It's the last in the series and it feels like it. The very end has a last-minute escape like a James Bond villain, but despite this the Yagyuu clan have annihilated themselves in their pursuit of Ogami Itto. For the first time, I felt as if they'd come alive dramatically. (It's all very well to be evil, but here their evil is causing their own destruction and yet they're still bludgeoning away.)
If Retsudo Yagyuu had died at the end, that would have been perfect. Alternatively, had there been a seventh movie in which he'd died as the lone survivor of the clan he'd destroyed with his own bloody-mindedness, that would have been just as good. It wouldn't have had to be the manga's ending. However what we have here is still powerful, since the Yagyuu apocalypse here is so extreme that Retsudo has been left with nothing. He's escaped with his life, but what does that mean to a samurai? He won't commit seppuku, of course. He'll turn rancid, rotting in his own hatred. He'll keep trying to kill Ogami Itto. He might even succeed. It hardly matters, though, because you couldn't want a better example of the pointlessness and horror of this man's ideas and principles.
Until now, the Yagyuu had been an inexhaustible supply of cannon fodder. They pursued Ogami Itto like the villains in a Saturday morning cartoon, but with more lurid violence. Here, though, it's not so. Retsudo Yagyuu had three sons. He sent them against Ogami. All dead, before this film even starts. It's starting to get noticed that the clan can't even kill this one ronin, so Retsudo promises the court that Ogami will definitely be killed this time, by Retsudo's daughter, Kaori.
This is Retsudo's last child. He trains her, in a scene where he's got his samurai sitting at the edge of a courtyard. They're waiting to be ordered to give Kaori some fighting practice. "Next!" One stands up and comes for a practice bout. Knife through skull. Fountain of blood. "Next!" Another stands up without a flicket and walks forwards. "Next!" If you're looking for one scene to sum up everything disturbing and wrong in the world of these films, you could do worse than this one.
Kaori fights Ogami. Retsudo has now run out of children.
No, wait, he hasn't. There are also two illegitimate children, born many years ago to a concubine and thrown out into the mountains when only five years old. Once again, this franchise is really about small children. (Despite being an assassin, Kaori was also briefly presented as a surrogate mother figure when juggling for Daigoro.) Retsudo goes looking for his disowned son, Hyouei, only to find that the man hates his biological father and wants to destroy the Yagyuu as much as Ogami Itto does.
This was cool. Unfortunately Hyouei expresses this hatred by trying to kill Ogami Itto, which makes him less interesting and more ordinary. I'd have preferred him to start trying to kill Retsudo. However his reasons are pretty twisted, as is the final scene of Retsudo, Hyouei and the latter's sister. (Regarding the latter, "twisted" is an understatement. "Sick and broken in the head" comes closer.)
The outcome is that once again, Retsudo's killed his children. This time that's more literal, though, while more importantly Retsudo really has absolutely, finally run out of offspring. He says so to Ogami Itto on the battlefield, which probably makes it true since it's hardly something to brag about.
That's the important stuff. Also significant, though, is that with this film, the franchise steps into fantasy. Hyouei is the leader of the Spider Demon Tribe, i.e. a mountain mystic who can raise the dead. (The introduction of fantastical elements is handled rather deftly, since the film made me wonder if Hyouei himself was a spirit before revealing that he was just a man. Thus prepared, I had no problem with his necromancy.) Anyway, what he raises aren't ghosts, zombies or the original people. They're spookier. They're remiscent of Japanese spirits, but there's more to them than that too. They crawl under the earth, as if the ground is breathing. They reach up for you. They appear to have a rocket launcher. They don't plan to go after Ogami directly, but instead to follow him around and haunt him. "Everywhere you go, innocent people will die." That was sinister and evil, in a manner that's new even in the desperately evil world of this series.
There's also a snowbound ski battle that made me think of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, especially with the baby cart's James Bond gadgets.
Ogami Itto himself is as extreme as ever. He won't steal or do anything he sees as dishonourable, so will leave money for any food he takes, but he neither denies nor apologises for using his son as a human shield against Kaori's knives. He has 150 onscreen kills, which I believe is the most of anyone in one movie. However he too is aware that the end is coming, as in the scene where he visits his wife's grave and promises to go to Edo and kill Retsudo Yagyuu. (We don't see him do either of those things in this film, but he still makes the promise.) Besides, the very end of the film isn't a killing or a suicide, but a simple vignette of Ogami losing Daigoro and then finding him again. Again, as always, it's about the children.
Meanwhile Akihiro Tomikawa has started doing surprised reaction shots as Daigoro. He does them well, especially considering his age, but within the fiction it's not clear why the character should only start being surprised at things now.
I think it's a good ending for the series. Admittedly it leaves things hanging for a seventh film that never got made, but you can almost taste what would have happened in it. In the manga, incidentally, the first duel between Ogami Itto and Yagyuu Retsudo lasts 178 pages, which must be one of the longest fight scenes in any comic. It raises the stakes still further for Ogami with the supernatural and destroys the Yagyuu clan, thus giving their story a dramatic shape. Junko Hitomi can't do a convincing evil laugh as Kaori, but otherwise I don't think there's anything here that doesn't work. Hyouei's plan for revenge with his sister in particular is a grotesquely extreme expression of this franchise's twin themes (parent-child relationships and the dark side of bushido and honour).
It's a strong series, as good as its reputation. It's inconsistent, losing it in different ways in the first and fourth films, but it's saying powerful things and making full vivid use of its 1970s exploitation style. Is it exploitation? Yes, sometimes, but it's also a savage and intelligent exploration of its themes.