For those unfamiliar with Shogun Assassin, a quick history lesson is required to understand what this film is all about. In the early seventies there were six films made from the popular samurai manga, Lone Wolf And Cub. The first two films in this series, Sword Of Vengeance and Baby Cart At The River Styx, were edited into one single film and dubbed into English. Released theatrically in North America in 1980 with a new score, the resulting film, Shogun Assassin, went on to do quite well theatrically and has maintained a strong cult following over the years.
So what's the movie about? Well, it tells the story of a father Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and his young son, Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa). Itto was at one time the Shogun's official executioner, or, kaishakunin. He was the man who would slice off your head for you should it be decided that you need to commit seppuku. He was loyal to the Shogun and he took his job and his commitment very, very seriously.
When the opposing Yagyu Clan start moving in on the territory, they murder Itto's wife and frame him for destroying the Shogun's crest, which is a huge sign of disrespect that in turn leads the Shogun to declare that Itto must commit seppuku. Rather than take his own life as punishment for a crime he didn't commit, Itto and his son escape and swear vengeance for his wife's death, vowing to destroy the Yagyu Clan and making a living by hiring out his services as an assassin. Together they travel the road to Hell (complete with a tricked out baby cart that launches speers and has blades hidden throughout its chassis) as assassins for hire, capable of killing anyone should the job meet Itto's requirements, for the sum of five hundred gold pieces. Unfortunately for father and son, the clan is still after them, and they don't intend to let them live any longer than they absolutely have to.
Once Itto has gained a reputation across the land as one of the finest swordsman in all of imperial Japan and as an assassin to be feared and respected, Itto and Daigoro are spoken of by the people as almost mythical beings, as demons journeying together on the long road to Hell. Soon enough, the Shogun brings in some of his men to take down the Lone Wolf and Cub once and for all – carnage ensues and father and son must square off against the three Masters Of Death – a trio of deadly ninja assassins.
Robert Houston (who won an Academy Award last year for his documentary short Mighty Times: The Children's March) and David Weisman (director of Ciao Manhatten) used about eleven minutes from the first film of the series and took the rest of the material from the second. Essentially made for the grindhouse crowd of the day, Shogun Assassin cuts out some of the slower, more character driven parts of the first two movies but little, if any, of the carnage. The end result is a tight, fast paced and gory action movie with plenty of arterial spray and severed limbs. So while this alternate version of the beginning of Itto Ogami's story isn't as cerebral or as melancholy, it definitely works well on its own and stands as a fairly unique take on the source material.
It might sound like a corny way to present some fairly serious material but it works. The voice acting fits the characters well and the score, despite heading into disco territory a few times, really does a fine job of highlighting the action. The editing is cohesive and while there are a few strings of the plot that aren't fleshed out so well the material stands alone well enough that it isn't in the least bit difficult to follow. Because of this, Shogun Assassin has a charm that is unique and while it's not a better film than the two movies it was culled from, it is a whole lot of fun. The film has had a resurgence in popularity as of late thanks to Kill Bill Volume 2 but don't go into the film expecting it to relate to Tarantino's grindhouse 'homage' as they're not really all that similar. This is a gory, violent film with some interesting philosophical moments and some truly touching interplay between father and son. It's great entertainment if you enjoy such things, and a unique cinematic curio to boot!
Animeigo has gone all out and completely rebuilt Shogun Assassin using the same masters that were provided to them for their restored version of the Lone Wolf And Cub films from which the movie was originally edited from. The film is presented in it's original aspect ration of 2.35:1 and is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs and the results completely blow away the bootleg DVDs that have been making the rounds for a while now and the PAL release of the film from Vipco in the United Kingdom. The film sports rich, robust color with a pretty decent level of both foreground and background detail. Animeigo should be commended for taking the time and effort require to treat this film right in Region One for the first time. There is some print damage here and there and additionally the colors in some scenes look a little boosted, there's also some line shimmering in a few scenes but neither of these faults prove to be over powering at all – you'll likely notice them but it won't ruin the movie for you. The picture could have been a little bit sharper but overall things do look very nice all the way across the board here, even if they're not perfect. There are a couple of really quick stock footage inserts of a castle that Animeigo was unable to restore – they're presented here from the old source materials and as such don't look as good as the rest of the movie but they've been cleaned up some and aren't really a problem.
Shogun Assassin hits DVD in an English dubbed Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo soundtrack, just as it should be! No Japanese language? Nope! If you want that, watch the original films. This disc gives us the film as it played in North American theaters complete with the score we all know and love and those oh so familiar voice actors present in all their glory. There's a bit of hiss present in some spots and some popping here and there but Animeigo has obviously put some effort into cleaning up the soundtrack as best they can so while it's obvious that they didn't have the best elements to work with, things still sound pretty decent on this disc. Animeigo has provided optional subtitles that translate into English some of the signs that appear in the film as Japanese text.
While this is far from a feature packed special edition, Animeigo has supplied a few minor supplements to accompany the feature on this release. In the trailer section you'll find promo spots for the first two Lone Wolf & Cub films, Lady Snowblood and Demon Spies. Additionally there are some production notes included as well as some notes and demonstrative pictures on how the restoration of the film was accomplished. Menus and chapter selection are also included.
While Animeigo's release isn't quite perfect, it's a huge step up from the piss-poor bootlegs that have been making the rounds or the PAL release from Vipco in the UK – you can actually tell what's going on in the movie now! Extras are slim but this is the best that the film has looked on DVD to date by quite a margin, making this release of Shogun Assassin highly recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.