"The Shogun Collection" is a box set repackaging of four discs previously released by Adness: "Shogun's Samurai," "Swords of Vengeance," "Shogun's Ninja," and "Shogun's Shadow." The individual releases of all four titles have been reviewed at DVD Talk by David Walker, Ian Jane, Ian Jane (again), and John Wallis, respectively; click those links to check out looks at the individual releases and contrasting opinions on the films themselves.
As a box set, the common thread - namely, a common word in each title, a few sorta-common characters sometimes, and a common co-star (Sonny Chiba in minor roles throughout) - is a stretch. The first two films, being from the same cast and crew, compliment each other well, while the others are so different in tone and quality that this collection feels unnecessary at best. Still, despite being so different, all four movies have something to offer for the fan of Japanese action cinema that the set makes sense to anyone who has yet to purchase the films individually.
Adness uses the retooled American titles for their DVD cover art, but the original Japanese titles appear on the actual films. As fans differ on which titles they prefer, the headers within this review will reference both titles, just to be fair to all tastes. For brevity's sake, however, I'll just use the American titles in the text itself. Pardon the clutter and confusion.
Yagyû ichizoku no inbô (The Yagyu Clan Conspiracy)
By 1978, historical samurai epics had been out of vogue in Japan for about a decade, thanks in part to the success of the hard-hitting yakuza films of filmmakers like Kinji Fukasaku, whose titles include the masterful "Battles Without Honor and Humanity" series. (Modern fans know him as the helmer of the cult classic "Battle Royale.") Who better, then, to resurrect the genre than Fukasaku himself? And why not go all out, bringing in a cast bursting with Japanese cinema legends, among them Toshiro Mifune, Sonny Chiba, and Kinnosuke Nakamura?
"Shogun's Samurai" is a big, giant, enormous spectacle of an epic of a movie. Its Shakespearean plot follows the political struggles following the death of Edo's second Shogun in 1624; the nation's ruler was poisoned by those who wanted his incompetent first son, Iemitsu (Hiroki Matsukata) to be heir to the throne, instead of the father's chosen successor, his handsome second son, Tadanaga (Teruhiko Saigo). Sides are taken, battles are fought, beheadings run rampant.
For those looking for political intrigue, grandiose drama, even a little romance, Fukasaku, who co-wrote the screenplay with Hirô Matsuda and Tatsuo Nogami, delivers. And for those looking for intense battle sequences, exciting fight choreography, perhaps a bit of samurai-vs.-ninja action, why you'll be satisfied as well. Fukasaku crams an incredible amount of movie into his movie, so to speak, with a sweeping adventure story based ever so loosely on historical fact (with a pinch of winking conspiracy theory to add a little spice). It's a mammoth epic crammed into a 130 minute running time; Fukasaku keeps things moving ahead with a furious rhythm without ever losing sight of the larger picture. Nor does he overlook the emotional angle - a massacre is expertly filmed, but it's the somber aftermath that affects us.
Everything about "Shogun's Samurai" is just right: the costumes and art design, Toru Nakajima's gorgeous cinematography, brilliant performances from a cast able to deliver both the extremely melodramatic and the intensely internal. It's considered a classic of the genre, and for good reason. See it once, and you'll know why.
Swords of Vengeance
Ako-Jo danzetsu (The Fall of Ako Castle)
Fukasaku's follow-up feature went even bigger: the epic "Swords of Vengeance" takes a whopping 160 minutes to retell the Japanese legend of the 47 Ronin, those loyal warriors who went to the grave to defend the honor of a lord unfairly judged by the Shogunate. The story had already made its way onto screens many times before (most notably in 1962's "Chushingura"); here, Fukasaku and screenwriter Kôji Takada add their trademark violence and political cynicism to the saga, while still remaining close to the traditions of the historical epic genre.
When Lord Asano attacks (but does not kill) Lord Kira in retaliation for insults tossed his way, the Shogun orders Asano to commit hara-kiri and decrees his castle be disbanded, yet allows Kira to walk away an unpunished man, chaos erupts in the land as Asano's followers protest the imbalance of justice. Asano's samurai decide to avenge the decision and take down Kira.
The plot seems simple enough, but this is a sweeping production, tackling the story with a patience that might frustrate fans of "Shogun's Samurai" who expected to see more along the lines of that movie's combat sequences. There's plenty of fighting here - the fight choreography is by Sonny Chiba himself, and the set pieces are a marvel of bedlam and gore - but there's plenty more talking. Those unfamiliar with the 47 Ronin legend (as I was) may find themselves easily lost in the jumble of ancient politics, abundant characters, and melodramatic chit-chat.
Indeed, "Vengeance" rambles and rambles and rambles some more, but it rambles so well that we don't really mind. Fukasaku works with more or less the exact same mammoth cast and crew he had on "Shogun's Samurai," which means we're once again in for a technically brilliant treat. The intricate reconstruction of the early 18th century is amazing, while the lush camera work is a genuine treat for the eye.
The real high point of "Vengeance," however, is in Fukasaku's examination of cowardice and corruption, human traits that seem timeless. Watch how many characters try to weasel their way out of mandated suicide, or how another plans to sneak away in the middle of the night with embezzled funds. As he did with his Yakuza films, Fukasaku seeks to remind us that while chivalry and honor are noble things, they're far more rare than the samurai genre implies.
