Sunday, September 26, 2010

Blu-blood Comes To Animeigo: Shogun Assassin

While we at the SA prefer our chanbara subbed, not dubbed, there's no denying the influence 'Shogun Assassin' has had on Western audiences. This film (cobbled together from parts of the first two 'Lone Wolf And Cub/Kozure Okami' films and given an English language dub) introduced the ultra violent samurai epics of the 70's to a audience that had previously had only Kurosawa fare to watch for a jidaigeki fix. Interestingly enough, the film has also had a big crossover impact in the horror/splatter film genre, being celebrated in many works devoted to Splatter Cinema. It even made it into the #6 position on the late Goremeister Extraordinaire Chas Balun's 'Dirty Dozen' list! The latter group would surely approve of the tag line Animeigo has given to its new Blu-ray release of this seminal offering-"The film that brought new life to BLOOD-DRENCHED DEATH!" From Samuel L. Jackson to Quentin Tarantino (who paid homage to the film in 'Kill Bill 2'), the film has made its presence felt. You might say that 'Shogun Assassin' is now the Blu-blood of Animeigo's classic film lineup!

This 1980 release saw the film take twelve minutes of footage from the first Baby Cart film, Sword Of Vengeance, and lift the remainder of the footage from Baby Cart At The River Styx (both of which are also available from Animeigo). The original film provides the background to the series-how Shogunate executioner Ogami Itto was stripped of his title, marked for death by the Shogun, and along with his infant son Daigoro became a ronin and began to roam the countryside as an assassin-for-hire. The footage from part two is highlighted by the conflict between Itto and the 'Masters Of Death', three killers who each specialize in an exotic weapon-a tiger claw, spiked club, and spiked knuckles.

If you've only watched the original Lone Wolf And Cub films, noting the different ways in which Shogun Assassin strays from them makes for interesting viewing. The most notable difference is that the Yagyu clan has been stricken from the books, with clan leader Retsudo now being installed as the Shogun. While Daigoro says next to nothing in the Japanese versions, he becomes the chronicler/narrator of Shogun Assassin. Most of the subplots involving the motivations of the Masters Of Death and the Yagyu are eliminated. The American producers did leave in the one thing that mattered-the buckets of blood, flying limbs, and intense sword fighting. From krazed kunoichi karving up a rival shinobi to make a point, to the baby cart tricked out with as many gadgets and weapons as the Batmobile, to the all out assault and showdown between Ogami and the Masters of Death, not a drop of blood has been omitted. One of the more amusing anecdotes given about the film in the commentary (discussed at length in the next paragraph) is how 'The Masters Of Death', while not being up to defeating Ogami Itto, did manage to defeat the evil censors on the MPAA ratings board. The biggest difference is actually in the trailer for the film, which attempts to promote Shogun Assassin as a 'Conan The Barbarian' sword-and-sorcery film. Hearing about how Itto massacres hundreds of enemies 'with one sweep of his mystic blade', the description of himself and Daigoro as the 'greatest team in the history of mass slaughter', and seeing the Shogun described as a wizard-well, to anyone who grew up watching misleading film trailers it's a real treat.

There are not one but two commentary tracks on the disc. The first is a carryover from the boxed set of Shogun Assassin films (it didn't appear on the individual initial release) and is done by 'Film Scholar' Ric Meyers and 'Martial Arts Expert' Steve Watson. Myers dispenses with the self-referential praise and poor grasp of Japanese culture and history that tainted his commentary for Animeigo's 'Shinobi No Mono 2', turning in an excellent examination of the film's history, stars, voice actors, and production staff. Watson doesn't chime in often and generally seems to be there to correct Meyers's poor Japanese pronunciation. The second commentary is by far the most interesting-it's done by 'Shogun Assassin' Producer David Weisman, Graphic Designer Jim Evans (who designed the memorable 'two sword' English language poster), and Gibran Evans (the English language voice actor for Daigoro). This is definitely Weisman's show, and the insight he brings to the acquisition/localization of foreign films for distribution in the US is a treasure trove for Japanese film enthusiasts. If you've wanted to know why they spliced together two films to make one, why these particular films were chosen, had Daigoro narrate the story, why the story was changed to exclude the Yagyu clan, or why it was dubbed in English rather than subtitled-Weisman has an answer for you. From a business standpoint, it's obvious he was dead on-the film was a box office smash despite the fact that an earlier subtitled version of another of the 'Baby Cart' films flopped badly. The dubbing process is examined in depth (including Sandra Bernhard's fabled cacklings) and the level of dedication and pride taken in the process will come as a surprise to many. Weisman also has an interesting theory that the 'Baby Cart' films revolve around the love of father and son and their bonding. While this aspect of the series is seen in the excellent TV version of the series (featuring Nakamura Kinnosuke's superior portrayal of Ogami Itto), we've always found it absent in Wakayama Tomisaburo's Ogami-quite the opposite. His cold and calculating manner seems to relegate his son to the status of nothing more than a convenient tool. Still, Weisman provides enough food for thought to back up his viewpoint.

There's also an original interview done with Samuel L. Jackson on Shogun Assassin and the influence it's had on his film career, including his voice work on 'Afro Samurai'. It's also obvious Jackson is a huge chanbara fan, with hundreds of films in his collection. Other extras include cast and crew bios for the principles, a still gallery, and the film's ungodly misleading trailer. Aniemigo's always excellent program notes are on display as well, giving historical background and cultural explanations for the action in the film. There's also a very cool section that allows you to compare scenes from the bootleg, DVD, and Blu-ray versions of Shogun Assasssin and how the quality of the transfers has improved over the years. Even on our old-school 1992 TV, you can see a big difference in quality from the Animeigo DVD to Blu-ray. It would be even more pronounced on a modern big-screen HD TV! The next step will no doubt be a 3-D version where the blood comes right into your living room-when that happens, it'll be time for us to upgrade our antique TV.

New TV or old, the excellent transfer along with the new commentaries make this a welcome addition to any chanbara film's collection. If you've put off watching the 'American version' of Lone Wolf, now would be the time to indulge yourself. You'll come away with a better understanding of the difficulties involved in marketing foreign films in the US and be treated to one of the iconic splatter/sword releases of the eighties to boot. At $13, how can you go wrong? Just don't sit too close to the screen-regular blood's hard enough to get out, but Blu-blood is a real bitch. The Blu-ray release of Shogun Assassin is available directly from Animeigo or through Amazon at the Samurai Archives Store.