burning boat for minutes on end, while the blood exits the cut throat of the third brother as red dust, blowing eerily away in the desert wind. Only the music – samurai funk – jars slightly; the rest is a thrilling, haunting gem.