It's the second Lone Wolf and Cub film and a good deal more entertaining than the first one, Sword of Vengeance. It's often called the best of the series, although I can't judge that yet as I'm watching them in order. Nonetheless I'm not surprised that the English-language dubbed Shogun Assassin was mostly taken from this one, with a few bits from the predecessor that I presume are the character's origin story.
The first improvement is in the two leads and their relationship. Not only did Tomisaburo Wakayama play Ogami Itto throughout all six of these movies, but crucially the son, Daigoro, was always played by little Akihiro Tomikawa. Admittedly the films all came out in a rush (1972-1974), so it's not as if he was doing this for years and years, but the important thing is that we can see that Wakayama and Tomikawa have already established a real relationship. The latter's behaving as if the former really is his daddy. This means, oddly, that Tomikawa is the star of the movie. Tiny children are method actors. They don't pretend. They just exist. This means that Tomikawa is the best and coolest actor in the film, because he's not acting.
He also gets more to do than you'd think. He's now capable of saying a few words, which he wasn't before, although I'd be surprised if any of his dialogue was scripted. In the bath, he spontaneously starts counting. "1, 2, 3, 5." "You've forgotten one." Actually, no, I tell a lie... he says "chaaan". In Japan, this is famous. Even someone who's never heard of these films (e.g. my wife) will probably still know that Daigoro says "chaaan" in them. It's short for "otoo-chan", making it his word for "daddy".
Anyway, Tomikawa gets a fair amount of business, including entire scenes where he's the only active character. He doesn't turn a hair as Wakayama murders people right in front of his pram. (Better still, he's at ease with being thrown over the side of a burning ship. That's a boy who trusts his daddy.) He kills someone! More importantly, though, there's a small but important chunk of the film in which Wakayama's wounded and flat on his back, so off potters Tomikawa to care for daddy. Water would be good, he thinks. Seems reasonable. Thus the film gives us a bit of good-natured business with a toddler trying to collect water from a river. It's bits like this that make me like this film. The editor's in no hurry. Tomikawa's being allowed the audience attention he deserves, as is right and proper since he's by far the most important thing in the franchise.
If Ogami didn't have Daigoro, he'd be just another sour-faced killer of no interest. Together, though, they're cool. Their relationship brings Ogami alive in our minds, even though he's openly calling himself evil and accepting contracts to whack men who've never killed anyone. He's not even perturbed if his enemies threaten to kill Daigoro. "Your mother is waiting for you at the River Styx."
The second improvement is the supporting cast. They're not samurai. Well, admittedly the three Hidari Masters of Death are, but the good news is that they're also sensible and businesslike. If you don't attack them, they won't attack you. They also use distinctive weapons (Freddy Krueger claws, spiked club, evil gloves), although to be honest I couldn't help thinking they'd have been better off with swords.
Ogami's main antagonists, though, are ninja and homicidal female acrobats. The ninja can jump to the ceiling and hang there like bats. They're also good at dying. The women are super-violent and resent offers of help in going after Ogami. They're happy to slice a ninja into bloody chunks as a demonstration that they'll be just fine on their own. (They won't be.) They're led by Kayo Matsuo, who's capable of jumping out of her clothes in mid-combat as a means of escaping her enemy. She's wearing a bodystocking underneath, but that was still a laugh. If this doesn't sound like a masterpiece to you, then I'd better leave you to enjoy reading your Bible.
Those are the Yagyuu, who are Ogami's enemies and follow him around. However there's also his paying job, which involves a small clan trying to stop the shogunate ripping them off. They have a family recipe for indigo dye, which the shogun and his court want to steal in order to take all the profits. Seeing the carnage that came from this is another example of this franchise's point that the samurai era is horrible.
Finally, the third improvement is the carnage. The inventive gore is at maximum from the start. I was laughing aloud at the women's dismemberment of that ninja. Ear, fingers, nose, foot, etc. Ogami chops bits off his opponents all the time. His enemies keep coming up with new attack techniques (e.g. razor frisbee hats, killer vegetables). There's a ton of action here, with Ogami slaughtering so many enemies that I can only think the Yagyu clan breed like rabbits, yet it's all entertaining and I never got bored. Action scenes in general are overrated, but these are flamboyant, gory and a laugh.
This isn't a complicated film. There's not much to say about its plot, although it's keeping up its franchise's valuable theme of characterising the Edo era as Hobbesian. Look at that unpleasant innkeeper who wants to kick out Ogami. "What if that ronin refuses to pay and threatens us with his sword?" Importantly the violence is excellent, while the sexual content has been toned down. Less female nudity, no rape and no disturbing sexual challenges in a crowded room of men.
Most important of all by far, though, is four-year-old Akihiro Tomikawa. I'm not kidding. It's him that gives this movie a heartbeat and makes it more than just knowing action nonsense. Recommended.