Shogun Assassin (1980)
By: Mr Intolerance on August 20, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Eastern Eye (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0 mono. 86 minutes
The Movie
Director: Robert Houston
Starring: Kazuo Koike
Screenplay: Tomasiburo Wakayama, Kayo Matsuo, Minoru Ohki, Shoi Kobayashi, Shin Kishida, Masahiro Tomikawa
Country: Japan
External Links
Purchase IMDB YouTube
Ogami Itto was the Shogun's executioner, his kaishakunin in the Tokugawa Period of Japan's history, but due to the Shogun's fear of him, his wife Azami is dead, and he's now destined to walk the earth with his son Daigoro (the narrator of this tale) as a ronin (masterless Samurai), the assassin "Lone Wolf and Cub." This, basically is a US condensation of the first two films in the superb Japanese Lone Wolf and Cub series of movies, based on the wildly popular manga of the same name (and there was a TV series, too, although not so bloody as what you're about to watch).

This is chambara the way it was meant to be, hyper-kinetic action scenes, geysers of fire-engine red blood and rampant overacting with almost bizarre moments of slap-stick, just as in the parent series of films, and other genre classics, film series such as Hanzo the Razor, Lady Snowblood, Zatoichi, Son of Black Mass, and Wicked Priest films, to name but a few. Chambara (effectively, a "swordfight film" – the exact definition of the word is hard to identify, as it's not a literal translation; some would suggest it comes from onomatopoeia based on the sound track of rolling drums during the fight scenes depicted, others from the diagetic sounds generated during the swordfights themselves) was a form of cinema popularised in the 50s by directors like Akira Kurosawa most notably, who brought a grit and realism to the genre in films such as The Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, and Yojimbo. By the time the 70s hit, the audience were primed for much stronger fare in their jidai-geki (historical films), and Shogun Assassin with its footage taken from two films made at the height of this era gave that audience exactly what it wanted.

The Shogun gives Itto an out – to meet his son Kurando in combat, and then the persecution will end. Needless to say he does, and it doesn't. Hence Itto packs little Daigoro into what is essentially part baby-cart, part-booby-trapped-tank, and off they go to make their lives as assassins, the Shogun's ninjas forever at their heels, waiting for vengeance.

Itto, however, is not an idle fella, and while plans are being made for his demise, he's doing some work in the assassination field, keeping his hand in you might say, and being a vigorous salty pain in the hole to the Shogun, who has been sending his brother Lord Kiru, an evil tax-collecting bastard, around the countryside to prise whatever money he can from the farmers who can ill-afford to pay him. The Shogun has given Kiru a pretty fearsome escort, the Masters of Death, three nasty motherfuckers who mean business. Itto is given a commission to slay Kiru by some villagers who somehow scrape together the thousand pieces of gold Itto charges, which effectively spells death for Kiru, but will free them enough to actually let them live a prosperous life without having unfair taxes gouged out of them by the over-privileged. This also means Itto will have to give the Masters of Death a bit of a drubbing in the process. Did I mention there were loads of good fight scenes in this film?

Unlike the usual chambara hero who takes care of his or her prey with the elegance of the katana, or the wakasashi, Itto uses any means possible to take down his foes, including that baby cart I mentioned earlier on; basically, the pram of death. Okay, you laugh now, but you'd be laughing on the other side of your face if you were one of the ninja cock-knockers being mown down by the bastard. This thing is fucking lethal!

Despite the Lone Wolf and his Cub casting themselves as demons, they're anti-heroes, just like Eastwood's The Man With No Name, or Bronson in Death Wish; they perform a public good. They certainly don't kill anyone who doesn't deserve it.  And when the evil bastards kidnap Daigoro, they totally deserve it. Here's our cue for carnage!

These Masters of Death are some pretty tough hombres as we see them kick the absolute fucking snot out of about a dozen pretty well tooled-up dudes in quite short order. This, of course is to let the Lone Wolf know what he's up against (they're all travelling on the same boat, and Itto is a witness to the slaughter). And also, obviously to scare the piss out of all the other passengers on the boat they're travelling on. Mission accomplished.