It's no surprise, then, that Fukasaku ends his film not with the bang of action but with the whimper of introspection. The finale is quiet and thoughtful, more powerful than any battle scene, and we leave the film with a bit of desperation mixed with that very same honor and nobility against which Fukasaku had previously rallied. For all its problems, "Vengeance" is a stunning work and a thrilling companion piece to "Shogun's Samurai."
Ninja bugeicho momochi sandayu
Often previously seen by action fans only in cheapjack English dub jobs, 1981's "Shogun's Ninja" is an insane parade of kickass ninja fight sequences and cornball early-80s idiocy that finally gets to make sense thanks to this presentation of the original Japanese edit, complete with impressive widescreen photography and one nutty soundtrack. As a film, it might be no great shakes, but as an action flick, it's fairly awesome.
A lengthy, violent prologue sets up the story: ruthless warlord and his ninja army slaughter a family in hopes of finding two daggers that tell where a pile of gold has been hidden, but a son escapes. One particularly dated opening theme song later, we meet the son, now a young man, as he returns to have a bit of revenge on his family's killers - a band of gentlemen thieves and a gang of good-guy ninjas called the Spider Clan at his side.
Directed by Norifumi Suzuki, "Shogun's Ninja" plays more like a traditional Chinese kung fu movie than a Japanese swords-and-samurai historical epic. We get lengthy training sequences, an abundance of quick-zooms, a simplified revenge plot, and yes, even An Old Master With His Long White Beard. Suzuki, whose filmography lists more exploitation titles than one should ever be asked to count, goes the fast and furious route here, and the result is a campy, blood-soaked romp.
It's also great fun. Nobody's taking anything seriously here, and when they do (such as a failed bit of tired symbolism that follows a ritual suicide with a shot of a rose falling to the ground), we don't argue with the filmmakers for trying. It's hard to complain about a movie with this much go-for-broke, nonsensical visual action, most of which works just on its energy alone. "Shogun's Ninja" may be overlong and incomprehensible at times, but as a chance to kick back and watch ninjas slice up each other, this'll do just fine.
For those familiar only with the English dubbed version, it's interesting to note the music is just as corny in the original Japanese version; most of it is heavily reliant on synthesizers, although an unexpected lite-jazz saxophone ditty straight out of an early 80s American comedy pops up now and then. Wild.
Shôgun Iemitsu no ranshin - Genitors (Attack! Shogun Iemitsu Is Crazy)
From its glossy look to its bold adventure elements to its iffy green screen composite effects shots to its heavy metal soundtrack interlude (!), "Shogun's Shadow" screams the 1980s. Here we have a bold, macho adventure yarn that could very well have been recast with a Roy Scheider, Jesse Ventura, maybe a Carl Weathers or two.
A young heir is to make his way to Edo for a coming-of-age ceremony, but dear ol' dad wants the brat done off. What he didn't expect, however, is that a ragtag team of samurai badasses have taken the job of protecting the boy along the way. Think of it as "The Dirty Dozen" by way of "Fellowship of the Ring" by way of "Seven Samurai," with a Dokken sound-alike providing the beat for a slo-mo shot of guys racing on horseback, swords drawn.
The plot elements in this 1989 actioner from director Yasuo Furuhata and screenwriters Hirô Matsuda ("Shogun's Samurai") and Sadao Nakajima range from flat to melodramatic-yet-uninspired, but that's beside the point: the real reason to catch up with this one is the action, which combines adventure set pieces (daring attempts to cross deadly chasms, etc.) with manic action (ninjas! ninjas! ninjas!). Sonny Chiba, here playing the baddie hot on the boy's trail, leads the behind-the-scenes action design, thanks to his work with the Japan Action Club, Chiba's personal group of stuntmen and screen fighters.
It's all so very slick that it works despite itself. This is a Guy Movie so very much of its time, which means a few of the dated bits earn a few chuckles, yet when it does what it does (action, suspense, more action, thrills and even more action), it does it so very, very well. Fans of 80s action cinema would do well to catch up with this effort.
While the discs themselves are identical to their previous solo releases, the disc and packaging artwork has been updated to now feature Chiba's image front and center. The four discs come in slimpack cases which are housed in a rather handsome cardboard slip case.
Aside from a forgivable amount of grain on each feature (the newer the title, the less the grain), all four features look pretty darn sharp here. The Fukasaku films make up for any age they reveal by showcasing some impressive cinematography, which shines through in these transfers. All four movies get the anamorphic widescreen treatment; the first three come in their original 2.35:1 scope format, while "Shogun's Shadow" is presented in its original 1.78:1 format.
It's Dolby 2.0 stereo for all four movies, which fans can finally hear in their original Japanese. Pretty clear all around, although, again, the newer the title, the crisper the sound. Optional English subtitles are provided.
Sadly, all we get are trailers. Spread out over the four discs is a series of previews for these titles plus a handful of other Adness releases - several of which get repeated from disc to disc. (Because you can apparently never get enough of the trailer for "Karate Bear Fighter.")
The collection is a bit haphazard - for a Sonny Chiba box set, there's just not much Sonny Chiba - and there's absolutely nothing here you wouldn't have if you already owned these discs individually. But if you don't yet own them, this set is most certainly Recommended. The movies range from incredible to silly-yet-so-very-fun, with all four titles offering some fantastic entertainment.