“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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Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.
Last Updated: February 16, 2015