And now – time for a chambara-style rumble! Some silly twat has set fire to the boat, and now it's every man, or Lone Wolf, as the case may be, for themselves. We get back ashore, but then, as we haven't had a fight for 10 minutes or so, it's time to go! And what a fucking rumble it is – the climactic battle scenes (plural intended) are worth the price of admission alone: you will not be disappointed, unless, of course, you're an idiot.

Basically, I reckon that if you love proper violence, old school 70s style, you need to see this film, plus anything else I mentioned above, if you haven't already. This is the proper stuff, before CG took over. This is the kind of violence you can feel. It has a depth and a real 'oomph' behind it. But don't go buying this film solely for the violence – that would make me sound like an idiot, and you look like one. The story itself would stand up to pretty serious examination even without the literally buckets of blood on display, the cinematography is excellent, the choreography of the fight scenes amazing – this is a beautifully shot film (well, it's taken from two beautifully shot films, anyway).

Shogun Assassin is interesting to watch, particularly in conjunction with the original films it combines (12 minutes roughly of the first Lone Wolf and Cub film, Sword of Vengeance, and a substantial amount of the second, Baby Cart at River Styx). It plays like a feudal Japanese version of a Sergio Leone film (and at times the violence was reminiscent of Jodorowsky's El Topo) Once Upon A Time in the West and For A Few Dollars More both sprang to mind, as did some of Sam Peckinpah's films The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid were ready reference points – tension is built masterfully before the violence literally explodes in all manner of grotesque ways, and then, it's gone, like dandelion spores, and all we're left with is the Lone Wolf's wake of death. In the Creation Cinema book Eros In Hell (a necessary purchase for anyone who likes extreme Japanese cinema, in the sex and violence departments), it's referred to as "operatic" in nature, and I tend to agree. This isn't mere gratuitous violence to get bums on seats, this is meant as art – in this instance like Wagner on screen; think Fritz Lang's Kriemhilde's Revenge (itself based on the end of Wagner's Ring Cycle, in turn based on the old German myth cycle of The Niebelungenlied, where the violence is brutal, a sense of waste is established, nihilism writ large, and most of the characters practically drown in the river of blood (figurative, not literal) at the film's climax, well, those who don't go up in flames, anyway). Shogun Assassin has a raw, brutal power and weight behind it. As much as I'm a fan of chambara cinema, I've never seen anything that had the same apocalyptic imagery and carnage as the Lone Wolf and Cub series this film is based on. Itto heads on throughout the series leaving a trail of death and destruction behind him, with no real destination ahead of him, except death. Bleak stuff, and as I said before, nihilistic indeed.

The star of the film in all manners of the word is Tomasiburo Wakayama as Ogami Itto, the Lone Wolf. Now here's an actor I've seen in many films, but the sheer amount of presence he brings to this role is palpable. Sure he's laconic, taciturn and surly in the other films he's in, too, but here he looks positively haunted – a man with a tragic past, and no future to speak of. He and Daigoro refer to themselves as demons after they become assassins – and here is a man who looks like one: dead-eyed, emotionless, practically soulless. It is indeed a star turn from the actor. 
Ahhh, give me your cinema-scope! Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with 16:9 enhancement, the picture looks bright and colourful - just what we want when the blood starts spraying everywhere like an unattended fire hose.
An English dub, wit no Japanese language track included.. Since this version of the movie(s) was intended for American audiences I suppose we should expect nothing more, but… BAM! A point knocked off right there. To me it makes light of the tragic nature of the film, rendering it almost exploitative. And can I just say, the score sucked balls. Terrible, terrible 80s synth crud that made my ears want to commit suicide.
Extra Features
The original trailer, a stills gallery, and a selection of Madman trailers, including (among other things that fucking irritating and un-fast-forwardable "don't pirate videos" ad on every single fucking Australian DVD release), Death Trance, Branded To Kill, and Shadowless Sword.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
A pretty perfect distillation of the first two Lone Wolf and Cub films, this bad boy takes all of the violence and nastiness, and re-edits them into something much different to the original movies – and yet does not skimp on the oppressive doom-laden nature of the parent films. Don't expect the same films in any way shape or form, as you won't get them (apart from some obvious similarities in plot), but what you will get is about as good a summary of those two films as you could hope for. Some people prefer this version. Me, I still love the original Japanese films more. Expect reviews of them soon. Now where is that box set of mine…

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