Shogun Assassin is an interesting beast of a film. Essentially a mashup made specifically for American and European audiences, Shogun Assassin is the first twelve minutes of Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance and most of Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx. Those films, both released in 1972, are the first two in a series of six films based on a Japanese manga series by Kozuo Koike and Goseki Kojima. The series itself was a jidaigeki, a Japanese period piece taking place usually in the Edo period of Japanese history, a relatively popular setting for due to its proliferation of Samurais and Ronins and Ninjas and the like. The 1980 mashup release featured a distinctive audio track, including Sandra Bernhard (that name means more to older readers, sorry kids), a score that was mostly Moog synthesizers, a producer who was a protege of Andy Warhol, and distribution from Roger Corman. (If you don’t know Warhol or Corman, Google it. There isn’t enough time) Basically, it was 1980’s grindhouse cinema.
The influence of Lone Wolf and Cub is far and wide. The manga came out in 1970 and ran for six years and twenty eight volumes. It was such a hit that in addition to the six-film series it spawned four live theater productions, a television series, a reprinting in America (with covers by Frank Miller no less), a reboot/retelling from Dark Horse called Lone Wolf 2100, and a rarely played video game. (Roms exist, it’s called Kozure Okami, it’s for MAME, use Google) The book and film Road to Perdition is, according to author Max Allen Collins, “an unabashed homage to Lone Wolf and Cub.” (and it is a fantastic book and movie, watch it) Stan Sakai included animal versions in his Usagi Yojimbo series naming them Lone Goat and Kid. Clips from the movie are all over GZA’s debut record Liquid Swords and it features in a rather important scene in Kill Bill vol.2, it’s the movie Beatrix watches with her daughter. It’s influence on modern directors cannot be understated either. It’s action scenes, especially their depiction of injury, can be seen all over movies that came out after Shogun Assassin. And it’s not just Kill Bill. It’s soundtrack also had a big influence on movie music. Even if you have not seen this flick, you have experienced it. It’s that big.
As for the story of this film, it is again, one of revenge. The opening scene shows the murder of main character Ogami Itto’s wife by a clan of ninjas. Ogami figures out that the shogun, for whom he used to work as head decapitator (see what i did there), orchestrated the murder of his wife. He then gives his son, Daigoro, a choice; the sword or the ball. The sword symbolized the life of a Ronin, a masterless samurai who would be continuously hunted and always in danger. The ball symbolized death and a reunion with his mother in heaven. Obviously, Daigoro chose the sword. What follows is an incredibly bloody affair that while almost crossing over into silly, manages to be beautiful as well. The cinematography is phenomenal in this film. The remastered release looks gorgeous. The audio is fabulous. It is leaps and bounds above the bootleg VHS I had in the early 90’s or the crappy bootleg DVD I had in the late 90’s. The fountains of blood, and fountains may be selling the amount of blood in this film short, look amazing. The chroeography is certainly different from the other films covered in this series, we are talking the difference between Samurai fighting and Kung Fu fighting, but is nonetheless well done and a joy to watch. While not a movie that would ever win any type of mainstream award, Lone Wolf and Cub is undoubtedly a “good” film. The idea of a father doing everything he can to protect his son is not new but is most definitely underrepresented. There is a legitimate bond between Ogami and Daigoro. The acting job done by Tomisaburo Wakayama is wonderfully reserved. It would have been easy to go over the top with the role. It would have made sense given the content of the story. However, he plays it small when appropriate and that makes all the difference. For as bloody as it is, its heart is sweet. It’s ultimately a theme we can all identify with, protecting our family.
I know that this movie stretches the limits of an article series called Kung Fu Fridays. I realize that it is not a movie that features traditional Chinese Kung Fu. It fits though. It is of the era and firmly in the genre. And quite honestly, Shogun Assassin is just cool. It’s a movie that years ago was whispered about and passed along among friends as a movie you had to see if you considered yourself serious about film. It occupied the same circles as films like A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver, Man Bites Dog, Battle Royale, etc. Now, you can hop on over to Amazon and grab a copy. And you should. It belongs in your collection. Check the trailer below and head here to catch the whole flick. If you like it, buy it. Follow me on twitter, @geekadedan, and let me know what you thought.