Film/DVD: review

Shogun Assassin

Shogun Assassin
Directed by Robert Houston
 
1980, Japan / US — 85 minutes, color, aspect ratio 2.35:1 — Action/Adventure

Set in war-torn feudal Japan, this is an inspired – and surreal – action film about the vendetta of a masterless samurai warrior (a ronin) and his young son, who rides in a baby carriage packed with lethal weapons, against a power-mad shogun.

Review

ImageHere's a summary of my review for Shogun Assassin:

WOW!!!

I've been hearing about this long-unavailable action/martial-arts classic for years, from articles and (I thought) overly-enthusiastic friends. Now that I've seen Shogun Assassin, in AnimEigo's beautifully-restored DVD, I know why this extraordinary film has left an indelible mark not only on audiences but on popular culture. That includes a renewed passion in the 1980s, and beyond, for martial arts/adventure movies (even without Bruce Lee), references in GZA’s 1995 hip-hop album Liquid Swords, the best-selling video game Final Fantasy X (2001), and Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill (2003) saga: this is the favorite bedtime movie of the vengeful Uma Thurman character's young daughter. Shogun Assassin's visual style has been cited as an important influence on such groundbreaking graphic novelists as Frank Miller, in Ronin (1983), and Max Allan Collins, in Road to Perdition (1998). But influences aside (there are many more, including, um, the Mutant Teenage Ninja Turtles), this is one of the most kinetic, sensory-overload-inducing, surreally beautiful films I've seen. Not only that, but behind the highly-stylized rivers of blood and lightning-fast swordplay, it's also a deeply moving, and smarm-free, father and son story.

ImageThe story is as primal as an ancient ballad – with the rapid-fire series of action scenes, each one viscerally unique, acting as 'refrains.' (Speaking of things ancient, I recommend the DVD's concise notes on Japanese history of the feudal Tokugawa period, during which the film is set.) Shogun Assassin begins with the man who will become known as Lone Wolf (Tomisaburo Wakayama – who out-Bronsons even the Death Wish star) at the height of his profession – as imperial executioner. When the all-powerful shogun goes mad, he sends his ninja warriors to execute his executioner and his family. His wife is murdered, but he rejects the traditional "honorable" fate, of committing suicide by hara kiri, in favor of slicing and dicing the shogun's toadies and guards and declaring war against his ex-employer. But will it be an army of one or two? In a simple but shattering scene, he now presents his three-year-old son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa – in this English version, voiced by Gibran Evans) with a choice, knowing he can only respond by instinct. If the boy chooses a bright shiny ball, he will "send him to join his mother in death," but if he goes for the sword, he will take him along to share the life of a ronin, a masterless samurai. Choice made, the two become – in the lurid but accurate words of the poster for the original 1980 release (from the redoubtable Roger Corman) – "The Greatest Team in the History of Mass Slaughter!," as Lone Wolf pushes his son along in a baby carriage filled with an array of lethal weapons which puts to shame even James Bond's Astin Martin in Goldfinger.

ImageTo say that life on the road, for father and son, is fraught with peril is an understatement. They are pursued by an endless series of killers, including a band of female ninjas led by the lethally beautiful Supreme Ninja (Kayo Matsu – dubbed by actress/comedian Sandra Bernhard, in one of her earliest performances: her 'victory cackle' has to be heard to be believed). Not only that, but Lone Wolf's new job as a highly paid assassin compels him and his tot to seek out trouble. In the film's second half, a village of oppressed and starving peasants – forced to give two-thirds of their crops to the shogun – hire Lone Wolf at a steep price (no sympathy discounts here) to kill their overlord, the shogun's brother, Lord Kurondo. Of course, Kurondo employs the invincible Three Masters of Death, who prove among Lone Wolf and Cub's most bloodthirsty foes. The final part of the film is, if anything, even more spectacular than what's come before. The film draws on eclectic sources – the grandeur and mythic poetry of Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai, 1954), the baroque visual intensity of Sergio Leone (The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, 1967), the balletic bloodshed of Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, 1969) – to create a work which is nonetheless unique; John Woo (Hard Boiled, 1992) and Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill) clearly stand on Lone Wolf's well-exercised shoulders.

