Too much has been written and said about the legendary Kozure Okami series. Many are attracted to the blood that freely flows, and while the battles are among my favorites bar none (particularly in the hands of Misumi Kenji), what I'm doing here is at first focusing on one of the sequences of repose where the morality of the warrior's way comes to light. This is not uncommon for jidaigeki, and Lone Wolf and Cub is no exception.
This is a sequence from part 2, Baby Cart at the River Styx, one of the best of the series. Itto is jacked up from a battle where he's slaughtered a bunch of the Yagyu shinobi, including some of their top women assassins from Sayaka's bunch of the Akashi set of the Yagyu Clan; he finds a road side hut and flops in it. The Yagyu, stalking Itto, now figure that kidnapping Itto's son, Daigoro, is Itto's Achille's heel. After the kidnapping, Itto tracks them down to a well which Daigoro hangs precariously over, with Ozunu of the Shogun's Kurokuwa group (spies) and Sayaka presiding over the ceremonies.
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The always unflappable Itto declares his solidarity to his fate. This perfectly illustrates Itto's profound commitment to bushido, the way of the warrior.
Now the Yagyu try a bet: doubt. But it is a questioning just as much out of curiosity.
Itto then declares himself in the face of threat to his son by simply stating the warrior's way - even when the jaws of death itself are set to rip one apart.
Itto then tells Daigoro, in so many words, to get ready, cuz Pop's about to give these dudes extra orifices. Daigoro, lil' strategic warrior that he is, kicks off his sandal so that it lands in the water, giving dad a sense of how deep it is, and therefore how much time he has.
Misumi then follows with a series of close ups maybe not in league with Leone but that carry the tone...
Homegirl's tells betray her, as she first twitches then scans left, then right.
Misumi ends this series of shots with the final one of the bunch, a tight close up, and the calm before the storm:
What follows then is the patented fury and aggression for which Kozure Okami is legendary. Itto makes his first move by killing the two lackeys, no doubt having plotted out their probable trajectories long ago. Notice the main Yagyu's arm in the foreground holding onto the rope which holds Daigoro's fate:
The Yagyu releases Daigoro, who falls to his death.
Poor lil dude!
The Yagyu homegirl - Miss Thing - herself a stone cold elite killer, is horrified as she watches Daigoro plunging to his death.
Itto, meanwhile, quickly moves to step two; take out the Yagyu point man...
...while pivoting and stepping on the rope, halting its delivery...
... Itto then unleashes a savage overhead strike and drives Yagyu dude to his knees...
Itto, uhm, presses the issue...
...clock's a tickin' for homeboy...
...and in perfect dialectical technique, Itto drives his opponent to the ground, then releases that tension by drawing up and quickly delivering the concluding blow:
Itto uses the famed Doutanuki battle sword, and in combo with his technique, strength, and most of all, superior focus, intent and will, his opponent's sword is cut in two, along with his face. Notice how perfectly the cut bifurcates dude's grill? This is just further proof; don't mess with Mr. Badass.
Itto then does a curious thing; he raps the handle with the butt of his sword hand, turns it 180 degrees in rotation on its lengthwise axis, then - slowly and very deliberately - sheaths his prized possession. It's a beautiful, compact ceremony after a bit of the ultra violence, oh my brothers.
With that, Mr. Badass eyes Miss Thing derisively while retrieving Daigoro:
Miss Thing: "Break me off some, Itto, you badass chubster you..."
Itto to himself, "I wonder if I should break her off some...?"
At this point, there's no need to kill Miss Thing. It reminds me of the way Ali destroyed Liston (who was a huge pre-fight favorite at something like 8 to 1) in their first fight, not just physically, but mentally, spiritually, completely. Likewise, Miss Thing's just witnessed something terrible, and even she, a trained killer, has been dominated by the precision and King Kong sized balls of Ogami Itto - just by watching! All she can do is be a frozen witness, hand pathetically poised upon her sword...
...as father and son turn silently and walk away...
Kozure Okami is among the class of cinema I can only call elite. Now, some three years away (in 2012) from the forty year anniversary of the first film, Sword of Vengeance, its legendary stature only grows as the generations come up.
The simple morality of a warrior father and his son in a hostile universe; it's minimalistic to the core, with everything about these movies carrying the weight of presentiment. Kozure Okami rightly deserves its "great action flick" status, but it's about so much more, as I hope this breakdown shows.