SHOGUN ASSASSIN (1980)
When the shogun's head assassin Ogami defies an order to commit seppuku, and then kills the shogun's son in a duel, both he and his son are marked for death. Ogami and his young son Daigoro wander the countryside, hiring themselves out as hired killers and always, always on the lookout for ninjas. They could be anywhere or anyone. For the pair's latest hiring, they have been asked to murder the shogun's brother. Ogami accepts, but before he can kill his target, he must first face off against the three Masters Of Death!
It is impossible to keep a body count and impossible not to enjoy this purely guilty pleasure that has been keeping samurai fans squealing with delight for decades. SHOGUN ASSASSIN is a strange hybrid unlike anything else in cinema. "Director" and writer Robert Houston took footage from the first two LONE WOLF AND CUB films from the early seventies, which were film adaptations of an extremely popular manga, and spliced them into one film. Next, he wrote the English dialogue that would be dubbed by American actors. Finally, through musician W. Michael Lewis, he added in a completely new score that thumps and bumps with lo-fi electronica and jazzy grooves, leaving just a bit of the original score.
While the original six-part Japanese films series was filled to the brim with a historically accurate account of the Japanese Edo period, it is now remembered much more so for the relentless bloodbath action sequences that came with Toho's attempt to give Japanese audiences a reason to go to the cinema, and give them thrills and excitement that couldn't be found on television. Today, these movies still championed for their almost-comical decapitations and dismembering of limbs, and the geysers of blood to follow. These are the parts that Houston knew his audience would want, and in the creation of SHOGUN ASSASSIN has stripped out most of the political and slower portions of the film to get to Ogami's masterful way with a sword and dispatching ninja after ninja.
And boy does Ogami know how to dispatch ninjas! Ogami is not just content with using his sword to slice and dice with more precision than a ginzu knife, but also uses a staff with blades on both ends to remove his enemy of their heads! Even little Daigoro gets involved, with his baby cart filled with hidden weapons. With just the simplest hit of secret panels, blades pop out of the wheels, spears fly through the air, and knives pop out of the handles. However, the lone wolf and his cub are not the only ones who know how to take a life. Among those who would attempt to stop Ogami are a band of female ninjas that work like a school of piranha removing bits and pieces of their target until there is nothing left but the stump of a torso, and the three Masters Of Death. This trio, who wear oversized straw hats, are each trained in one specific weapon - nail covered gloves, a deadly studded club, and a giant metal claw! Their accuracy with these weapons is matched only by their cruelty when they use them.
Although I will be the first to denounce the unnecessary dubbing of any foreign film, for SHOGUN ASSASSIN I will not only accept the dub (there, in fact, is no Japanese version of this movie) but applaud Houston for his approach to the dub. The actors approach the material with a serious yet soft tone, almost completely opposite of what you would think of for most kung fu dubs, and are able to act with their voices. Sure, there is the standard over enunciation and maniacal laughter, but it is relegated to the scenes where it works. Of standout here is Gibran Evans, in his only credited performance, who dubs Daigoro and tells most of the movie's story via the character's voice over. His voice is sweet and innocent, with just a hint of fear, and flows like a little brook through a bloody battlefield.
SHOGUN ASSASSIN has had its share of infamy and praise over the years. In the early eighties, it was marked as one of the "video nasties" in the UK when the Video Recordings Act of 1984 was passed. It has since been passed by the BFCC and for a long time was the only place to get an official release of the movie. The soundtrack was sampled for GZA's 1995 hip-hop album "Liquid Swords". The movie surged back into pop culture earlier this decade when Quentin Tarantino mimicked the insane bloodletting during the House Of Blue Leaves sequence in KILL BILL Vol. 1 and named dropped it at the end of KILL BILL Vol. 2.
For years and years in the US, this film was only available on murky multi-generation VHS and poorly-transferred DVD bootlegs. US company AnimEigo has since released a restored and reconstructed version of the movie, using the remastered prints from the LONE WOLF AND CUB series. The film has never looked better!