ImageShogun Assassin has a most unusual history. In 1980, American writer/ director/ producer/ actor Robert Houston created his hybrid version, for producer David Weisman, by editing together the first two films from the early 1970's six-part Japanese series, Lone Wolf and Cub, directed by Kenji Misumi. Those films were produced by Shintaro Katsu, himself a major star of samurai movies, having played the lead in the two dozen original Blind Swordsman Zatoichi series films (1962–1973); he's also the brother of Lone Wolf actor Tomisaburo Wakayama. The Lone Wolf and Cub pictures were based on the popular manga (Japanese adult comic books), written by Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima, who also did the screenplays. The films capture not only the look of the manga – the actors are dead ringers for their graphic counterparts – but also its feel. A key difference between the two incarnations is length. The manga encompasses a staggering 28 volumes, with over 8,700 pages. While even some fans felt that the manga Lone Wolf wore out his welcome, the same can not be said for Shogun Assassin; its 85 minute running time sends the already tight originals into hyperdrive.

ImageOne of the film's greatest assets is the work of cinematographer Chisi Makiura. He creates a visual feast, with an unfailing sense of composition (each frame has exactly enough pictorial information to be compelling yet never too many details to distract from the narrative), color (a dark, earthy palette of brown, green and gold, with not-infrequent splashes of intense crimson... blood), light and especially shadow – with darkness lurking in every corner. The world of this film strikes an extraordinary balance behind bloodshed and sheer beauty (as seen through Daigoro's eyes), with its seemingly enchanted ancient forests, its purling silver rivers, its fathomless seas, and its vast desert – out of which pops an entire army, swords in hand and ready for an epic battle. The taut new electronic musical score – by Mark Lindsay (who sang with Paul Revere and the Raiders), W. Michael Lewis, and Robert Houston (who composed the overture) – complements the spatial depth of the sound design. The noise of constantly-blowing winds creates the subliminal impression of a vastly larger, and more mysterious, world than what we see onscreen.

In creating Shogun Assassin, Houston used about ten minutes from Sword of Vengeance (1972), the first of the Lone Wolf and Cub pictures, to establish the main characters, then seamlessly cut the series' second film, Baby Cart at the River Styx (1973), from its 89 minutes into the remaining 75 minutes of this film. One can only hope that gene splicing is this successful. (By the way, there's a long tradition of international films being 'remade in the editing' for US release, including Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1955) – which in director Ishiro Honda's original version Gojira (1954) was substantially longer yet contained no trace of Raymond Burr; Francis Ford Coppola made his directorial debut in 1960, for the ubiquitous Roger Corman, by re-editing and dubbing a Russian sci-fi flick into Battle Beyond the Sun; and Woody Allen's first film, What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966), was a parody re-edit, with all new dialogue, of a recent Japanese spy movie.)

ImageTo say the least, filmmaker Robert Houston has an eclectic career, which has seen him graduate from Harvard to the lead role, as the dashing blond youth, in Wes Craven's cult classic The Hills Have Eyes (1977) to, in a rather different vein, winning a 2003 Emmy for "Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks" and the 2005 Best Documentary Academy Award for "Mighty Times: The Children's March." After Shogun Assassin, Houston wrote and directed two original features, the teen flick Growing Pains (1984) for Touchstone Pictures, and the black comedy Trust Me (1989), and directed the action flick Caged Fear (1992), among others. After his partner died of AIDS in 1995, he focused on documentary filmmaking, beginning with the international hit Rock the Boat (1998), about an HIV-positive crew in a sailing race across the Pacific. (You can learn more about Robert Huston at the Internet Movie Database; the DVD contains extensive background information on the original Japanese Lone Wolf and Cub films, including a trailer for the first film – how different it seems without Daigoro's voice-over.)

ImageHouston's most inspired contribution to Shogun Assassin, which does not exist in the original version, was to make Daigoro the film's point of view, not to mention its heart and soul. After seeing this film, it's difficult to imagine the saga being presented any other way. By showing us the (non-stop) action through this fantastically precocious child's eyes, Houston has turned a visually brilliant martial arts movie into a work of genuine emotional power and thematic richness. It's no mistake that Shogun Assassin was a hit with both drive-in and art house audiences, and that it's maintained a passionate following for over a quarter century.

ImageThe extensive voice-over narration, written by Houston, makes Daigoro an endearing and complex new central character. Houston may have been inspired by the voice-over of the scrappy little girl, played by Linda Manz, in Terence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978); but her character, unfortunately, almost vanishes in the second half.

