As a young teenager, I remember trolling the streets of Cork City visiting store after store, looking for unknown or obscure VHS tapes or DVDs. It was always the horror section that piqued my interest the most, so every Saturday you could find me sitting in the movie section of any Virgin Megastore or HMV. It was on one of those Saturdays that I remember catching a glimpse of Robert Houston's Shogun Assassin. I recall it with vivid detail. The clam-shell VHS box sat atop the Video-Nasty section, with the coolest of cool taglines; "He whips out his sword and relieves his victims of their heads!"
Fast forward four or five years and here I am, finally tapping out a review for the movie. And I'm glad to say after all this time, the movie is excellent. Shogun Assassin's plot is fairly simplistic: After his wife is butchered and his home burnt to a crisp, retired Shogun Executioner Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) decides to take the road with his infant son Daigoro, with a new calling in life: Assassin. Once on the road, the Lone Wolf & Cub take various mercenary jobs, all the while on the look out for the evil Shogun's Army of Samurai.
An interesting thing to note is that Shogun Assassin is actually made up of the first two Lone Wolf & Cub films, Sword of Vengeance and Baby Cart at the River Styx. The two movies were chopped, sliced and slashed into an abbreviated, tighter 85 minutes by Robert Houston and his producer David Weisman. Shogun then played New York's 42nd Street for several weeks before disappearing once again. After listening to interviews and reading about Houston's work, I've gathered that the general idea was to cut out the lengthy dialogue scenes and have it be one action set-piece after another. All narrated by Ogami's infant son, Daigoro. Now I've never seen the two separate Lone Wolf & Cub films, so I only know Shogun Assassin, but Houston's editing, pacing and re-dubbing really does work. It creates this fantastic, lightning-fast samurai film, one that’s perfect for those just getting into samurai movies.
Tomisaburo Wakayama's performance as Ogami is superb, too. We get to see both sides of Ogami. The world's deadliest assassin, capable of killing men in their dozens all at one time. But scattered throughout the film are scenes of genuine chemistry and love between Ogami and his son, Daigoro. There's a great scene in particular when after being wounded in a fight, Ogami lies on his back, writhing in pain. Daigoro sees his father's torture and runs to a pale of water, where he drinks up then spits the water out, to share with his ailing parent. Their love and kinship really help the movie along, because when it gets down to the fight, Ogami and Daigoro are one of the best movie duos I've ever seen.
Getting back to Shogun Assassin's hilarious tagline, the movie really does apply heavy lashings of violence and gore. In almost all of their roadside encounters, Ogami slashes through his enemies bodies leaving fountains of blood and severed limbs. Daigoro isn't too bad of a killing machine either. His baby cart is like the Bat-Mobile of feudal Japan. It comes as standard with everything from machine guns, to sticks of dynamite to pop-out blades. With this entire arsenal at their disposal, the two carve up a legendary cinema body-count, one only horror films can dream of.
Shogun Assassin is currently available in a relatively cheap 5-Film Collector's Set courtesy of AnimEigo. It contains all 5 of the Shogun flicks (which are all equally fun) and some decent features too. On the discs you'll see a video interview with Shogun Assassin's Dubbing Director Scott Houle & a new audio commentary with Film Scholar Ric Meyers and Martial Arts Expert Steve Watson. The commentary is worth the listen, as it's ripe with trivia and general nuggets of interest on the films themselves. If you're going to go ahead and buy the movie, I'd go the whole nine yards and pick up the 5-Disc set, as it's a great worthwhile package.
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