Cinophile: SHOGUN ASSASSIN

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“Meet the greatest team in the history of mass slaughter.” Well, if that’s not a reason to watch a movie, then what is?

Turning personal for a moment, like many watchers of foreign movies I am not a great fan of dubbing. Taking any movie and putting it in a foreign language removes a lot of the nuance, the subtle touches that a language and its tones bring to the table. Dub work has also been notoriously sloppy, particularly in the Eighties, turning some fantastic classics into dribble.

The second carnal crime is to re-edit a film and many movie fans may recall the story of Studio Ghibli sending Harvey Weinstein a sword with the message “no cuts” to their famous animated movies. Cuts are an awful idea in general and is lead by a misguided notion of pandering to an audience. Fortunately audiences have matured, as have studios, which is why modern epics like Ip Man, The Raid and Ong Bak have been exported globally in their original version (though there is a French cut of Ong Bak).

Yet there is an exception to this rule. Shogun Assassin at face glance sounds like a very bad idea: taking two famous Japanese samurai movies – one a sequel of the other – and editing them into a single film with a new(ish) story and an English soundtrack. Samurai serials have grown particularly popular in seventies Japan, a period where a lot of grindhouse-style movies were produced to entertain construction workers and other young male laborers. These films were often taboo, violent and pushed sexual innuendo as much as they could – a far cry from the more artistic samurai epics by the likes of Akira Kurosawa. But these made money and also built a fan base overseas.

Two of those fans,  Robert Houston and David Weisman, saw a way to break the Samurai exploitation genre into the American market. They paid $50,000 for the rights to the first two Lone Wolf & Cub movies – quite a gamble considering the first film, along with several other samurai films, have flopped badly in both dubbed and subtitled released in the U.S. Cutting away much of the slower pace and multi-threaded story lines Japanese films love, the pair mashed up the two films into Shogun Assassin.

In the movie a freakishly good samurai, the Shogun’s executor, has to flee when the Shogun turns on him and has his wife killed – though not before killing several of the shogun’s sons. He takes his young toddler son with him in a ramshackle cart and flee. But the Shogun’s assassins are always following him, so there are constant fights which all end in bloody disaster for the bad guys. Along the way the assassin is hired to take out a noble, protected by three great warriors. You can see where this is going.

If Shogun Assassin sought to distill the essence of samurai exploitation, it succeeds in gory brilliance. Anyone who has seen the colour version of the Bride’s fight against the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill will know what to expect: tons of swords, hacked-off limbs, decapitations and endless geysers of blood spraying from necks, arms and chests – though in a more camp 70s style of execution. Many credit Lady Snowblood as the main influence of Kill Bill, but Shogun Assassin introduced this genre to a generation of Americans and movie fans across the world.

Even today it is surprisingly violent and gory. Exploitation samurai was eventually replaced by the mid-Eighties with Ninja films and Western directors quickly adopted that genre instead. Meanwhile the samurai genre became more fondly remembered for works like Yojimbo and the Satoichi films, though the latter definitely helped birth the samurai exploitation genre. But nothing, not even from Japan, quite matched the concentrated force of Shogun Assassin and it lives on today as a film unto itself, without a peer in sight. Well, a peer with its head still intact…

 

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Shogun Assassin was created by editing the first two movies of the Lone Wolf & Cub series together. The movies, of which there were six, are based on a famous collection of manga (Japanese comic book) novels published in Japan in the 1970s. The mangas were so popular that other than the movies they also spawned several stage plays and a television show. Shogun Assassin uses most of the second film and roughly 12 minutes of the first. But the sequels that followed were just the later Lone Wolf movies redubbed.
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This film breaks a bit of a bad habit among dubbed martial arts movies of the time. The creators hired deaf lip readers to help compose the best dialogue for the film. Gaps in the narration were also covered by using a voice over of a young boy, supposedly the samurai’s young boy. This english voiceover was provided by Gibran Evans, the 7-year-old son of Jim Evans, who illustrated Shogun Assassin’s poster.
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Shogun Assassin has deeply influenced the work of numerous major creators. Quentin Tarantino tipped his hat to it in the second Kill Bill, where it can be seen playing on a television. Music producers RZA and GZA sampled extensively from the film for their Liquid Swords album. Samuel L. Jackson has cited this movie as the reason why he did voice work for Afro Samurai. The father and son pair also appear in an episode of Samurai Jack, though that is more readily a direct Lone Wolf And Cub reference.
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The movie was refused ratings by several countries, including the U.K., Norway and Finland, effectively banning it there. Shogun Assassin was also not allowed into numerous other countries and where it did get in usually ended up with a hard R/18+ rating. This added to its notoriety, not to mention kept it alive in VHS bootleg circles. A remastered version was released on DVD and by the mid-Nineties the film was allowed into most places that banned it.

 

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: February 16, 2015

James

A total movie glutton, nothing is too bad or too obscure to watch, unless it's something like The Human Centipede. If you enjoyed that, there is something wrong with you. But bless you anyway - even video nasties need love...

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