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DVD SAVANT

Shogun Assassin 4:
Five Fistfuls of Gold

(aka Kozure Okami: Meifumado)


Shogun Assassin 4: Five Fistfuls of Gold
AnimEigo
1973 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic widescreen / 89 min. / Kozure Okami: Meifumado; Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Land of Demons; Sword of Vengeance V / Street Date March 4, 2008 / 19.98
Starring Tomisaburo Wakayama, Michiyo Ookusu, Akihiro Tomikawa, Shingo Yamashiro, Tomomi Sato
Cinematography Fujio Morita
Production Design Shigenori Shimoishizaka
Original Music Hideaki Sakurai
Written by Kazuo Koike, Tsutomu Nakamura
Produced by Masanori Sanada, Tomisaburo Wakayama
Directed by Kenji Misumi

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Tomisaburo Wakayama's Sword of Vengeance series is still the gold standard for bloody samurai sword action. At UCLA in 1973, Nick (Lowell) Peterson screened installment #2 in the six-part saga of ex-Shogunate headsman Ogami Itto, and had his entire audience gasping for breath. We'd never before seen such aesthetic, artful violence. Wakayama's swordsmen behave like Sergio Leone's gunslingers, facing off for duels that concentrate on razor-sharp dismemberment. Arms, legs and heads fly off like carrot tops, followed by geysers of crimson blood. Ogami might slice up four or five foes in a single two or three-second burst of action, or pause to watch as the two halves of a man he's just cleaved, fall in opposite directions.

The Sword of Vengeance movies are funny and breathtaking at the same time. A group of assassins follow Ogami's unflappable little boy Daigoro, only to see the kid point off screen ... and with a clash of music, Ogami Itto is revealed on a sand dune, poised and waiting to be challenged. Having just become accustomed to the blood spurts in movies like The Wild Bunch, we still weren't ready for producer-star Wakayama's wholesale gore. Filmed in dazzling color and edited to perfection, these pictures make the slicing and dicing of human beings into its own fantastic art form.

Before good reference books cleared things up it was often difficult to know which Sword of Vengeance chapter one was seeing. They are also known as the Baby Cart and Lone Wolf and Cub series. Individual titles might be listed under specific names (like Baby Cart at the River Styx) without letting us know that it is chapter #2.

The full series is already out on DVD under the Lone Wolf and Cub name, but AnimEigo has restarted it again with different titling, and different numbering. This review is for Shogun Assassin 4: Five Fistfuls of Gold, which is actually Sword of Vengeance 5: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons.

Synopsis:

Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and Daigoro (Akhiro Tomikawa) are diverted from their mission by five messenger-challengers, each of whom tries to ambush Ogami or beat him in a fair fight. As they die, each praises Ogami's skill, gives him one-fifth of his 500-ryo assassin's fee and begs him to help save their clan, the Kuroda, from its corrupt leaders. Ogami decides to fulfill this new contract when he sees that the lawful clan leader, a little boy, has been pushed aside by usurpers who have placed a little girl and her mother in charge. As it turns out, the honorable soldiers of the clan are also enemies of Ogami's hated foes the Yagyus.

This "new" Shogun Assassin series is a continuation of the English-dubbed import versions of the film begun in the middle 1970s. AnimEigo producer Aaron Cavazos appears to have a good handle on this confusion, and kindly offered to explain it to me:

"I'll try to break it down, but it does get a little confusing. In short, the Shogun Assassin series, except for the first film, is indeed the same as the Lone Wolf and Cub / Baby Cart series, the main difference being subtitles vs. dubs.

In 1980, an American director named Robert Houston took the first two Lone Wolf and Cub films, edited them together into an ultra-violent 80 minutes, and added what is probably the coolest voice-over dub track ever made, as well as an updated funky synth soundtrack. This film, Shogun Assassin was banned for a time and widely bootlegged.

Before this, in the mid-70s, Lone Wolf and Cub 3 was badly dubbed and toured around the grindhouse and drive-in theatre circuit in America, calling itself Lightning Swords of Death. Once Shogun Assassin became popularly bootlegged, Lightning Swords of Death somehow took on the Shogun Assassin name as Shogun Assassin 2: Lightning Swords of Death or Shogun Assassin 2: Lupine Wolf. It's exactly the same runtime though, the only difference being the dub.

So that explains the first two Shogun Assassin films, which are actually the first three Lone Wolf and Cub films.

As for Shogun Assassin 3, 4, & 5 (Lone Wolf and Cub 4, 5, & 6, respectively), since no dub previously existed, we took it upon ourselves to have one made. These releases differ in no way from the Lone Wolf and Cub releases except for the audio and title.

The Shogun Assassin series is strictly for audiences who prefer not to read while they watch limbs being chopped off."

So simple, even a child can understand it. While Savant prefers all foreign movies in their original languages, he realizes that many film fans do not and choose dubbed versions when available. As with all the technical aspects of AnimEigo releases, the dubbing is excellent, almost always fitting the actor's mouth movements and avoiding anachronistic phrases & goofy accents.

Itto Ogami (or Ogami Itto) is the same po-faced menace of few words, pushing his baby cart down the treacherous Ronin trail. The five challengers attack Ogami with a variety of strategies, but they also tend toward excessive monologues so I was happy when the movie progressed to less predictable episodes. Left at a country festival, little Daigoro is used by a female pickpocket, Quick Change Oyo, to hold a stolen purse. A diligent policeman arrests Daigoro and whips him publicly for refusing to cooperate with the law. Impressed by Daigoro's stoic acceptance of pain, the beautiful Oyo finally breaks down and turns herself in; Ogami shows up but does not intercede. Yes, the way of the Ronin is hard, and Daigoro yet again proves himself to have The Right Samurai Stuff.

We get two whopper battles, one against the bad element in the Kuroda clan and an even larger melee between Kurodas and Yagyus. That wild-eyed Yagyu overlord is on hand to shout out his hatred of Ogami Itto, and then run when things get tough. For pinnacle of gore in this one is a huge Tohoscope close-up of one of Ogami's foes being chopped in half like an oak tree made of red butter -- I tell ya, that sword really makes 'em stand up and take notice. All of these swordsmen seem to worship death, especially the five suicide messengers. That part of the film is so basically inhumane (but undeniably exciting) that we accept the final image of Ogami's sojourn with the Kurodas -- the severed heads of a woman and a tiny tot, sitting calmly on display.


AnimEigo's DVD of Shogun Assassin 4: Five Fistfuls of Gold looks wonderful in a nearly flawless enhanced transfer that bests the older pressings for sharpness and color. Unfortunately, they're serious about the Dubbed in English qualifier. Choosing English subs turns on subtitles that only translate the opening credits, and no Japanese audio track appears either. The extras are a trailer, brief program notes and an image gallery. AnimEigo's heavily-researched liner notes on the series are available online here.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Shogun Assassin 4: Five Fistfuls of Gold rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent but only an English dub is provided
Supplements: Trailer, program notes, image gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 22, 2008



DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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