The early seventies marked a significant and much welcome period of change for exploitation, horror and martial arts filmmakers, as the early years of that particular decade saw censorship bodies throughout most of the western world and in some portions of the far east adopting a more lenient attitude towards cinematic depictions of violence, sexuality and bloodshed. In addition to giving the horror genre a gory shot in the arm, this more liberal climate also proved to be a contributing factor towards the rejuvenation of the martial arts and samurai movie subgenre's resulting in a gruesome new vein of oriental chop socky. Perhaps the most celebrated Japanese samurai pictures produced during this period are the highly revered Lone Wolf And Cub series (sometimes alternatively referred to as the Baby Cart series) which were themselves based on a popular and long-running Japanese comic book series.
The Lone Wolf And Cub series began in 1972 with Sword Of Vengeance directed by Kenji Misumi and quickly spawned five sequels, namely Baby Cart At The River Styx (1972), Baby Cart To Hades (1972), Baby Cart In Peril (1972), Baby Cart In The Land Of Demons (1973) and White Heaven In Hell (1974). Starring the portly but imposing Tomisaburo Wakayama as vengeful former Shogun executioner Ogami Itto- (aka – "Lone Wolf") who is accompanied by his sweet looking yet far from innocuous infant son who Lone Wolf pushes around everywhere in his weapon equipped baby cart, the Lone Wolf And Cub series is characterised by its jaw-dropping stylised violence as hacked off limbs fly everywhere resulting in spurting torrents of blood. The Lone Wolf And Cub series became a huge success in its native Japan leading to all six films being embellished with classic status by martial arts and samurai movie enthusiast's, even though they were initially little seen outside of their native country.
In 1980 the American distribution rights to the first two films in the Lone Wolf And Cub series Sword Of Vengeance and Baby Cart At The River Styx were acquired by the legendary Roger Corman’s distribution outfit New World Pictures. Despite the hyperbolic levels of blood and gore on display the executives at New World were nevertheless of the opinion that these subtitled, Japanese productions stood little chance of achieving commercial success in the American marketplace in their original format. Therefore, New World assigned young actor cum director Robert Houston – best known for his prominent acting role in Wes Craven’s horror classic The Hills Have Eyes (1977) – to edit together parts of both films into one simplified feature aimed at western audiences entitled Shogun Assassin. Featuring around twelve minutes of footage from Sword Of Vengeance whilst retaining most of Baby Cart At The River Styx, Houston’s Shogun Assassin saw the original Japanese dialogue dubbed into English, the film re scored, the narrative modified (some might say dumbed down) and extra emphasis placed on the plentiful violent action sequences. Thanks principally to a memorable promotional campaign. in particular a truly brilliant theatrical trailer which wisely emphasised the films gory excess in order to hook horror and exploitation fans, Shogun Assassin proved to be a crossover hit and a modest financial success in the twilight years of the American drive-in circuit. While samurai movie purists are generally quite keen to emphasise the perceived superiority of the two Lone Wolf And Cub instalments from which it is adapted, Shogun Assassin is today widely regarded as a cult classic and a seminal, landmark film in the history of samurai cinema.
Shogun Assassin would also be notable for arousing a measure of controversy here in the UK. For its original UK theatrical release back in 1981 the BBFC insisted on making an assortment of cuts before granting the film an 18 certificate for its limited cinema run. Shortly after Shogun Assassin found a wider audience when British video label Vipco released the film on video. Unfortunately the UK video release of Shogun Assassin came at a time when the British tabloid press were whipping up a panic over the ready availability of so called "Video Nasties", a term coined to describe the glut of horror and exploitation titles which had flooded the then essentially unregulated British video market during the first years of the eighties. Predictably the authorities were quick to act upon growing public and media pressure and soon the Department of Public Prosecutions set about compiling a list of over 70 video titles which were cited as possibly obscene and liable for seizure by the police. Due to its high quota of hacked off limbs, decapitations and spurting blood the UK video release of Shogun Assassin briefly found its way onto the hallowed "Video Nasty" list alongside a motley array of American and European horror and exploitation films. Eventually calmer heads prevailed and Shogun Assassin was dropped from the DPP list of outlawed video titles, however the film would nevertheless remain unavailable on video in the UK until 1992 and even then it was only reissued in a slightly censored version. In 1999 the full uncut version of Shogun Assassin was finally passed without cuts for video and DVD release by the newly liberalised British Board of Film Classification after having been essentially outlawed in its original, uncensored form for over 15 years.
