As the Kung Fu craze swept the USA, many Japanese productions were repackaged for release in English Speaking countries. Hence, this film, a re-edit of the second film (Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx) and eleven minutes from the first (Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance), was released into theatres and onto Video Cassete as Shogun Assassin. In that the film (containing footage originally released in 1972) hit British Shelves during the period that the BBFC had expanded their purview over Videos as well, the ultra-violence and more severe scenes earned it a spot on the Video Nasty List. Because the Video Nasties have been our focus, this is the version we're reviewing today.
Our story is narrated by the voice of Daigoro (voiced in the English version by Gibran Evans). He's a small child (played in physical form by Akihiro Tomikawa) born to loving parents during a time of Shogun Strife in the Edo period. He tells us of his mother Azami (Kasahara Reiko) and his father, the Samurai Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and of the powerful yet insecure Shogun who begins to have large numbers of his people killed. When sites are set on Itto Ogami's family, Azami pays the ultimate price and with her dying words instructs Ogami to care for Daigoro.
And does he ever. The Shogun sends soldiers after Daigoro and Ogami (sometimes only one or the other) and Ogami dispatches them. Then he sends assassins and Ogami dispatches them. Then he sends Ninjas and Ogami dispatches them. He prays for their souls as Daigoro (though unable to actually speak) keeps track of the body count for clever reasons. Daigoro fills in the history of how his father went from great samurai warrior to Oni through flashbacks (consisting mostly of scenes from the first film), and we're taken through a shocking series of violent vignettes that are made all the more uncomfortable, seeing as how most commonly Ogami has Daigoro right there in the middle of the action. If children in peril fails to float your boat, you may want to think twice about watching this one. However, you would certainly miss out on a rare treat.
Though the American version was credited to director Robert Houston ("Bobby" from the original The Hills Have Eyes), the film does consist entirely of scenes directed by Kenji Misumi. Kenji's amazing colors and appreciation for beautiful landscapes and framing-as-art makes this movie an entrancing spectacle even when nothing is going on. When the action starts taking place, we're greeted to a great deal of amazing things to see all at once. The amazing colors aren't all natural either. This is a film of great violence and carnage with a very Dawn of the Dead-esque approach to blood. It's vibrant and nearly neon in its glow, adding a comic book-feel to the film. While this may seem somewhat obvious to say, it should be noted that the Manga this is based on (by writer/ creator Kazuo Koike and artist/ creator Goseki Kojima) was published in Black and White.
While Shogun Assassin can, and does, stand alone as an individual film, this is far from the whole story. This amounts to little more than one of the chapters out of the six entries in the film series. To the credit of Houston and co-adapter David Weisman, Shogun Assassin is not merely a dubbed version of the same film by Kenji and screen writers Kojima and Kazuo. Just as a re-write and re-edit of something like Robotech can formulate a similar, but divergent story from its source footage, so does this film come into its own without a single new shot filmed. From the new dialogue to the rock and electronic score to the different series of events, this is a fine companion piece (or introduction) to the Japanese series.
The end result might not be as great as the original, but it's a very fine film and very rich in drama and action. This film has a lot of Heart to it. There are many touching scenes between Father and Son that are worth a look and worth a memory. While it's true that Daigoro is in danger much of the time, this shows much more about the skills, confidence and love of the Lone Wolf. Even the Baby Cart is packed with weapons like blades on the wheels and hidden swords in the handle. This is the Baby Cart Q might design for James Bond! Lastly, there is a lot of black humor here, either straight from the pens of Kojima and Koike or from the additions by Houston and Weisman. At times it can be uproariously funny without ever losing that edgy desperation that formulates the story.
Most interesting is the fact that there is no simple road here, even when Ogami shows himself to be a great enough swordsman to best the hundreds of warriors the Shogun sends against him. Each wave seems tougher than the last. Whereas Ogami is able to easily dispatch some of the tough enemies he faces, other times he has either faced too many or too formidable opponents and this slightly overweight, middle aged and tired Ronin just might be done for (especially because he has only a toddler to care for him when a safe haven is found). This gets quite tense when he faces the three violent assassin brothers known as the Masters of Death (Minory Ohki, Akiji Kobayashi and Shin Kishida), who are incredible characters to say the least. However, the real shocker here is the beautiful and bad Supreme Ninja (played by Kayo Matsuo, who simply has to be seen to be believed).
Shogun Assassin as a product of artistic and stylistic films, is an artistic and stylistic film itself, with the dubbing (which includes even the voice of Sandra Bernhard) working as a genre-setting asset rather than a liability. This keeps the cartoonish, yet somehow still deadly, mood that penetrates each reel. In that this film was a huge influence on later works (like Kill Bill), it's safe to bet that you've got geysers of blood shooting from every wound and plenty of dismemberment and painful-looking slashes. There is even one scene in which a man is slowly chopped to pieces (both large and small) while he's still standing by a clan of beautiful female ninja. Its banning on the Video Nasty List was probably due to the extreme violence seen here along with one moment that would seem to suggest that a female warrior has been stabbed in a very private place and another that initially suggests an attempted rape. Banning this film was more than likely a case of misunderstanding (as happened with some of the secondary Video Nasties). The violence is quite simply unapologetic, but the scenes of female nudity (though wonderful) aren't actually sexual or impure in any way and other scenes of potential "Obscenity" (as defined by the "Obscene Publications Act") can be taken more than one way. And apparently, they were. The uncut version was released in England in 1999.
This is an unpredictable and thoroughly enjoyable film that is a must for any fan of the genre. This goes especially since the version available on DVD now is fully restored and vivid in every way. Check out the original versions (all six) for the authentic, original movies with subtitles. Enjoy this one for the full on Grindhouse USA-Meets-Japan dubbed experience, it's still a great movie worthy of Four Stars out of Five! It's no secret that not all of the Video Nasties were truly Nasty. It's also true that a few of them were actually pretty good. Shogun Assassin is not the version originally seen in Japan, and even that wasn't as perfect as, say a Kurosawa film. At times logic is lacking and at times there is a serious amount of shocking violence. However, Shogun Assassin is further proof that some of the Video Nasties were actually good films.
Everywhere you go, you're attacked by Ninjas.
It happens, deal with it.
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