Reviews

Shogun Assassin 2: Lightning Swords of Death (1972)

Michael Buening

The hectic episodic structure of this film creates the sense of a suffocating existential slaughter without beginning or end.


Shogun Assassin 2: Lightning Swords of Death

Director: Kenji Misumi
Cast: Tomisaburo Wakayama, Akhiro Tomikawa, Go Kato, Yuko Hamada
Distributor: AnimEigo
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Toho Co. Ltd
First date: 1972
US DVD Release Date: 2007-03-13

A samurai father, stoic and doughy, pushes his three-year old son in a crude wooden carriage. This is the central seriocomic image in the six-part Lone Wolf and Cub series (and manga on which they are based). Here is the maternal, transferred to an assassin, protecting his son and avenging his wife’s death. Their forward movement connects the disparate, often confusing episodes that make up their epic story. The repetition emphasizes the thrust of their journey -- as grim and relentless as Michael Myers.

The first two Lone Wolf films were packaged for American consumption in the early ‘80s as the barely intelligible Shogun Assassin. This mash-up has since become a cult favorite and AnimEigo has followed up with an “official” DVD release of its lesser known sequel Shogun Assassin 2: Lightning Swords of Death, which is actually the poorly dubbed third Lone Wolf film. In parsing various bootlegged and other releases AnimEigo, according to their cheeky notes, pursued a policy that “to add to the confusion…uses the most famous title and the best title film elements available (which have a more literal translation of the title).” Their subtitles didn’t work on my copy and I had to listen to the lousy dubbed cartoon voices.

The original Japanese title, Baby Cart to Hades, is a better description for this darkly entertaining installment that, though senselessly plotted, skillfully reveals the aimless sacrifices and tragedies that shape the feudal Japan over which Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and his son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) wander. Itto is a former executioner for a shogun who now works as an assassin for hire. Like the hero of Yojimbo, but with less charm and panache, he plays whatever side will take him and operates on a loose code of honor that starts scraping at his soul.

The main plot has Itto and Daigoro traveling by boat to Sanshuu, where the swordsman protects a joro (a kind of prostitute) by assuming her debt towards local pleasure palace madam Torizo (Yuko Hamada). He is first subjected to buri-buri torture and then ordered to take on an army and kill its lord in Torizo’s name. Itto also confronts a mercenary samurai named Kanbei (Go Kato), a fellow ronin, in two duels.

Since the Ogamis’ main storyline has already been established in the previous films, director Kenji Misumi provides almost no background and the story has little to do with their ultimate quest to destroy the Yagyu clan. The back-story flashbacks (enunciated with their own color palettes) mostly relate to supporting characters like Kanbei and Torizo. The effect is to place the two central characters almost on the periphery; their actions aren’t justified by anything other than improvisational survival instincts.

Immorality is this film’s morality, and Misumi uses this film to detail a society ruled by mercenary and bloodlust and how it ultimately affects Itto passing through. “We have entered the gates of hell,” Itto announces before a battle. Hacking his way across the countryside on “the road to hell”. it is his hope that the end will offer redemption. But the road is sticky territory. In his first face-off with Kanbei Itto says, “Both he [Daigoro] and I live in an area between heaven and hell. We expect hardships at all times in life as well as in death.” He actively involves the cherubic infant in battle. Twice he uses his son as decoy to trick fighters and the carriage is revealed to house a volley gun.

That characters start to favor guns over swords is another marker of this society’s drift into lawlessness and violence without honor. Codes of conduct have dissipated until byzantine bureaucratic rules are all that remain. A recurring source of dry humor has characters parsing the proper rules of conduct when negotiating over whether someone should be executed or tortured. The character’s actions are largely determined by Torizo, identified by AnimEigo’s onscreen footnotes as a “boohachimono”. or ruler over people who have “forgotten principles that govern life”.

Kanbei, who was banished from his post after performing a heroic act that nonetheless violated the samurai code, is the tragic lost soul of this world and the film’s fascinating defining sad sack character. He is first introduced with a group of samurai-for-hire who rape a daughter and her mother. Kanbei orders the men to stop, kills the women and their escort, then one of his own men as punishment -- an odd brand of chivalry. He then meets Itto and immediately challenges him to a duel, but Itto refuses. “Once again I have failed to die,” he moans. When he later faces off against Itto again he says, “What is a true samurai? Is there such a thing and was there ever?...Is this the way…only those who die stupidly?” After Kanbei tells him his story of banishment Itto, in the film’s one instance of unguarded compassion, comforts the dying man by telling him he would have done the same thing.

In this closing moment Itto tries to locate his own lost honor by identifying with another lone fighter. Fighting alleviates the characters’ tension, but ends up epitomizing their ridiculous and tragic circumstances. The inclusion of ninjas, swordfights, armored baby carts, blood spurting like a popped zit, and Western-style horse and gunplay is entertaining, but the violence is usually joyless. After watching a pimp trying to rape his newly acquired property, then seeing the girl bite off his tongue, and spit it on the floor in close-up, how should one react? “Cool”? More than for entertainment (or exploitation), Misumi uses ridiculous violence to emphasize its absurd horror. The hectic episodic structure creates the sense of a suffocating existential slaughter without beginning or end. For audience orientation, he returns to Itto pushing the carriage.

Despite his adversarial yet sympathetic relationship with Kanbei, there is no evidence that Itto changes over the course of the film and it’s not clear how admirable he’s supposed to be. The photography, which frequently juxtaposes low-angle wide shots with hand-held movement, emphasizes this heroic uncertainty. The unevenly plotted action suddenly comes into sharp focus at the punch-to-the-gut closing and it’s plain what’s happened to Itto. As he trudges away from his final battle like a supernatural creature out of a folk tale a soldier yells, “He’s not a real man but a cold-blooded monster.” The cart moves on. And over the credits a song warns, “the wolves are coming.”

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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