Shogun Assassin Review

The production concept behind Shogun Assassin is one that would often immediately put film fans’ noses out of joint but Shogun Assassin is a much loved film and with good reason. Essentially a re-edit and re-dubbing of the first two feature film instalments in the Lone Wolf & Cub series Shogun Assassin was produced as a ‘brand new’ feature for the US market in 1980.

The film contains approximately twelve minutes of the first Lone Wolf film, Sword of Vengeance, and approximately seventy-five minutes from the second film, Baby Cart at the River Styx (both directed by Kenji Misumi). Director Robert Houston splices various sequences from these films together to create one film that obviously bears a lot of similarities but simplifies and removes plot points in places and drastically alters dialogue. Hiring deaf people to guess at what the characters could be saying Houston then took these approximations and rewrote the script, therefore ensuring that the disconnect between the audio and visuals was not too great. He also added the memorable voiceover from Gibran Evans as the son, Daigoro. Great care was also clearly taken in the re-scoring and foley work which adds to the atmosphere of the film. In many ways the new score by Mark Lindsay is far more interesting than the Hideaki Sakurai score on the original films.

The story in Shogun Assassin follows Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) who begins the film as the “Shogun’s decapitator” but after the slaughter of his wife by the Shogun he goes on the run, endlessly pursued by the Shogun’s assassins. On his journey he is joined by his son Daigoro who he pushes in a cart laced with booby traps. Although particularly memorable for the image of the weaponized ‘babycart’ the majority of the carnage in Shogun Assassins is at the hands of Ogami who despatches a large number of male and female assassins with decapitations aplenty and geysers of blood galore.

Coming at a time in American film history when martial arts and horror films had a strong following Shogun Assassin managed to capitalise on a desire for exactly this kind of film. Houston’s efforts to simplify but not over-simplify the narrative and dialogue also helped the film reach a wider audience than the original Lone Wolf films probably ever had a chance of doing. This approach could be criticsised for its dumbing down of the source material but Shogun Assassin was made with enough care that it stands as a satisfying film in its own right and, as with remakes and reboots, the original films still exist and are widely available. Indeed the UK distributors of this new Shogun Assassin Blu-ray (Eureka!) are also responsible for putting out the excellent DVD box set of all the original Lone Wolf & Cub films.

The Shogun Assassin Blu-ray also contains all the original trailers for the Lone Wolf & Cub films (hopefully Blu-rays will follow soon) and Shogun Assassin could well continue to be the gateway drug for legions of new Japanese cinema fans. The Blu-ray also features an interview with Samuel L. Jackson in which he expresses his love for Shogun Assassin and subsequently the original Lone Wolf & Cub films. The influence of this film can really be felt throughout modern American pop culture with GZA’s Liquid Swords being one very notable example along with its inclusion in Tarantino’s Kill Bill.

The ability to watch Shogun Assassin in the UK in such a high quality as this Blu-ray represents is something that should certainly be celebrated as it is a film that was for a long time only available in terrible quality versions including bootlegs and the low quality Vipco VHS and DVD releases. Eureka’s new Blu-ray represents a huge improvement in terms of quality in both picture and sound. The transfer is excellent and the rich colours are something of a revelation when compared to previous releases. The sound mix, presented in DTS Stereo, is also particularly impressive with the dialogue, sound effects and score all clearly represented in the mix.

The Blu-ray also contains audio commentaries (like the Samel L. Jackson interview these are ported from the US release), one with producer David Weisman, illustrator Jim Evans and actor Gibran Evans and the other with film scholar Ric Meyers and martial arts expert Steve Watson. The former is interesting and filled with anecdotes and insight into the production of Shogun Assassin. The latter is a little dry and at times feels a little forced. There are still some nuggets of information though and both commentaries are welcome additions to the disc.

This review (of the UK Blu-ray) originally appeared at HeyUGuys.