Blu-Review: Shogun Assassin

Directed By Robert Houston (Original Version Directed By Kenji Misumi)
Starring Tomisaburo Wakayama, Masahiro Tomikawa and Kayo Matsuo


Originally released in US grindhouse cinemas in 1980, Shogun Assassin was actually two films mashed into one, editing together the first two movies in the Japanese ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ series, Sword of Vengeance and Baby Cart at the River Styx, and dubbing the whole thing in English. It garnered a cult following, along with earning an exploitation movie badge of honour in getting banned in the UK along with countless other “video nasties”. Since then it’s been passed uncut by British censors and gained new popularity as one of countless inspirations for Quentin Tarantino’s ode to Asian cinema Kill Bill. While the perceptions of censors might have changed in those 30 years, the film itself hasn’t, and still stands up as a relentlessly entertaining, quintessential cult movie experience.

It follows Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama), skilled warrior and former executioner for the Shogun. As the ageing Shogun becomes reclusive and increasingly mad, he grows paranoid of the samurai and orders him killed, mistakenly murdering Itto’s wife instead. Now a rōnin marked for death, Itto grabs his infant son Daigoro (Masahiro Tomikawa) and takes to the road as an vengeful assassin for hire, armed with his sword and a baby cart loaded with more hidden weapons than a Bond car, all the while pursued by a rogue’s gallery of deadly ninja sent by the Shogun.

While the mash-up doctoring removes much of the complexity of the films it was crafted from, the result is, if not a better film, certainly a more immediately entertaining and accessible one. Removing the political and social plot threads and treading less morally murky ground in not having Ogami Itto be a killer of children, Shogun Assassin moulds the Lone Wolf and Cub movies into a streamlined, gore-filled revenge movie romp – a samurai exploitation film perfectly suited to the grindhouse audiences it was made for.
.
.

shogun1

(Click image to enlarge)

.
.
Tomisaburo Wakayama makes for a fantastic lead and cuts an iconic presence, sporting deft sword-swinging skills and perpetually wearing a stone-faced grimace like a portly Japanese Lee Van Cleef. Daigoro’s narration, supplied by then seven-year old Gibran Evans, works wonders, and is one of the few additions for the recut version that betters the original. Itto and his child offer up a great father-son dynamic that proves even more fun as little Daigoro gets in on the blood-letting action with his baby cart rigged with killing tools.

As far as the action is concerned, it’s a riotously fun and relentlessly OTT series of samurai splatter movie set-pieces as ninja and samurai pop up to do battle every few minutes, while Itto makes impromptu paraplegics of everyone in his path – facial features are lopped off, heads are split open and limbs bid farewell to their owners as jetting geysers of crimson bathe the frame. It’s incredibly entertaining stuff, and more than a little silly, especially as fallen swordsmen engage in melodramatic soliloquies as they wax poetic about the skills of their victorious opponents.

But hell, the silliness is half the fun; Shogun Assassin exists on a completely different plain of entertainment than the masterpieces of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai oeuvre and instead fires itself straight at the B-movie crowd who eat up badly-dubbed Shaw Brothers kung fu movies and kaiju flicks. In that sense, it’s tough to ask for anything more as the film proves to be insanely fun, utterly essential viewing for cult movie audiences.
.
.

shogun2

(Click image to enlarge)

.
.
On the Blu-ray:

The remastered 2:35.1 1080p high-def transfer presented on Eureka Entertainment’s Blu-ray release puts all previous UK releases of the film to shame by a wide margin. The image offers incredible detail, especially in close-up face shots, the colours are beautifully balanced and natural, and there’s a healthy film grain throughout. A couple of short stock establishing shots look quite washed out and heavily worn, while white specks of dirt and noise occur throughout the film, but if anything the tiny flaws only help maintain the grindhouse aesthetic. On the whole it’s a fantastic transfer that’s far and away the best the film has looked, while the English dubbed Linear PCM 2.0 Stereo track fares equally well.

Two commentaries kick off the extra features – one from producer David Weisman, poster illustrator Jim Evans and his son Gibran Evans, the voice of Daigoro, while the second track is from film scholar Ric Meyers and martial arts expert Steve Watson. Both tracks are incredibly informative and entertaining, with the first offering an enthusiastic retrospective look back at the making of the film, while the second presents a more academic, in-depth analytical insight, touching on the changes made to the Lone Wolf and Cub movies and the dense symbolism laid throughout by original director Kenji Misumi.

When I saw a video appreciation by Samuel L. Jackson listed in the features, I assumed it’d be quick filler extra – a case of the studio nabbing the nearest star with cult cred to quickly introduce the movie. Colour me surprised that it’s actually a great little interview. Jackson really knows his stuff and chats about his love for Asian cinema, discovering Shaw Brothers martial arts movies when he was still just an aspiring, auditioning actor and talks at length with infectious enthusiasm for Shogun Assassin and the Lone Wolf and Cub films. It’s relatively short at 12 minutes, but it’s the kind of fun, passionate fan interview that just makes you want to jump back to the menu and watch the film again instantly.
.
.

shogun3

(Click image to enlarge)

.
.
As well as the remastering job done for the film itself, there’s also a high definition version of the film’s original trailer, too. To add to the advertising fun, the trailers for all six Lone Wolf and Cub films are also included (though without the HD remastering). Finishing off the extras is an English subtitle track for the hard of hearing.

The set also comes as a dual-format “Double Play”-style Blu-ray and DVD edition, with a free DVD version included, and is available with limited edition steelbook packaging. With a lovely HD transfer and a great selection of informative and entertaining extras, it’s a fantastic set, and an essential purchase for those who hold the film close to their heart.

The Film:

The Blu-ray:




Shogun Assassin is available to buy on Blu-ray in the UK from 29th November 2010.
Click here to order the Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk.

(Note: The images above were captured and saved at a reduced quality, and though they give an idea of how the film looks, they aren’t intended to reflect the true quality of the Blu-ray image itself.)