Shogun Assassin arrives on Blu-ray with a 1080p resolution encoded using the AVC codec and framed within a theatrically correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The disc itself is locked to region A.
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 DVD incarnations, 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 DVD will 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.
There is only one track available, that being English Linear PCM 2.0.
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 DVD incarnations. 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 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.
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 DVD boxset, 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/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 is an acquired taste that won’t please all fans of chanbara cinema. If you like your samurai thrills more subdued and contemplative this will seem a garishly grisly trek into the world of feudal swordplay and bloodshed. If, however, you can look past the heavy handed editing of two superior films to make this one amalgamation then you will find a kitsch and bewitching blood-thirsty vision of Tokugawa era Japan complete with hammy voice acting and the inspired juxtaposition of a synth score laid over historic imagery.
The disc certainly shows an extra level of detail and improved colour fidelity, but it was never likely to rewrite history completely. There are still problems, namely print damage and the lack of detail in darker areas, but this remains the best the film has looked. Audio brings to life the Moog synthesiser and distinctive narration in a good manner, but does sometimes struggle to even out the higher frequencies of the action itself. The extras are minimal in quantity, but make up for that with two information-packed commentary tracks, but the omission of an in-depth look at the restoration process is a little disappointing, for me at least.
Those hungry for more of Kenji Misumi’s iconic imagery to arrive on Blu-ray will likely find this will keep the wolf from the door for the moment, and given it can be found at a budget price you won’t be paying with rivers of blood!
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