#3 in my ranking of the Lone Wolf and Cub franchise.
Kenji Misumi returns to the Lone Wolf and Cub franchise as director for the last time, and he provides the sort of competent professionalism that was missing from the previous entry, Baby Cart in Peril. Unfortunately, he brings little else, creating another rather bland entry in a franchise barely interested in any kind of cohesive storytelling, unable to quite figure out how to fill out a single story any other way than throwing in a second one to help fill the time.
The movie begins in a way that is cool in concept but begins to fall apart the second you think about it. A clan has a terrible secret where the leader is promoting his daughter as his heir, dressed as a boy, while his legitimate heir, his son, is hidden away. Why this situation exists at all is murky, but I can accept it. The near concept is that Itto Ogami must defeat five messengers/assassins out to test his ability, and each one gives him one fifth of the information he needs to take the contract as well as one fifth of his fee. Each of the five gives him the information as they are dying from mortal wounds, and each one picks up right where the last one left off even though the only person who knows where the last one left off was Ogami himself. Again, it’s a neat idea, but once you think about it in the least it just leaves questions that distract. Anyway, the mission is to retrieve a letter that details all of this from a priest who is currently in transit.
Then the movie takes on another story for about half an hour where Ogami and his boy, Daigoro, stop off in a town holding a festival. The local authorities are on the lookout for a notorious female pickpocket, Oyo, and when she runs away from them after having grabbed a wallet, she hands it to Daigoro with the promise not to tell anyone. Which he doesn’t do because he is a little man of his word, receiving a beating from the authorities rather than give Oyo up, even while she reveals herself and begs him to tell the truth. Daigoro is released, Itto picks him up, and they leave with Oyo never showing up again or referenced.
The final act is filled with action, heroics, and reveals. Ogami gets hired to kill the lord after he swims under the priest’s boat, cuts a hole underneath the priest’s seat, and kills him in the water. How all of that happens without anyone noticing is just kind of glossed over, of course. What gets me is when Ogami confronts the lord with the letter and his mission to kill the lord and the pretender, he becomes fully committed to the cause, something he’s never done before. His speech of injustice seems to come from a different character, not the stoic man on the Demon Path to Hell who takes jobs because he needs the money. That’s kind of the problem with having him be so stoic and lacking character for so long. I’m not even sure he’s dedicated to his own vengeance anymore, and when he does take up a cause it seems to come out of nowhere.
The movie it built to be awesome with little real thought in how to actually build the awesome elements. The five assassins doling out the information one at a time as they die is a cool idea, but it’s handled so lightly and without much thought that it falls apart with the least amount of thought. The killing of the priest through the floor of his boat is a cool idea, but the reality of finding the right spot, staying underwater long enough to cut the hole, and cutting the hole without getting noticed never get addressed. Ogami gives an impassioned speech, but it doesn’t feel like the sort of thing that Ogami himself would do. And, you throw in the fact that there’s a thirty minute segment that could get hard cut from the film and no one would notice because it’s not actually part of the story.
I mean, it’s thinly entertaining while it’s on, and little else. This franchise felt like it had great potential, but five movies into a six movie franchise and it’s largely just inelegantly fractured storytelling.