Background: Having watched movies since the 1960's, I occasionally look back at some of the defining moments when this time of year rolls around. Hollywood is much like any other business in how most companies chase the successes of others as being cheaper and a more reliable manner of increasing their return on investment with fewer risks. Well, back on a premium satellite service my family had years ago, I was introduced to an Americanized version of a Japanese slasher samurai flick that initially seemed to spawn dozens of take offs over the years, providing an almost parody amount of blood in each volume, the show called Shogun Assassin. The series in Japan inspired the Lone Wolf & Cub manga that were also released here in slightly edited form, and today's review is for the AnimEigo Shogun Assassin: 5 Film Collector's Set that bundled the previously released series into a single boxed set for fans to pick up a bit cheaper with a little additional material to merit some attention.
Shogun Assassin: 5 Film Collector's Set is a collection of six films from Japan that comprised the aforementioned Lone Wolf & Cub series, dubbed in English and edited for the tastes of the domestic audience. Before I get too far into this short review, it should be noted that the original films are currently available on DVD with the usual questionable English language subtitles for the purists that want the "real deal". Having seen both versions of the material, I think they have their own merits, the humor of the dub unquestionably more accessible to those that don't care for reading movies or xenophile enough to enjoy watching the originals without the subtitles (as I am) much like dubbed anime used to outsell subtitled releases 10 to 1. Okay, the story itself is simple enough; a power play in medieval Japan pushes the Shogun's executioner, Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama), out of favor and places him on the run with his baby Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa). His wife killed, his reputation disgraced, and his entire life thrown upside down, Ogami decides to take the road to hell in the initial volume (which wisely decided to skip the plot lines in favor of a blood thirsty audience by combining Sword of Vengeance and Baby Cart at the River Styx, the Japanese opening volume big on the details of what happened left on the cutting room floor).
What makes this version of the first volume so special is a combination of things, not least of which is a newly commissioned audio commentary that explained some of the details that led to it being made (and how the production team were screwed over so thoroughly by their well known distributor), the fact that it is in anamorphic widescreen (I remember it coming out originally as full frame when I watched it years ago), and how cleaned up the end product was thanks to AnimEigo using elements from pristine copies of the original two flicks they were given to make this "bastardized" version as one of my friends put it years ago. The company did add a disclaimer that a couple of seconds of footage were not present but the end result is nothing short of spectacular as Daigoro chooses his path to remain with his father, the pair are attacked by ninjas and the ever present Yagyu clan as they sell their services to those in need of dead enemies. Ogami was long feared as the official state executioner but as he travels the countryside, his reputation for being unparalleled in hand to hand combat with his swords, spears, knives, and other implements of death belie the humble vision of a man with his child in an innocuous cart (the James Bond cart of the times with all the trick weapons it contains).
As a series, the missing footage from the first "original" film is felt pretty hard since it answers so many questions but this is pure escapist fantasy and the man who put it together, Robert Houston (no relation to me), decades ago did a fine job on the shoestring budget with the movie becoming a popular cult flick in Chinatowns across the country. Despite the brief missing footage, the AnimEigo version is the definitive one to get too, the video elements probably better than those that went into the original production from what I could tell. The following volumes of the series, such as Lightning Swords of Death, Slashing Blades of Carnage, Five Fistfuls of Gold, and the end of the saga, Cold Road to Hell, all involved Ogami pitted against various foes as well as the omnipresent Yagyu clan of assassins. From idiots wanting to kill a magistrate (Ogami turning down a hooker's services as he buys her freedom), a female stripper assassin, Daigoro showing his strength protecting a thief, treacherous servants wanting a change in leadership, a trio of female assassins, magicians, and eventually just a mountain of vengeful swordsmen trying to kill the pair in the snowy terrain in the finale.
