"Life is just too short to sit through another tedious Japanese movie. So even though it's like a "greatest hits" compilation of a movie, Shogun Assassin is perfect for me."
Shogun Assassin (1972/1980)
Director: Kenji Misumi, Robert Houston
Producer: Shintaro Katsu, Hisaharu Matsubara, Peter Shanaberg, David Weisman
Writer: Robert Houston, Kazuo Koike, Goseki Kojima, David Weisman
Cast: Tomisaburo Wakayama, Kayo Matsuo, Minoru Ohki, Akiji Kobayashi, Shin Kishida, Masahiro Tomikawama
Running Time: 81 min.
Plot: A Samurai executioner and his toddler son flee a murderous Lord.
JOE909'S REVIEW: Shogun Assassin is one of those films that demands a recounting of its history, before you can actually review it. In 1980, a pair of producers with ties to Roger Corman got hold of the first two films in the Japanese "Baby Cart" series, both of which had been made in 1972. And in a move that will forever piss off film "purists" and delight fans of straight-up action flicks, these guys cut out the "Japanese" parts of the films (aka, the boring, static scenes), combined both movies into one, added a bizarre soundtrack of synthesizer music, and had a team of American voice actors (Sandra Bernhardt among them) re-dub the movie. The result became an underground hit, and is, despite the "meddling" on the part of the American producers, one hell of a martial arts/swordplay flick.
I've never seen the Japanese originals, and don't plan to. Why bother? There's no way they could appeal to my chop-sockey pleasure zones like Shogun Assassin has. With dubbed lines like "To have my own neck cut like that is ridiculous!" and "Come, boy: chose life or death," you can't get much better. Plus there's the odd bit of nudity and a big hunk of gory violence. Readings on the Web have informed me that the Japanese films suffer from a typically-plodding pace, the first especially (only twenty minutes of the first film is present in Shogun Assassin). Life is just too short to sit through another tedious Japanese movie. So even though it's like a "greatest hits" compilation of a movie, Shogun Assassin is perfect for me.
The "Baby Cart" series is based on the long-running Japanse comic book "Lone Wolf and Cub," which apparently ran from 1970 to 1994. The manga was episodic and violent, and the films follow suit. Itto Ogami, the Shogun's chief executor, is framed by his rival Lord Yagyu; Itto's wife is murdered and he's cast out of his noble position. Bringing his toddler of a son Daigoro along (in a great scene, Itto makes the kid chose either a ball or a sword: choosing the ball means death, choosing the sword means life), father and son wander feudal Japan, going from one bloody adventure to the next.
The original Japanese films follow this storyline, but Shogun Assassin has a few minor differences. For example, Lord Yagyu is portrayed as the Shogun himself, which doesn't seem right for those who know Japanese history. I mean, I don't think the Shogun of Japan would be running around by himself on errands of vengeance, with no personal guards following along. But other than that, everything's basically the same.
Shogun Assassin starts off with a twenty minute recap provided by child Daigoroh (a brilliant move on the part of the US producers, having the kid narrate the movie. In the Japanese movies, Daigoroh never speaks. His narrating the film gives it an extra, surreal edge), which shows Itto losing his job, discovering his murdered wife, killing a ninja in a field (by splitting his head open), and killing one of the "Shogun's" sons in a duel as the Shogun looks on.
Next, Lone Wolf and Cub arrive in a small village, where Itto is hired by the villagers to kill another of the Shogun's sons, an evil Lord who is soon to be escorted to the village. The villagers want this cruel man, who's caused them much torment, dead, and Itto's their man. At the same time as this, the Shogun himself has hired a crew of assassins to kill Itto: a group of female ninjas. In a scene as twisted as any I've seen, the women prove their worth by mercilessly butchering one of the Shogun's best ninjas. They cut this guy apart from head to toe; fingers go flying, his nose gets lopped off, the works.
With all this set-up, it's always a let-down when Itto takes on his enemies. Like most other samurai flicks, Shogun Assassin portrays its hero as too invincible. Itto goes through the film barely breaking a sweat. That's why I'll always prefer kung-fu movies, where the heroes will at least go blow-for-blow with their rivals (sometimes too much so, of course). But regardless, the sword fights in this film, though quick, are very well shot, and very violent. Mind you, it's that old-school violence where the blood looks like red paint, but when virtual geysers of it are gushing out of some chump's head, you could really care less.
Probably the coolest characters in the movie are the Masters of Death, three ninja who have been hired to escort the Shogun's son; the same son Itto has been hired to kill. Of course, Itto takes on this crew at the end, in the best fight in the movie. These Masters of Death come straight out of a high-grade kung-fu movie. Not only are they true badasses, but in pure kung-fu movie style, each of them specializes in a different weapon. One uses Wolverine-type claws, the other uses "mailed fists," and the third uses a mace. These guys wreak havoc wherever they go. In one memorable scene they take out the harmless passengers of a ship, and just tear them apart. The damage done by the clawed guy is very gory; if only "The X-Men" had given us such an accurate depiction of what claws like Wolverine's would really do to human flesh.
All told, Shogun Assassin rises above the usual Japanese cinematic fare and into the realm of a really good, old-school swordplay flick. Visually, the film looks great. It's an Eastern Western all the way; you could almost think Sergio Leonne's behind some of the shots. I recommend the movie to all those who want 80 minutes of pure entertainment. Sure, it isn't the most coherent of movies, what with the edit job that was done to it, but it's a lot of bang for your buck. I'll be sure to seek out the sequel, "Lupine Wolf," which is a dubbed version of the third film in the "Baby Cart" series.
JOE909'S RATING: 9/10