The plot's a mess. The Lone Wolf and Cub series gets stupid, but there are redeeming features.
Firstly, we see bad things happen to children. This is a particularly twisted instalment in the series. Have you ever read Sinister Dexter in 2000AD and wished Dan Abnett would tell a story in which his gun sharks took and carried out a contract to kill a five-year-old child? If so, you might like this film. Ogami Itto takes a job from the Kuroda clan to rub out all evidence of their unimaginable shame. Their lord has lost all reason. He's pretending that his five-year-old daughter is a son and is putting her forward as heir to his position! A female taking power! Unthinkable! Kill the messenger who's carrying a letter to the shogun! Kill the lord! Kill the little girl!
Ogami Itto will do all those things. Have you ever seen a child's decapitated head hit the floor at the same time as her mother's? No? Well, here's your chance. There's also a side-story in the middle of the film that involves Daigoro getting publically whipped by policemen. (Daddy just stands there in the crowd and watches, by the way.)
Secondly, there's no rape or attempted rape. I don't think there's even any female nudity. For this series, that's unique.
That's it for the redeeming features, though. Now for the stupidity. Imagine you'd like to hire Ogami Itto for an assassination. Note also that you know his reputation and enough about him to know his fighting style and some of his special moves. How would you do it? Would you... (a) Approach him carefully and respectfully in well-lit surroundings, making no sudden moves? (b) Send lots of your best men to fight him to the death and then after they've lost, tell him about the job? No, I'm not joking. Everything depends on managing to say it all with their dying breath. These guys choose (b). What's more, none of these men tell Ogami more than a sixth of the information he needs, which means he has to kill six men and then listen to the vital information they'll all manage to communicate before expiring.
One of those swordsmen is even on fire at the time, by the way. He burns impressively. Anyway, the reason for all this is to test Ogami. They want to know if he's good enough for the job. Uh-huh. These masterminds end up fighting their own assassin for real, by the way.
That's the main plot. The side-story involves a pickpocket called Quick-Change Ono, who gets involved with Ogami's son Daigoro at a fair. This is a weird bit of business, the dramatic point of which is to demonstrate that Daigoro's even more masochistically honourable, stoic and messed-up than you'd expect of someone travelling with Ogami Itto. It's shocking characterisation and Akihiro Tomikawa actually handles the material well, but I rolled my eyes at Quick-Change Ono's redemption. "I will never steal from anyone again. Thank you." Maybe a stronger actress might have sold it to me better?
This side-story also has nothing to do with the rest of the plot. I get the impression it's a manga episode that they shoehorned in to pad out the running time and/or because they liked it. I suppose it adds to the film's twistedness, though.
There's stuff I like here, though. Daigoro's side-story with Quick-Change Ono is wrong, in a good way. The boat kill is funny and we see someone cut in half. I also like the way that the film is characterising the children both as child-like (going to the funfair, or making faces at each other during a solemn adults' confrontation) and as fatally indoctrinated by the attitudes of the adults around them. Daigoro is a maniac. That little girl might theoretically have been a hope for the future, if they'd somehow managed to get past all this society's chauvinistic rules (impossible) and put a woman in charge... but no, she's already as bad as everyone else. "Kill them."
You'll look long and hard without finding anything else like this film, that's for sure. However that's not entirely a good thing. The plot doesn't seem to be trying to make sense, or maybe that's deliberate and it's showing us how these honour-bound lunatics will do exactly what they've promised even when it's obviously ridiculous. Ogami Itto is carrying that message back to the lord. Someone erases the ink from the scroll, so obviously everyone's going to go berserk and call him a traitor when he shows up with it. What does Ogami do? Why, carry on as if nothing's wrong and not even offer a word of explanation when the inevitable happens. It'll hurt your head. However the film's still basically enjoyable. We could go back and forth for hours about whether or not its stupidity is deliberate and subtle, but it's still Lone Wolf and Cub ultra-violence in a brutally anti-romantic take on the samurai era. Worth a look. It's kind of brain-damaged, though.