Shogun Assassin Review
My thoughts on the original Shogun Assassin remain the same as when it was first released on Blu-ray, and can be read here. In short, you can call it artistically bereft, a mockery of studied chanbara atmosphere and an affront to world cinema, but I still say Kenji Misumi's masterful orchestration of swordplay shines through and the skewed story, fast pacing and synth heavy score make it a guilty pleasure and a weird, offbeat creation in its own right.
Score - 8
Lightning Swords of Death, Slashing Blades of Carnage, Five Fistfuls of Gold and Cold Road to Hell aka Shogun Assassin 2,3,4 and 5.
Having scored a bit of a hit with this strange Frankenstein-esque hodgepodge of samurai cinema, that had metamorphosed into a much-loved exploitation flick and cult status on home formats, this vein, clearly profitable, was plumbed further. The four remaining films of the original Lone Wolf and Cub series would be released as four Shogun Assassin sequels, well sort of.
It seemed only inevitable that someone would look to wring a bit more out of the series. Fans would obviously need the formula of the first Shogun Assassin to be followed – it's not that subtitles are for squares was the ethos, just that a lineage was being created. So a dub was the direction taken again, those who loved the now infamous video nasty would expect as much. If it ain't broke, why fix it? And even if it is broke, if it's profitable leave it be and cash in.
With Sword of Vengeance and Babycart at the River Styx having been heavily edited (well bits from the first were slotted into the second) in order to stick both together as Shogun Assassin in the West, it maximised the action. This conjunction, working alongside the hammy dub and synth score gave it a life of its own. It was, however, a different beast entirely to the films it originated from, hence why I maintain my love of it and the source material in all forms (the TV series is worth searching for as well, available on Region 1
DVDif you're a fan). Dispel the idea that you have to be a jidaigeki ignoramus to enjoy Shogun Assassin, it is what it is and makes no apologies for that, to use a hamfisted analogy - we might enjoy a single malt but a cheap can still quenches a thirst.
The problem is that only the first in the Shogun Assassin films is a proper throwaway guilty pleasure. By cutting together two films, cherry-picking all the action from one and putting it in the second, it ensured things kept a brisk pace in terms of the body count. The dub was a necessity not just because of the audience this was aimed at, but also because it would have made no damned sense otherwise. The rest of the Lone Wolf series were (some time later) dubbed, put out as sequels to Shogun Assassin but otherwise left as is: editing, story, pacing and all. Can you see the problem, and why so many look down on these films?
The juxtaposition in atmosphere between Sword of Vengeance and Babycart at the River Styx to their bastardised version was not a real issue as the end product was so far removed it may as well have been described as a cover version using visual cues. In short, it replicated little, if any of the true atmosphere, that which did not conform to simple exploitation machismo was dispensed with. The criticism at the time was of defilement of a great slice of cinema, but that lamenting was generally born of frustration by those eager to see the content as it should be, lauded, and more widely available than it's awkward step-sibling. With the proliferation of importing DVDs and the decent sets available of both, I dare say most will be able to disassociate such things now.
But by leaving everything bar the voice acting intact, 2-5 appear far more likely to bear the tag of samurai cinema sacrilege. The atmosphere in these sequels is jarring, sometimes playing to the “funny voice” appeal of kitsch kung-fu without the simplistic plotting necessary, sitting somewhere in between the gauche luridness of Houston's first creation and the stoic meditative state of their primary forms. The American voice-talent is certainly not in keeping with the zen aura of living in the void of both Kazuo Koike's writing in the original manga and the adaptations it spawned that remained faithful to it. The move to make as much of the remaining four movies by maintaining their structure may have seemed sound from a financial sense (why trim the meat when it'll sell for more with the fat on?) but what comes out the other end is less an indomitable Frankenstein's monster of a hybrid, strong and powerful but arguably shouldn't exist, and more like the inside-out dog that comes lurching out of the Telepod in The Fly II.
During moments of silence it's entirely possible to be wrapped up in the intrigue of the plots - as they're far more intricate and multi-layered than Shogun Assassin, being centred mainly around assassinations and character development rather than revenge - and the whirlwind of stunningly choreographed action and calm structure of shot composition. Then someone opens their mouth and it's all blown. Ever wondered why you don't hear David Beckham speak in adverts? Not only is the voice wrong for the themes being portrayed (I'm reminded of the late Tony Wilson's phrase upon being lectured in natural mother-earth type drug-induced spirituality “one never takes these things well in an American accent”) but the vague attempt to match up the lip movement by tweaking the script slightly undermines many of the satisfying complexities.