Daigoro comes fully to life, under Houston's shrewd direction, through the remarkable voice of young Gibran Evans; unfortunately, this is his only known performance. Hearing Diagoro this way also deepens our understanding of his bond with his stone-silent father; the two are always together yet they almost never speak – the voice-over reveals, in the natural words and speech patterns of a little kid, how much the boy loves his old man, without ever saying it directly. Daigoro's affection doesn't lessen the mythic force of Lone Wolf's character, but it does humanize him, raising him above the simple level of a feudal terminator.

ImageHouston's writing makes the now-central Daigoro fit with the existing footage. Of course it's Daigoro's inner voice which we hear. Not even the most precocious three-year-old is articulate enough to say things like his monologue about how his father told him not to count how many people they kill (at that point the number stands at 342), but instead to pray for their souls. Daigoro then adds, with staggering precocity, But how can I know how many souls to pray for if I don't keep track of how many people we kill?

On a deeper level, the boy's voice lets us know that despite the endless round of carnage he experiences, on an endless road which could hardly be farther from Sesame Street, the kid's doing all right. He's already an ace at unleashing the hidden knives in his baby cart, but he won't take food from a roadside shrine, even though he's starving and nobody's looking. Instead, he quietly takes off his much-needed jacket (it's winter) and drapes it around the Buddha, exchanging it for the three little cakes. Knowing that anyone – man, woman, or child – could be a ninja assassin keeps the boy as alert as his father, yet Daigoro never becomes jaded. His curiosity and sense of wonder are infectious, whether he's examining a group of monkeys or contemplating a sunset; his vision also meshes perfectly with the pure but enormously evocative visual style – again, credit must go to Houston for finding exactly the right words and voice performance to unite all of these disparate but crucial elements with the existing footage. In the end, although we know that Daigoro is innocently unaware of how special he is, we can see him whole – as both a complex young human being, and as a symbol for the adaptability, strength and perseverance needed to live an honorable, if unorthodox, life.

ImageIn a film with a three-year-old protagonist, what can you say about the endless geysers, torrents, and rivers of blood? Isn't this exploitation of the worst sort?

If it were real life, of course it would be despicable – although countless millions of children, in the so-called Third World, live with such horror (minus the gorgeous cinematography and resonant dialogue) every day of their cut-short lives. But film is different. First of all, the bloodshed could hardly be more stylized. The blood is so very, very red. And it always shoots in patterns that artfully complete the compositions within the frame – an arc here, an 'action-painting' splatter there. And when the dozens upon dozens of 'bad guys and gals' (female ninjas are the worst, meaning the best) do meet the business end of Lone Wolf's sword, notice how they aways strike – and hold – statue-like poses, in defiance of both mortality and gravity.

ImageShogun Assassin is, in essential ways, an art film – it's just so rip-snortingly fast-paced and astonishingly entertaining that it seems far removed from the rarefied realm of Aesthetic Delights. But then, it's no more bloody than many of Shakespeare's tragedies (it would certainly get a more family-friendly rating than, say, Titus Andronicus) – or even films like Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (1957 – note the title – based on Macbeth) or Ran (1985 – from King Lear). Above I've already thrown Leone, Peckinpah, Woo, and Tarantino into this picture's artistic purview. For me, the bloodshed here is neither glamorized, despite its surreal aesthetic component, nor gag-inducing, like the often bloodless violence in, say, Pasolini's Salo (1975). Instead, it helps to define a primitive, mythic world, which is both dreamlike in its imagery and viscerally understandable as a metaphor for the struggles we all face in life, which thankfully rarely involve ninja hit squads. Still, on a gut level I know exactly what it means – the same way that I connect with the truths in ancient myths or the Grimms' fairy tales (which are equally sanguinary). What makes this film so special is Daigoro, as the antithesis of the bloodshed – as a force of understanding, reason, and natural joy, who points the way out of existential horror.

