Blu-ray. Region B. Eureka! 18.
Shogun Assassin, probably the most blood thirsty of all the dreaded “video nasties” (well, it made the Section 3 list of prohibited titles) is also, arguably, the most visually beautiful, stylish and exciting films to fall foul of the DPP. The beauty, style and bloodthirstiness are attributable to its Japanese origins, but much of the sheer excitement generated by Shogun Assassin is due to the way it was recut by Robert Houston at Roger Corman’s New World for American release in 1980. The film as we see it now is actually an amalgam of the first two entries in the long running “Lone Wolf” or “Baby Cart” series of movies, the 1972 efforts Kosure Ookami-Ko wo Kashi Ude Kashi Tsukatsura (“Lone Wolf And Cub: Sword Of Vengeance”) and Kosure Ookami – Sanzu No Kawa No Ubagurama (“Lone Wolf And Cub: Baby Cart At The River Styx.”)
As directed by Kenju Misumi, these films demonstrated the increasing influence exerted over Japanese cinema by the action oriented Hong Kong industry (see also the TV series Monkey and The Water Margin, Japanese treatments of traditional Chinese folk stories) at the expense of more traditionally Japanese modes of narrative, which to Western eyes are mainly characterisable in terms of their leaden pacing… who could forget (try as they might) the coma inducing episode of an older Japanese TV adaptation of the “Lone Wolf” saga that was screened by Channel 4 back in the 80’s, during which – in the absence of anything more galvanising – the Shogun taking his feet out of his stirrups became a major set piece!
These movies were already moving along at a fair lick then, and by losing virtually all of their quieter moments in the shuffle, Houston came up with one movie that is effectively a rolling action sequence, as incident piles upon violent incident. By dint of the uniquely graphic and bloody manner in which the Japanese execute such sequences, Shogun Assassin becomes, more specifically, one long gore sequence and it is perhaps not too fanciful to imagine a drive-in encounter with the film leaving a profound impression on Sam Raimi, on his way to conceiving The Evil Dead.
The addition of Mark Lindsay’s wildly anachronistic and totally inappropriate throbbing disco score (repetitive synth riffing of the kind favoured by Donna Summer before she discovered God and abandoned her quest for a 12-inch orgasm) merely serves to further accentuate the delirious pace of events and heighten the surrealistic ambience of the proceedings.
The action – and I do mean action – is set in a province of Japan ruled over by an old and increasingly paranoid Shogun. His chief executioner Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is happy to decapitate the victims of his pogroms, but eventually falls out of favour himself. Itto’s wife is killed when ninja swoop on their house in an attempt on his life, and when challenged by a deputation of the Shogun’s swordsmen to commit hari-kiri, Itto slaughters them instead and hits the road to lead a ronin life with his infant son, Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa).
For starters Itto respectively beheads and runs through two of the Shogun’s sons, slaughtering their various retainers into the bargain. “I would risk the lives of all my sons to see his head on a stake” rants the crazy old Shogun, who looks like some kind of albino werewolf. This uncompromising filial attitude is echoed in his adversary Itto, who offers his baby son a sword and a ball after the death of the boy’s mother, fully intending to kill him if he chooses the latter (elsewhere he nonchalantly tells a villain who is threatening to throw the child down a well to go ahead … “My son and I have already embraced our fate!”)
Next the Shogun takes a contract out on Itto with a crack team of ninja bitches. Their leader Sayaka (Kayo Matsuo) is a masochist’s dream girl who, when challenged over her credentials, has her death squad carve up the Shogun’s top ninja (a hilarious spectacle… like the Green Knight in Monty Python And The Holy Grail, the unfortunate guy fights on, limbs and facial parts falling to the floor, until he is little more than a stump) then sneers, “And that was your best man?!?” before breaking into maniacal laughter. Needless to say, her hit women find Itto and son a much tougher proposition – they throw spear lined fruit and veg at our heroes and even try to hypnotise them with twirling umbrellas as a prelude to the more mundane (i.e. somersaulting through the air in slow motion) displays of martial arts histrionics, but all of them come unstuck on Lone Wolf’s sword or one of the bloody contraptions that sprout from Jr’s battle pram at the pull of a lever.
Eventually Sayaka takes on the Ittos herself, a confrontation that ends with the memorable spectacle of her jumping right our of her ninja suit and running away backwards in her underwear. After this tactical withdrawal Sayaka makes another attempt to carry out her murderous mission and, failing yet again, wanders off to commit hari-kiri.
There’s nothing else for it – the Shogun calls in… (gulp!)…the Masters of Death!!! Three mean dudes in wok hats (from under one of which peeks a hip rockabilly quiff), the MODs (played by Minoru Ooki, Mori Kishida and Shogun Arata) are weapons specialists, one fighting with a spiked club, another with a nailed glove, and the third with a metal claw.
We are introduced to these menacing dudes on a boat, where they cut off the end of a guy’s nose because he’s been getting on their nerves. “It makes me sick…” grumbles the victim, “… they butcher anyone in their way… it’s just bad taste!” (Ooh, he could crush a grape!) Prior to their high noon desert appointment with Lone Wolf and Son there’s an extraordinary sequence as the metal clawed Master, sensing warriors hiding in ambush under the sand, runs around the desert, bloodily harvesting heads.
The Masters of Death ultimately prove unable to live up to their billing – they give it their best collective shot but it is Itto who emerges victorious from the epic struggle. Disco music strikes up as Lone Wolf pushes his cub into the sunset, Jr. soliloquising that their life will always be like this. It was, too, but you’ll need to check out the remaining entries in the original series if you want to see for yourself… and why wouldn’t you?
One can see why the DPP took exception to the film’s peculiarly Japanese presentation of extreme violence as a beautiful (nobody dies in Shogun Assassin without spraying several gallons of crimson blood into the beautifully photographed sky, usually in stately slow motion) and even transcendental phenomenon – after complimenting Itto on his “magnificent” technique, the final Master of Death spends his dying moments rhapsodising about an unexpected aural accompaniment to throat slitting: “When cut across the neck, a sound like wailing winter winds is heard. I’d always hoped to cut someone like that one day, to hear that sound, but to have it happen to my own neck is… ridiculous!” So is the whole movie. It’s also a unique, exhilarating and quite unforgettable viewing experience.
Eureka’s BD transfer of shogun Assassin looks pretty good. I’ve seen better but there’s none of the weird optical squeezing that has marred previous releases. It sure sounds good and extras abound. You get not one but two audio commentaries, firstly by cineaste Ric Meyers and martial arts ace Steve watson, then another with producer David Weisman, illustrator Jim Evans and actor Gibran Evans (who voices Diagoro.) There’s a video interview with Samuel L. Jackson, who enjoyed this kind of genre movie in his youth and later participated in several of Quentin Tarantino’s misfiring attempts to emulate their spirit in big-budgeted Hollywood efforts. You also get the theatrical trailer plus previews for each episode in the originally constituted Lone Wolf And Cub series. Nice.