Shogun Assassin tells the story of the powerful samurai warrior Lone Wolf who long ago in ancient Japan served as the chief executioner for the all powerful Shogun. However, with the onset of old age the Shogun slid into a violent state of senile dementia and when Lone Wolf refused to pledge allegiance to the Shogun, the tyrannical governor becomes fearful of his faithful warrior and decides that Lone Wolf must die. The Shogun dispatches a group of ninja warriors to Lone Wolf’s house with orders to kill him, but instead they only succeed in murdering Lone Wolf's beloved wife.
Filled with rage Lone Wolf decides that he will defy the Shogun and along with his infant son Daigoro sets out on an endless quest for vengeance. With little Daigoro in tow, Lone Wolf becomes a "masterless smaurai" and wanders the Japanese wilderness working as an assassin for hire whilst also battling and slaughtering the countless ninja warriors sent by the demented Shogun to seek and destroy him. Eventually Lone Wolf's path leads him to a village where his services are purchased by the terrified locals who wish for him to assassinate the Shogun’s evil brother who tyrannically rules over them. Little does Lone Wolf realise that this task will lead to the greatest test of his abilities he has ever encountered as it leads him into a deadly confrontation with the infamous "Masters Of Death", a trio of ruthless and utterly deadly warriors who have been assigned to protect the Shogun's brother.
For many foreign language horror, exploitation and martial arts films, English language dubbing, narrative Americanisation and general butchery for the sake of international distribution have often proved to be the kiss of death. However, this is happily not true in the case of Shogun Assassin. It is clear that "director" Robert Houston approached Kenji Misumi’s two original source films with a respectful integrity and as a result Shogun Assassin registers as an excellent samurai picture in its own right. For instance the English dubbing far from being clumsy is done with such great care that it is, at times, barely even noticeable. This is thanks to Houston and his co-writer David Weisman having intentionally written the English dialogue in such a way that it matches with a reasonable degree of precision the mouth movements of the Japanese cast.
Considering that Shogun Assassin is essentially something of a Frankenstein's monster pieced together from portions of two other films, it is perhaps a remarkable achievement in itself that the simple narrative flows seamlessly. Indeed, if ever film students were given a course on how to repackage foreign niche cinema for the tastes of English speaking Western viewers then Shogun Assassin should form the centre of the curriculum. The simple tale of revenge at the heart of the film is easy for the viewer to identify with and proves to be genuinely compelling as it propels the film briskly from one spectacularly bloody set-piece to the next. Much of the films power of course lies in the strength of the original performance of Tomisaburo Wakayama as the vengeful, deadly Lone Wolf. Despite his rather portly frame Wakayama's hard-eyed, largely silent performance ensures that he totally convinces as a deadly, cold-blooded assassin capable of annihilating entire armies single-handedly.
It is also a great boost to Shogun Assassin that the touching unspoken bond between Lone Wolf and his infant son Daigoro (played by wonderful child actor Akihiro Tomikawa) has survived in this more exploitatively minded translation. The quiet moments between the two which separate all the bloody mayhem possess undertones of genuine poignancy in particular the moving early scene in which little Daigoro is forced to choose between joining his mother in death or joining his father on the metaphorical road to hell. Their well realised relationship of mutual devotion plays an important role in the film by rendering Lone Wolf a steely yet recognisably human anti-hero who the viewer can genuinely root for as opposed to a mere amoral killing machine. On the same note Shogun Assassin also benefits a great deal from the addition of ongoing voiceover narration given from the perspective of little Daigoro. This narration, far from dumbing the film down, actually gifts Shogun Assassin with a highly appealing fairy-tale like quality which fits the narrative like a glove.
