It's more Lone Wolf and Cub murder-for-hire, this time with Ogami Itto's target being a tattooed girl (Oyuki) who fights and kills half a dozen swordsmen at once... while she's topless.
More seriously, it's a good one. It's about family and in particular parenthood. Ogami Itto is as always carting around his son, Daigoro, but what's unexpected is that while searching for Oyuki, he finds himself being helped by her father, Jindaiyu. The two respect each other. Jindaiyu gives Ogami Itto the information he needs, but it's not because he's a horrible father. He loves his daughter. It's just that he knows what she's done to get that price put on her head, he believes in doing the right thing and there are worse ways to go than to let Ogami Itto do the job cleanly and honourably. As Ogami himself explains, "There are times when a parent believes that their child's death is the best way to love them."
If you think this is creepy, take it up with the Edo period.
There's also Daigoro. There's a surprisingly long section early in the film where he's wandering on his own, having mislaid daddy. He was watching some street entertainers and went off after them afterwards. Fair enough. He's three years old. (Around this point, the soundtrack includes a song sung by children.) Unfortunately Akihiro Tomikawa is way too young to be able to carry off these scenes, partly because we're being told that he has "the eyes of one who's killed scores of men", or "like two stones". Uh-huh. At least these scenes don't give him any dialogue. Anyway, the upshot is that Ogami Itto spends a significant amount of time looking for his son before he's even started looking for Oyuki. We see him as a father before we see him as a killer. When bad things eventually happen with Jindaiyu, Ogami gets pissed off in a way we've hardly seen in these films. That was a little startling, actually.
Furthermore, when Ogami and Oyuki eventually meet, it's in a hot spring. Daigoro goes over to check her out, once again likening female nudity to an implied mother figure. Her tattoo is of the traditional figure Momotaro sucking at her breast, incidentally.
These are close bonds, but we also see the less attractive flip side of perceived family obligations. Bad things also happen due to family bonds and perceived debts of honour. There's a flashback to the Yagyuu when their champion had just lost the post of official executioner to Ogami, which provokes an unbelievable reaction from them. To save face, they order an innocent to commit seppuku. Similarly, Ogami's been hired because Oyuki cut off the topknots of those samurai she killed, which caused their families to lose face and position. Some committed suicide due to the shame. Is that because their relative was killed by a woman (gasp), or simply because of the post-mortem haircut? Whichever, it's yet more medieval loserdom and another Darwinian plus for the human race. The average IQ of the animal kingdom just went up. Unfortunately another outcome of all this is blood feuds and massacres.
There's another theme, though, of social status. The Yagyuu aren't doing all this because the post of official executioner has any power. It's a status thing. It's pride. More directly for this story, though, Jindaiyu is an important figure among the caste of street performers, actors and other such subhumans. These people are seen as outcasts and the lowest of the low, yet they're also the only honourable group of people in this story. They'll put their own necks on the block to protect a guest, even if he's the assassin of their daughter. They're eloquent in their espousal of honour and courtesy. Jindaiyu gets a Japanese equivalent of Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech. They're clearly far better than the lords and samurai who look down on them.
Those high-born figures, in contrast, are deaf to civilised argument and reason. They refuse even to listen to their inferiors. They expect everyone to grovel, they take offence at the drop of a hat and they're stupid enough to start a massacre because they believed a lie. Their lord is a coward and a fool. Meanwhile the samurai are even bigger tossers than usual. One of them lets a child walk into an inferno, then later tries to kill him... because of his eyes.
On a more straightforward level, it's another well-made 1970s exploitation jidai-geki. The nudity is unflinching, the fights are gory and we learn that ninja fight scenes are way cool. You'd think that Ogami's acrobatic leaps would be a disadvantage in combat, but I suppose he can cut you just as easily from mid-air. He also seems unusually human this time, incidentally, looking angrier than ever before on Jindaiyu's behalf and then getting beaten up pretty badly in the final battle scene. I'm really warming to this series. I'd expected good things from 1970s Japanese exploitation, but in addition to all the violent style, it's a franchise with savage themes and a great deal it wants to say. Well worth a look.
"The Tokugawa shogunate imposed excessive taxes upon the lords. The shogunate freely exercised its right to execute anyone who showed the slightest trace of disobedience."