Being a single parent is hard. Being a single parent who is a vengeance-seeking, samurai-assassin, wandering with a stroller made from bamboo and loaded with hidden weapons? Well, that’s just crazy.
Shogun Assassin is a movie made from movies based on comics. Kazuo Koike created a manga in ‘70, Lone Wolf and Cub This expansive and influential serialized graphic novel—it runs for more than 7,000 pages—was extremely popular and spawned six films, the first in 1972. Koike also wrote the original screenplay for the early films. His stories followed Ogami Itto and his son Daigoro as they wander the Japanese countryside in feudal-era Japan. Ogami is an assassin who has chosen to take his son with him on a “path to Hell”. Sometimes finding pay for his skills, sometimes just stumbling into trouble, and always being pursued by the Shogun’s assassins, Ogami dispatches opponents with vicious and bloody skill. The stories intertwined themes of honor, the Samurai code known as Bushido, and Buddhist thought. They illustrated societal decay and deceit by those in power. They usually ended with splashes of blood splattering the walls.
In ‘80 the the original Japanese Lone Wolf and Cub films were taken by American director Robert Houston—a man with an interesting and twisting filmography which includes Civil Rights documentaries and Playboy erotica—who then re-edited and combined the films, rewrote and re-recorded dialog—which includes the voice-over talents of Sandra Bernhard (yes, that Sandra Bernhard)—and made the films more palatable to American audiences. The first episode of Lone Wolf and Cub, “Sword of Vengeance”. and the second, “Baby Cart at the River Styx” combined to make Shogun Assassin.
There are differences, of course: the pacing has changed, the American version focuses more on the blood-splattering sword play and less on the Buddhism or the Bushido code; however, these are still essentially the same tales. The film is an episodic wandering from point-to-point as assassins fly into the path of Ogami’s sword (and sometimes his baby-cart which is pimped out with spring-loaded daggers and ankle-severing axle blades). There’s not a lot of development, just lots of moments. We’re mainly provided with a grim way of life, a near-suicidal hero, and lots of shots of the little boy who is growing up amidst horrors and loss but dealing with it as only a child can.
Whether Houston achieved his goal, to make a more American version of the Japanese films, is beside the point. Fan-boys will debate which version, the American or original Japanese, is better to the end of time. Each offers a slightly different take on the same story. Beyond debate is the influence of the film. Shogun Assassin is clearly a favorite of many: from those who probably saw it as a Sunday afternoon film on TV when they were kids to those who discovered it after seeing it used in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Volume 2 (it is The Bride’s daughter’s favorite bedtime movie, and the one they watch after being reunited). And the spirit of the film has been used and reused by film-makers from around the world because it’s a formula that works. Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti Westerns (which predate the Lone Wolf films) and the Road Warrior films are in the same vein. The previously mentioned Kill Bill movies are practically a love-note to Shogun Assassin. It’s a story audiences are drawn to: the lone warrior, wronged, and without greater purpose, practices his talents on anyone stupid enough to challenge him. His supposed giving up on any greater goal (such as revenge, seeking power, or even escape) inevitably leads to correcting a major wrong—freeing a town from a despot, killing savage assassins, or bringing down a corrupt dictator.
Not only is the display of the warrior’s deadly talents captivating, so too, is the environment the warriors stumble through. Shogun Assassin is set in the long running Edo Period of Japan, which lasted from 1603 to 1867. It was an era when the rich got richer, the poor poorer, and the structures of society under which everyone was kept safe were crumbling. Like Eastwood’s lawless Old West, where law had yet to be introduced, or the Road Warrior’s dead society, where law has been fully replaced with the drive to survive, Shogun Assassin pits people against one another in the shadow of inept, incompetent, and corrupt power structures.
Sadly, this makes the film timely for many eras and audiences. Post-war Japan used entertainment in general and cinema in particular as a way of exploring its own past and the failing of its rulers which lead them to the mushroom clouded horizon at the end of World War II. From that point, Japan was forced to reinvent itself, and the struggle of daring to realize that the Emperor is not a god played itself out in film after film where the sword stands taller than any self-declared divinity. Likewise, when Eastwood began his search for A Fistful of Dollars it was the middle of the ‘60s when Civil Rights and anti-war sentiment were on the rise. Shogun Assassin came to American audiences in theaters six years after Nixon’s resignation, and was getting lots of TV viewings during the Iran-Contra era. And now… are we really going to have to figure out why a movie about a power-abusing ruler and his savage actions against the powerless might find an understanding audience, again?
Indeed, over the years the film continues to hold up on many levels. It has wonderful sword fights, a somber portrayal of the father and son, some very touching moments where the son cares for his father, and the loveably cheesy dialog that we’ve come to expect from this kind of movie including the death utterance of a Master of Death, “That this would happen to me is… ridiculous.” Unfortunately, this DVD fails in major ways, too. First, while the remastering has nicely cleaned up the film, there were stock footage shots used in the film which could not be remastered. Rather than let these scratchy shots simply sit on the screen for a few awkward moments, the producers of the DVD decided to add a jolting caption at the top of the screen which reads “Unremastered Stock Footage”. For a few moments I thought we were being given some sort of translation of Japanese, as if there was a sign somewhere in the shot that needed this explanation. But instead, it only makes for a very amateur presentation. Why they didn’t simply begin the film with a simple explanation that some stock footage couldn’t be remastered eludes me. Second, for a film with such a fan-base as Shogun Assassin, more extras would be a nice touch. The only thing worth looking at in the extras is a “brief” history of the Japanese Edo Period, and this historical information is provided in the worst way possible. There are 17 screens of text which on a 30-inch television screen looked like it was written in a 12-point font. It’s like reading a term paper on television. Apparently the creators of the DVD forgot that television is a medium that allows for sound and movement. Rather than page after page of text, why not hire a reader for $100 and find some old Japanese prints of Samurai and Edo Period paintings to illustrate the historical information? A very pared down Ken Burns technique could have been achieved for very little money and made the anemic extras otherwise look like a little effort went into them. As it is now, the historical information gives the appearance of having ‘cut and pasted’ from a website.
Ultimately, the enduring draw that continues to bring people to this film is the timeless story of a protagonist done wrong by powers beyond his control, and the wish to bring that corruption down by any means necessary.