My thoughts about the first Shogun Assassin's audiovisual aspects remain the same as when AnimEigo initially released it on Blu-ray as its disc here is identical. All films are presented in 1080p, encoded using the
AVCcodec and presented in a theatrically correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Both discs are Region A locked.
AnimEigo are clearly very proud of their work with this title, as they should be having produced it by sourcing two superior prints of the first two films in the Lone Wolf and Cub series and then painstakingly matched the footage up, edit-for-edit. They have clearly put a great amount of effort into this, but it’s worth noting that they cannot work miracles and the masters which they describe as “pristine” are some way below most Blu-ray fans’ definition of the word. There are still specks, hairs, lines and discolouration, but having owned this movie on VHS copy all the way through its
DVDincarnations, I can honestly say I believe this to be the best the film has looked.
Starting off with colour – anyone familiar with the shift from VHS to
DVDwill know how some shades gained much needed punch whilst others appeared a touch over-boosted. Now we have a great middle ground that actually has some decent colour fidelity. There is finally some depth to the more vibrant tones. The palette is far more naturalistic than it has been; with the blue sky behind close-ups of faces and the greenery of the occasional segue shot now appearing organic rather than painted. Not all hues are brought to life by this Blu-ray though, as some of the blacks still fall towards the greyer end of the spectrum. Thankfully the blood hasn’t been altered and if anything now has a more tangible theatrical texture.
Detail was never going to be the greatest, and even the artistic framing of Kenji Misumi fell on the softer side when not in absolute close-up. Still, there is definitely an extra level that has been found with this release. It’s as though a fine muslin has been removed from the picture and left us with far more depth and, in some cases, features I had no idea existed. The prime example, of just how apparent the upgrade is, being the now painstakingly obvious mesh like material used to hold wigs and the like to actors’ faces as well as the definition now found in the sand-dunes.
This may still be a slightly messy image, with darker scenes having detail sucked out of them and print damage, but as far as Blu-ray offering a better viewing experience than has previously been available, this is a triumph.
Score – 8
Shogun Assassin 2,3,4 and 5
The first thing you'll notice, upon first opening your shiny new box set, is that whilst first film gets a bit of elbow room, having a disc all to itself, Lightning Swords of Death, Slashing Blades of Carnage, Five Fistfuls of Gold and Cold Road to Hell are all crammed together on a single Blu. BD50 it may be, but you'd be forgiven for thinking that's a bit of a squeeze, it works out at about 340 minutes of material, not including extras (there aren't many).
It sounds like a potential recipe for disaster, but surprisingly that isn't the case. As with Shogun Assassin, AnimEigo's transfer to Blu, via a bit of TLC has seen the image quality take a nice upswing from the
DVDreleases (of both series).
Shadow detail has definitely benefited in this transition to Blu, the lightening of the frame bringing with it a new layer. There's more depth thanks to stronger contrast, better clarity, what to my eyes appears a slightly truer colour palette, some fine detail and a generally stable picture, with some healthy grain. I spied a hint of fringing in a couple of places (note a couple, not a constant blight) and the print damage was never going to be wholly eradicated (I dare say for some that's passable as part of the charm of vintage fare) but no major signs of noise or serious compression related issues abound.
Some of the close-ups show the extra definition wonderfully, under the brim of his clearly woven hat, Tomisaburo Wakayama's face is now far more apparently covered in stubble, sweat and pores. The images aren't perfect, the latter sequels looking better in terms of print damage, which still affects some shots infinitely more than others. If you're expecting a real 3D pop and razor sharp edges you're setting yourself up for a fall; all the foibles of Shogun Assassin ring true here as well – aged material with a fair few softer shots - but the key term would be “upgrade”, and I was very pleased with the results .
Score - 7
There is only one track available, that being English Linear PCM 2.0 mono.
It was something of a coup for the original release to contain a Dolby stereo mix and the film has always benefited from its inclusion. This Blu-ray makes good use of the lossless audio available to it and finds some nice headroom for the score that will be apparent to those familiar with its
DVDincarnations. Mark Lindsay and W. Michael Lewis carved out an instantly iconic soundtrack of synth-laden tones using the behemoth Moog Synthesiser and it is a joy to listen to on this disc. It now seems far wider than I’d previously thought and the high frequencies are pitch perfect, resonating well when intended but remaining tight and exceptionally clean. The lack of LFE may not aid the audio, but there is still surprising depth to the lower frequencies that emanate form the middle of the Moog’s many sequential displays of robotic Japanese feudalism
Lamont Johnson’s Ogami Itto dub is every bit as baritone and guttural as one could hope for. The central part of the speech is obviously Daigoro’s narration, and I was a little fearful that Gibran Evans’ whispering voice may have been overpowered by the rousing score, but it remains crisp and clear, without feeling too overlaid or unevenly integrated.
The one area I was a little disappointed with was the high frequencies from the actual sword fights. Key to the film’s appeal was always the piercing swish of blades and the sound of steel crashing against steel in a highly stylised manner. Unfortunately, though this is not muddy, it is some way below the level I would have liked and slightly detracts from the constant carnage. It doesn’t spoil proceedings, as the track is still capable of rousing sound effects, but it’s hard not to feel that they’ve got just two of the main three audio elements spot on, namely dialogue and score, though considering the many previous underperforming releases of the Dolby mix we’ve seen, it’s still something we should be grateful for.