One of the problems with making Ogami such a powerful swordsman is common in action flicks; by doing so, it cheapens the end result. The audience "knows" Ogami is all but undefeatable so the writers had to twist the circumstances around enough to make his plight increasingly difficult, the individuals he dueled with meriting some fun action choreography but undeniably lesser beings by comparison. Still, while I would not watch this entire set in a single sitting, it brought back some great memories of low rent theaters hanging out with friends as Itto Ogami tore the Yagyu clan and his other enemies into shreds with his weapons, his walk down the path to hell never conclusively ended but enough to spawn so many copycats that always seemed to be watered down to me, the boxed set warranting a rating of Highly Recommended for all it had to offer.
Picture: The movies were presented in an anamorphic 2.35:1 color using the standard definition MPEG-2 codec and a modest video bitrate to limit compression artifacts and macroblockage. As expected, the use of the pristine prints of the two original movies made the first volume in the series the biggest upgrade over previous versions on cable or from China, AnimEigo going to great lengths to restore the volume using a bootleg as a template and building their version from scratch. Sans a few location shots of castles, it was superior on many levels too, some mosquito noise and stair-stepping observed but the colors really standing out and the "karo" blood more vivid than I've ever seen it in the theaters. The use of 24p source materials did not go unnoticed here and the subsequent volumes in the boxed set also looking very decent considering their age (the original series was shot in the early to mid 1970's on a low budget) though some print scratches and out of focus moments, as well as questionable editing gave it a stylish look that might suit modern slash-flick fans better than a general audience.
Sound: The audio was presented in the usual 2.0 Dolby Digital English using 192 Kbps bitrate and 48 kHz sampling rate, no dubs though some subtitles to assist with understanding what is going on in the movies. The music was heavy handed, the lips moved out of synchronization with the vocals, and the special effects were the result of some creative low budget movie magic. The earlier two movies sound the worse in terms of the background noise and levels of irritating hiss or static but fans will appreciate the lack of an audio upgrade on the first flick (the original source materials were not available to the production team) as unavoidable. The separation was nonexistent (the original films were in monaural IIRC) and the dynamic range limited but this was a cheese series pushed into the pop culture limelight several times over the years, most recently in Afro Samurai so even a quick comparison to the bootlegs and gray market imports will prove this set to be their better.
Extras: Yeah, there was a fine audio commentary by Ric Meyers and Steve Watson that fans will certainly want to listen to after they've watched the movies a few dozen times each on their big screen home theaters. It gave some background to the pop cultural phenomenon this series became over the years and anecdotes about the troubles of the productions themselves, helping fill in some details if not trying to elevate the cultural status of the flicks in those that listen and might not have appreciated these as they came out over the years. There was also a short interview with Scott Houle at his studio (he worked on volumes 3,4, and 5), the guy describing how tough the original dubbing had been compared to modern efforts with all their tools to work with (his studio gaining acclaim as a top notch place to go to for such movies). I personally enjoyed the booklet that came with the box as it reinforced much of what was on the commentary but provided some of the all important details (who would have known Sandra Bernhard was one of the original dub cast, years before she was making out with Madonna or poking fun at heterosexuals) for movie lovers to appreciate. There were also trailers and photogalleries, some liner notes and a text interview to go with the essay by Patrick Macias (one of the most acknowledged experts on Japanese cinema).
Final Thoughts: Shogun Assassin: 5 Film Collector's Set is one of the few Americanized versions of Japanese cinema that merits applause for its own merits rather than just serving as a watered down series for the dub fans to enjoy. There was more overt humor in these versions and while I would still suggest you pick up both versions of these movies, it is difficult to argue that the lower priced boxed set was anything less than a solid tribute to the show that spawned a cottage industry of bloodbath flicks for fans to adore over the years. These versions of the movies were the best available from what I've seen and short of Blu-ray upgrades with additional extras, I was extremely happy with getting to see them this way, the adventure of Itto Ogami and Daigoro as they walked the path to hell established for demons firmly placing Tomisaburo Wakayama up with Toshiro Mifune and Shintaro Katsu as icons of Japanese cinema for me. If you want a quick head's up on the series, here are some glimpses you might enjoy with the Volume 1 trailer, Volume 4 trailer, and Volume 5 trailer.