I may not be the world’s biggest Quentin Tarantino fan, but it cannot be considered a small coincidence that, since his and Robert Rodriguez’ much publicised championing of grindhouse fare has taken hold of a new generation of movie lovers, the low grade thrills have started to become far more easy to find on home formats. With a featured clip shown so prevalently as the culmination of his Kill Bill vanity project (one recent Vipco DVD release even bore the tagline “The sleepy time film from Kill Bill 2” on the cover), a healthy amount of cinema goers were also exposed to the sight of the 1980 cult classic Shogun Assassin. Whenever a new medium hits the shelves, it is usually a fair amount of time before the more niche catalogue titles start to hit the shelves, but I honestly didn’t think this was one that would arrive quite so early into the Blu-ray life cycle. The film represents either the height of bloody kitsch appeal or the bastardisation of true cinema, depending upon which way you look at it.
For those unaware, Shogun Assassin is essentially two Japanese films cut together and dubbed for Western audiences. When put plainly like that there appears to be very little case for the defence of such a piece, but delve a little deeper and you may find why it still holds a strange appeal for many beyond mere curiosity value. The early 1970s saw the release of a fantastic set of chanbara (basically sword fighting) films commonly referred to as the “Lone Wolf and Cub” series. Running from 1972 through to just 1974, it comprised six separate titles coming from three directors (though Kenji Misumi laid down the general tone and directed four of them), they told the story of the official executioner of the Shogunate Ogami Itto (played by Tomisaburo Wakayama), a man charged with the ceremonial decapitation of those who’ve erred against his master. It was a typical tale of inter-clan warfare, Machiavellian deeds and complex moral issues that saw Itto’s wife murdered by a rival, after which he chooses to flee with his son and live the life of a wandering assassin for hire. It not only had some damn fine swordplay but was told with some stunning cinematography and, though some of the series had pacing issues, managed to be both contemplative and thrilling.
American director Robert Houston (though not a director at the time of the project) along with David Weisman clearly saw potential for profit – the rights were bought and the first two films, Sword of Vengeance and Baby Cart at the River Styx, were to be butchered of all but the most easily understood story elements and the maximum amount of bloodshed would be unleashed to Western audiences in a cut and paste approach to film making. The clan leader who kills Ogami’s wife is now the Shogun himself and the path chosen becomes less a tale of muddied morality and more a straightforward series of skirmishes with ninjas. Stripped of reason and with an amended story, what came out the other end was a bizarre oddity that speaks as much of the scene at the time as it does about the gulf between continents.
On the surface Shogun Assassin, being a hybrid that lacks the intelligence of its original work would seem to be not worth the price of admission, but there were a few major factors that not only made it an underground success of the time but also managed to cement its long lasting appeal. Firstly, this was not a mainstream title, and once fed to the right audience, namely being distributed by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures onto the grindhouse circuit, with a meagre 86 minute run time it not only prevented movie goers from tiring too much of the needless violence and overall simplicity but also, as with all short grindhouse pictures, ensured maximum screening times and appearances in double bills. The second masterstroke was an all new score by Mark Lindsay and W. Michael Lewis, which incorporated many of the musical cues from the original titles, but weighed in heavy with distinctly 80s synth-laden tones. The foreboding and profoundly inorganic mechanical sounds are a truly strange juxtaposition to the feudal setting but will not fail to strike a chord with audiences already familiar with such soundtracks from period kung-fu flicks such as those found in titles like Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow. Odd, maybe, but very cool nonetheless.
The next step towards cultdom (I’m not sure that’s a word, but what the hey) was the dub. The producers (i.e. Houston and Weisman) reportedly hired deaf lip readers to aid them in matching dialogue to the original lip movement of the Japanese actors. This has two effects; firstly the synchronisation is actually startlingly good, especially in comparison to the scores of kung fu films from the era that had almost entire conversations appearing out of inert mouths or even worse a mono-syllabics utterance looking to have emanated from a still moving pie-hole. It creates a strange quasi-English nature to the acting that lessens the disparity but also manages to heighten the quaint charisma of the piece. The second happy result of utilising this technique is some of the most inspired B-movie lines ever produced, with synchronisation taking such priority that some sentences include strange added mumbles to punctuate a shot that simply couldn’t be cut (though it is hard to imagine such a thing given how much of the story is twisted and the amount on the cutting room floor). These lines of dialogue range from the overly dramatic such as “They will pay….with rivers of blood” to the morbidly funny speech a character gives upon dying, having been slashed across the neck, “I’d always hoped to cut someone like that someday, to hear that sound, but to have it happen to my own neck….is….ri..di..cu..lous!”. In a vague nod towards story and characterisation, Houston and Weisman enlisted Gibran Evans, the seven year old son of the poster illustrator, to voice the wayward samurai’s son Daigoro. He gives a monologue that retells the tale of his father’s exploits and his life on the road to revenge. It too carries some odd speech, but strangely is played far straighter than the maniacal villains portrayed by the various (largely unheard of) voice actors who are clearly aware of how to intentionally over-egg their parts for the intended crowd.
The skewing of the story has primarily been introduced to allow the maximum amount of violence to be screened. Heads split open, limbs are lopped off, a man is picked apart by a team of female ninjas piece-by-piece and there is enough of the red stuff flying around for the surplus to have been mopped up and used in several Peckinpah westerns. All manner of implements utilised to dispose of someone pop up, from the relative mundanity of swords and knives, to the more showman-like claws, clubs and spiked gloves. Some exchanges with ninjas border on the incredulous, be it because of weaponry (radishes concealing knives thrown at an enemy) or simply due to the execution of the bloody acts lacking a certain gloss. As in martial arts films of the early 70s, these little elaborations or flaws are not necessarily to be held against the final piece but in fact add to the character of it in the eyes of many. One thing’s for sure, by dispensing with so much of the contemplative journey scenes, though tame in comparison to today’s standards, Houston had seen fit to boil up one of the most violent films of its day.
Some see the culmination of all these disparate parts as a sure sign of the death of true cinema and the pandering to the lowest common denominator. The fact that after numerous years in the wilderness of video nasty hell it is now available perhaps explains to some degree why it continues to outsell the far more accomplished films from which it was produced, but to despise it on those grounds is to miss its charm entirely. Some treat the bastardisation of the original films as sacrilege, but as much as I love them, and I’m happy to admit to being geeky enough to have collected both Kazuo Koike’s books upon which the films were based and the Japanese television series, they are not the height of cinema. They may be more grounded and artistic than, say Shogun’s Samurai and Samurai Reincarnation, but for all the Zen posturing and fantastic cinematography, any film that has a child’s cart built like a Bond car, complete with blades that shoot out of the wheels cannot ever be seen as a paragon of Japanese cinematic intellectualism. It was, and still is, chanbara - great though it may be, it remains in the genre that it was intended and thus so too does Shogun Assassin belong to its corner of the room, namely grindhouse/exploitation. Neither stand up to the likes of Sword of Doom when analysed with any great scrutiny and to compare films aiming at different ends of the spectrum is unfair. Tastes and markets differ and there is rarely any excuse for butchering another director’s work, but the end result is an insanely kitsch and uber-violent jaunt into feudal Japan, complete with a highly memorable soundtrack and the kind of cult dialogue much cherished by fans of all dubbed martial arts flicks of the era. It may not be high art, but the flaws are what have helped it to remain a cult hit and hopefully this release, like that of VHS and DVD before it, will be a precursor to the full original series arriving on the medium.
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