Score - 7
Shogun Assassin 2,3,4 and 5
Now for the bad news, and perhaps why there were no obvious signs of compression artefacts from the films all being squeezed onto one BD50: there are no lossless tracks afforded the sequels. You just get Dolby Digital 2.0 mono.
It's passable, there are no obvious flaws to speak of, nothing that you can wholeheartedly damn these tracks for, other than their lack of lossless quality. There's some reasonable high frequency detail in there, the sword strokes are crisp enough and the score has an element of depth to it, but nothing greatly praiseworthy is found here.
It felt wider and more layered than I expect a 2.0 mono track to be, and dialogue was clear, but other than that it's a standard DD offering from a limited source, basic competency is neither a strength nor a weakness, and there's little to truly evaluate in the degrees of its perfunctory nature.
The only real pleasing factor was the lack of a hindrance to the listening experience, it’s pretty clear and there’s no distracting levels of hiss, pops or crackle.
Score - 5
The extras on Shogun Assassin are the same as they were upon initial release.
Audio commentary featuring David Weisman (producer), Jim Evans (illustrator) and Gibran Evans (voice of Daigoro)
A decent commentary track filled not only with trivia about the film’s production and release, but also gives a strange snapshot of life in Hollywood back in the 70s/80s thanks to Weisman’s reminiscing. Even for those who feel they are familiar with the history of Shogun Assassin, there will likely prove to be many titbits that have escaped their attention. The two Evans don’t contribute much as they don’t seem to be as knowledgeable about the film or the scene at the time, but Weisman’s constant musing on the reasons behind its success and where it fitted into the cinematic landscape of the period are definitely worthy of your attention.
Audio commentary featuring film scholar Ric Meyers and martial arts expert Steve Watson
Writer and Asian film commentary MVP Ric Meyers proves to be as insightful as ever. Though he seems to be reading from multiple sources, it is far preferable to the stilted, pause-heavy tracks that frequently get added to home formats. Watson pops up occasionally but I’m afraid his intellectualising of the imagery seems a stretch too far (though obviously given his kung fu credentials I wouldn’t say so to his face) and he tends to be a passenger on the track. The result is a track that is very much like a good fanzine; full of trivia, admiration for the film and perhaps seeing more significance in the symbolism of the work than the director himself (speaking of Houston, not Misumi) intended.
Samuel L Jackson interview – 12:43
Filmed in July 2009 for the release of the
DVDboxset, this is an odd addition. Whilst it is clear that Jackson loves the film he seems also to confuse himself regarding whether he’s discussing the original series of films or Shogun Assassin, mentioning Yagyus and the like as well as struggling to remember a line about how many ninjas have been killed as told by Daigoro. It’s always great to hear from quite possibly the coolest actor working in Hollywood, but this seems more like a case of throw him onto a sofa, put a promotional T-shirt on him and get whatever you can out of him in the 10 minutes he’s got to spare.
HD trailer – 2:35
I’ve always liked discs that include vintage trailers and this one doesn’t disappoint. Ridiculously marketed with an overly dramatic voiceover and a plot synopsis that is narrated to imagery that plainly doesn’t match in the end film – fantastic!
Restoration gallery – 3:45
A series of images showing the transition the film has made in terms of image quality for bootleg, to
DVD, and finally to Blu-ray.
Program notes – 10:32
A slideshow of written notes and trivia regarding the film, all of which can be found on the AnimEigo website. There isn’t much that the aficionado wouldn’t know, but for those new to the Lone Wolf and Cub and Shogun Assassin films it serves as a handy introduction to some of the cultural significance of objects, behaviour and dress.
Blu-ray credits – 00:18
In case you want to know who worked on the Blu-ray.
Shogun Assassin 2,3,4 and 5
Some explanations, in slideshow text format, of key terms and cultural peculiarities seen in each film.
Cast & Credits
Another slideshow, this time detailing the two voice casts and original Japanese crew.
Trailers for Five Fistfuls of Gold (1080p – 2:09) and Cold Roadto Hell (1080p – 1:36).
The five film Shogun Assassin Blu-ray - supposed “collector's” – set gives fans what they wanted, for the most part. They get some good transfers of niche titles, albeit with only one lossless audio track and some throwaway extras. It's got the air of a rush job in some ways, we all suspected the restoration work was being done in order to get a Lone Wolf and Cub set out at some point anyway, so why not slap Shogun Assassin in a shiny new case with the unedited sequels and make do with a Dolby Digital audio tracks for the latter? The packaging looks nice and I certainly couldn't have resisted.
Shogun Assassin is a solid disc, as it was before, but the lossy audio and four films on one BD50 reeks of repackaging to maximise profits by tying into the more famous film. However, that should not detract from the good work that's been done in restoring these films, and by proxy the source material, which should be commended and will certainly please fans. The image quality on all films benefits.
If the dubbed versions really aren't your cup of tea, fear not, it's been let slip the original Lone Wolf and Cub films should be coming to Blu-ray from AnimEigo this Autumn. That probably makes this set seem like one for completists only, but if you're a fan of Shogun Assassin, the minimal extra outlay to get the sequels, no matter how artistically questionable they may be, makes sense.
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