ImageThe violence also fits in structurally, connected to the propulsive narrative and rapid-fire editing: put another way, the blood flows as fast as the story. That's part of the reason why Shogun Assassin is both a great grind house and art house picture. It's structured around the repeated 'refrains' of the fight scenes, that function like the numbers which give a periodic lift to – and define – musicals, interspersed with brief plot and character development scenes. Each gore-drenched fight is similar to yet distinct from the previous ones, and the series continues to build to ever more eye-popping heights. This is viscerally exciting, but – in its formalism – it is also surreal and, in perhaps the film's strangest aspect, soothing. The very repetition of the violence provides a sort of bizarre comfort level. And you know what? That's how Daigoro would perceive the action: not as disgusting horror, but as a regular, recurring part of his daily life – which just has to be dealt with. If he can find some visual beauty in it (along with the monkeys and sunsets), great – it never feels like he's on the road to Dahmerville or Bundy Town. He's sensitive, he's strong, he will endure.

ImageThe surrealism of Shogun Assassin, which has only been heightened in Houston's ultra-compressed version of the original films, has parallels in the dialogue, which further unites the film. Young Sandra Bernhard's cackling voice performance, as a villainous ninja leader, is the perfect complement to her over-the-top words. In fact, much of the dialogue sounds like a sly parody of the gnarled English of a typical, and cheap, martial arts movie's subtitles. A line like "They shall pay – rivers of blood" brilliantly yokes together melodrama, bad-dubbing parody and, if you listen to the rhythms, haiku. Another moment reaches heights which reflect the complexity of the film as a whole. During the climactic battle, after Lone Wolf finally skewers one of the Masters of Death, the "invincible" killer speaks his own epitaph:

Your technique is magnificent. When cut across the neck the sound of wailing winter winds is heard. I'd always hoped to cut someone like that some day – to hear that sound. But to have it happen to my own neck is... ridiculous.

Then he lets out a HISSSSSGRRRGLLLL, and dies.

ImageHis line is many things at once, most obviously campy (as an arch parody of standard martial arts dubbing) – but in the dramatic context, it's also heroic, poetic, surreal (not least because a man with a slit throat can still deliver a monologue) and, suprisingly, moving. Credit is obviously due to Misumi's film, but once again Houston has found exactly the right, if polyglot, tone in his dialogue. He's (re)made this scene into something more than it was in its original Japanese version, when it was of course devoid of 'subtitle-ese' English. It's fun to hiss the villain, but not when his life is ending with his own susurrant hiss. He's suddenly, unexpectedly, gone from being surreal to too real, a stark reminder of our own aspirations cut off before their time.

From small, but multi-layered, moments like this to the unforgettable relationship of Daigoro and his father – and even in comparison with a magnificent work like Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) – Shogun Assassin reveals itself as a very special film. Robert Houston turned a simple recreation into an extraordinary creation in its own right.

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Crew

  • Directed by Robert Houston (English version), from the original films directed by Kenji Misumi (Japanese version)
  • Written by Robert Houston (English version) and Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima (Japanese version)
  • Produced by David Weisman (English version) and Shintaro Katsu & Hisaharu Matsubara (Japanese version)
  • Cinematography by Chishi Makiura
  • Edited by Toshio Taniguchi and Lee Percy
  • Sound by Courtney Goodin (voice over & sound effects recordist), Tim Holland (sound effects editor), Matthew Iadarola (sound re-recording mixer), and Val Kuklowsky (sound editor)
  • Music by Mark Lindsay & W. Michael Lewis, with the overture by Robert Houston (English version) and Kunihiko Murai & Hideaki Sakurai (Japanese version)

Cast

  • Tomisaburo Wakayama as Ogami Itto
  • Kayo Matsuo as Supreme Ninja
  • Minoru Ohki as Master of Death
  • Akiji Kobayashi as Master of Death
  • Shin Kishida as Master of Death
  • Akihiro Tomikawa as Daigoro
  • Gibran Evans as Voice of Daigoro
  • Lamont Johnson as Voice
  • Marshall Efron as Voice
  • Sandra Bernhard as Voice
  • Vic Davis as Voice
  • Lennie Weinrib as Voice
  • Lainie Cooke as Voice
  • Sam Weisman as Voice
  • Mark Lindsay as Voice
  • David Weisman as Voice
  • Robert Houston as Voice

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DVD

AnimEigo's new, full-restored DVD transfer of this film contains excellent image and sound quality, and many supplemental features detailing the film, the original Lone Wolf & Cub series, Japanese history during the period of Shogun Assassin, and more. This is a first-class release in every way.

DVD Details

Reviewed October 9, 2006

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