Of course the principal reason for the lasting cult classic status afforded Shogun Assassin is its high, largely unparalleled quota of graphic, blood drenched slaughter. Indeed, not much of the blood and mayhem contained within Baby Cart At The River Styx fails to find its way into Shogun Assassin. As Lone Wolf journeys across the Japanese wilderness he leaves behind him a staggering body count as the Shogun's minions he encounters along the way meet with a swift and in most cases extremely bloody death courtesy of his trusty dual samurai swords. The battle scenes are insanely bloody as Lone Wolf’s sword strokes result in decapitations, limbs being hacked off and torso’s being punctured and bisected resulting in torrents of bright red gore spurting from the wounds of his fallen foes. Even little Daigoro proves far from innocuous as he too gets in on the act by using the blades secreted in the wheels of his baby cart to (literally) cut the legs out from beneath some of his fathers adversaries. We are additionally served up a choice scene of butchery in which a male samurai is assigned the daunting task of escaping from a room filled with an elite squad of female ninja's. The luckless warrior predictably fails in his task and is systematically dismembered by the beautiful yet utterly deadly damsels until all that is left is a bloody torso.
However, it should be noted that far from being grim and brutal the stylised violence in Shogun Assassin is so brilliantly choreographed and the geysers of spurting blood so exaggerated that instead of churning the stomach it is more likely to leave the viewer open mouthed due to its sheer, outrageous sense of spectacle. Additionally the violence is given a rather surreal and slightly unsettling edge by the constant presence of little Daigoro blankly watching the carnage reeked by his father from the safety of his baby cart. Shogun Assassin is filled with countless, gory OTT fight scenes but the films highlight is undoubtedly the finale in which Lone Wolf faces off against the infamous Masters Of Death deep in the heart of the desert. This sequence features the most spectacular of the films countless fatalities as Lone Wolf messily cleaves the head of one adversary clean in half with predictably messy results. However, despite the veritable oceans of blood some harder to please martial arts and samurai movie fans may be disappointed by the lack of swordplay as Lone Wolf tends to swiftly dispatch all of his foes in just a few deft sword strokes and generally encounters little resistance. Otherwise it is hard to imagine even the most jaded or bloodthirsty of viewers not being impressed by the amount of the old red stuff squirting about the place or for that matter by the sublimely stylish manner in which it is spilt. The rip-roaring samurai carnage is complimented beautifully by W. Michael Lewis and Mark Lindsay’s pounding and insanely catchy synthesiser score. The psuedo-oriental main theme in particular is unforgettable stuff.
Despite its spectacularly gory excess Shogun Assassin overall registers as a highly accessible, action packed and genuinely captivating exercise in cinematic ultra violence. The films simple tale of a father and his infant son aimlessly wandering the land on a never-ending quest for vengeance proves genuinely captivating and the countless, beautifully staged and outrageously gory battle sequences solidify its deserved reputation as a true classic of its type. As such it is little wonder that many aficionados of Japanese extreme cinema often cite Shogun Assassin as the film which initially fuelled their interest in the genre. Indeed, it is a true testament to both the strength of the original source material and the sterling work put in by Robert Houston and company at New World that despite the outrageous amount of slaughter crammed into the films relatively scant running length Shogun Assassin never feels repetitive or becomes at all tiresome. All in all this is a thrilling, indescribably bloody, brilliantly edited and at times curiously poetic and poignant samurai film which serves not only as a wonderful taster for the original Lone Wolf And Cub series, but more importantly flourishes as a hugely entertaining film in its own right.
The best DVD version of Shogun Assassin available at present is the US region one DVD on the AnimEigo Entertainment label. This fully uncut release presents the film in what is said to be a high quality restored 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation and also includes a few small extra's including trailers and a restoration gallery. There is also an older UK DVD release from the notorious Vipco which presents the film fully uncut and has been released in both non-anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen and full frame editions. The full frame edition (which I was fool enough to waste £20 on back in 2001) is equivalent in quality to an average quality VHS tape and the widescreen edition is, according to other reviews I've read online, not a whole lot better. In other words its the usual rip-off botch job from Vipco! Therefore the US AnimEigo DVD certainly looks like the best way to go for anyone wishing to add Shogun Assassin to their collection.
Shogun Assassin (AnimEigo - US R1 DVD): amazon.com l amazon.co.uk