Now that we, as consumers, are able to get a hold of the Lone Wolf and Cub set in their intended form, the bonus of seeing Kenji Misumi (Shogun Assassin 2: Lightning Swords of Death and4: Five Fistfuls of Gold), Buichi Saito (3: Slashing Blades of Carnage) and Yoshiyuki Kuroda's (5: Cold Road to Hell) work uncut seems less of a selling point. No, these metamorphosed samurai revenge tales have to stand on their own merit, they're not really tasters of another work, as the plotting remains the same, they're often merely a reminder of a time when you couldn't escape hammy dubs on films that didn't deserve such treatment. If you're reading this you've probably already got the originals on
DVD, having upgraded from the VHS (ah good times), read the manga and are busily scouring for any snippet of info about the potential upcoming adaptation.
If you're interested and don't know the stories, Ogami Itto is wandering, taking on more assassinations to pay his way and bide his time to gain revenge on the Yagyu Retsudo, the man who killed his wife. Retsudo did this in order to force Itto to commit seppuku, thus disbanding his house and gaining more political power for himself and his clan. Well that was the story, prior to Shogun Assassin, which changed Retsudo to being the shogun in the dub. Now, the sequels pull another switcharoo and put him back as merely a devious schemer intent on pulling the strings of his Machiavellian plans. It seems a move born out of making the most money for the least amount of effort, but it does create a sense of disconnect with the first Shogun Assassin, making these more quasi-sequels, both in narrative, and more importantly content-wise.
This is a sound move in many ways, firstly, this new-found authenticity probably doubled the market for the films, casting the net wider and catching potentially from both grindhouse and samurai-fan markets, as even chanbara geeks desperate for the material in its natural format would probably lower themselves, however begrudgingly, to picking these up. Secondly, the shifting of the character from Yagyu Retsudo to the shogun worked in Shogun Assassin (well sort of, you need to remember public knowledge of Japan was minimal when it was released in 1980) because the stitching together of two of the more creatively violent entries in the series (no surprises they were both Kenji Misumi entries) made it seem like a marathon of slaughter, a man hounded by an enemy whose tentacles reached everywhere. Now the longer, more contemplative sequences are kept, the sense of time is markedly apparent, and the move from a political figure attacking through pawns, lurking in the shadows, to an all powerful ruler doing the same would make the latter seem kind of impotent in comparison. In the pauses, you'd question why a shogun couldn't just martial an entire army.
It's strange to see anything bearing the name Shogun Assassin, with an English dub, that doesn't have a synth score attached; it was an iconic selling point of the original and one reason I rate it so highly. It added a strange atmosphere that detached it from the Lone Wolf and Cub series to some extent, when put alongside the narration it gave Houston's work enough of a sidestep to gain its own fandom. Perhaps it wouldn't have worked here, without the cramming of action from two revenge tales into one to liven up the pace to a steady trot. Silence underpins everything these films are about in their truest form, but that raises the issue, are these even close to that? The dub may not seem like much of a concession, but believe me, it can be massively disconcerting.
You can't keep good material down though, and for all my gripes, I loved the original films enough to be swept along with the stories, and more importantly action, once again. Without the heavy editing, reducing the plots of Sword of Vengeance and Babycart at the River Styx to a palatable US/European friendly genre flick, Lightning Swords of Death et al hold onto enough, even through the mire of the dub, to show off their ruthless atmosphere. Ogami Itto dwells, as he should do, in a haze of moral ambiguity, and assassinations don't necessarily have to be as cut-and-dried in their straightforward good vs evil nature. Clan politics, greed, power and overtones that are distinctly Japanese ooze through the dubbed façade of these amalgamated beasts; the thread of an assassin for hire in a land still largely steeped in feudalism, unapologetic for the deeds he'll commit in this harsh reality and wandering a lonely path to hell, trying to attain a state of nothingness.
That is what the Lone Wolf and Cub manga, films and TV series were all about, to varying degrees, and the vestiges of that aura, the cold emotionless hyper-violence and air of detached unsympathetic nihilism make these films, though dubbed, nay bastardised, still worthy of a watch. However, once the originals are out on Blu, they can't claim to be entirely distinct creations as Shogun Assassin can, as such you'll probably not go back to them other than for pure kitsch value, they lack that same mixture that allowed the first film to evolve as a guilty pleasure companion piece and stand in its own right. These sequels are what they always were: films leeching their reputation off the work of others, free-loading their way on the back of superior source material.
Score - 5