Shogun Assassin – 5 Film Collector’s Set
Released by: Animeigo
Released on: 11/11/08
Director: Buichi Sato, Robert Houston
Cast: Tomisaburo Wakayama
Year: 1972, 1974, 2007, 2008
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Animeigo previously released Shogun Assassin and Lightning Swords Of Death, the American theatrical versions of the first three Lone Wolf And Cub films, and then followed those releases up with all new English dubs for the other three films in the series as individual DVD releases. This Shogun Assassin 5-Film Collector’s Set includes those five original releases, but the disc for the first Shogun Assassin film includes some new extras that were not included on the previous release. Here’s a look at how it all plays out:
For those unfamiliar with Shogun Assassin, a quick history lesson is required to understand what this film is all about. In the early seventies there were six films made from the popular samurai manga, Lone Wolf And Cub. The first two films in this series, Sword Of Vengeance and Baby Cart At The River Styx, were edited into one single film and dubbed into English. Released theatrically in North America in 1980 with a new score, the resulting film, Shogun Assassin, went on to do quite well theatrically and has maintained a strong cult following over the years.
So what’s the movie about? Well, it tells the story of a father Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and his young son, Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa). Itto was at one time the Shogun's official executioner, or, kaishakunin. He was the man who would slice off your head for you should it be decided that you need to commit seppuku. He was loyal to the Shogun and he took his job and his commitment very, very seriously.
When the opposing Yagyu Clan start moving in on the territory, they murder Itto's wife and frame him for destroying the Shogun's crest, which is a huge sign of disrespect that in turn leads the Shogun to declare that Itto must commit seppuku. Rather than take his own life as punishment for a crime he didn't commit, Itto and his son escape and swear vengeance for his wife's death, vowing to destroy the Yagyu Clan and making a living by hiring out his services as an assassin. Together they travel the road to Hell (complete with a tricked out baby cart that launches speers and has blades hidden throughout its chassis) as assassins for hire, capable of killing anyone should the job meet Itto's requirements, for the sum of five hundred gold pieces. Unfortunately for father and son, the clan is still after them, and they don't intend to let them live any longer than they absolutely have to.
Once Itto has gained a reputation across the land as one of the finest swordsman in all of imperial Japan and as an assassin to be feared and respected, Itto and Daigoro are spoken of by the people as almost mythical beings, as demons journeying together on the long road to Hell. Soon enough, the Shogun brings in some of his men to take down the Lone Wolf and Cub once and for all – carnage ensues and father and son must square off against the three Masters Of Death – a trio of deadly ninja assassins.
Robert Houston (who won an Academy Award last year for his documentary short Mighty Times: The Children’s March) and David Weisman (director of Ciao Manhatten) used about eleven minutes from the first film of the series and took the rest of the material from the second. Essentially made for the grindhouse crowd of the day, Shogun Assassin cuts out some of the slower, more character driven parts of the first two movies but little, if any, of the carnage. The end result is a tight, fast paced and gory action movie with plenty of arterial spray and severed limbs. So while this alternate version of the beginning of Itto Ogami’s story isn’t as cerebral or as melancholy, it definitely works well on its own and stands as a fairly unique take on the source material.
It might sound like a corny way to present some fairly serious material but it works. The voice acting fits the characters well and the score, despite heading into disco territory a few times, really does a fine job of highlighting the action. The editing is cohesive and while there are a few strings of the plot that aren’t fleshed out so well the material stands alone well enough that it isn’t in the least bit difficult to follow. Because of this, Shogun Assassin has a charm that is unique and while it’s not a better film than the two movies it was culled from, it is a whole lot of fun. The film has had a resurgence in popularity as of late thanks to Kill Bill Volume 2 but don’t go into the film expecting it to relate to Tarantino’s grindhouse ‘homage’ as they’re not really all that similar. This is a gory, violent film with some interesting philosophical moments and some truly touching interplay between father and son. It’s great entertainment if you enjoy such things, and a unique cinematic curio to boot!
Lightning Swords Of Death:
The third Lone Wolf And Cub film (originally titled Baby Cart To Hades), was released theatrically in North America by Columbia Pictures in 1973. as Lightning Swords Of Death and on video as Lupine Wolf. The main difference between the Columbia Pictures version and the original Toho version is the dubbed track, which Animeigo has supplied for this DVD release. Fans now have the choice of watching the film in its original Japanese version or in this dubbed version. Unlike Shogun Assassin (which was basically the first two films edited down into one ninety-minute movie with English dubbing over the top) there don’t appear to be any differences in the running time between the Japanese version and this version.
Arguably the strongest of the six films in the series, the movie begins with our two protagonists, an assassin named Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama, brother of Shintaro Katsu who is best known as Zatoichi and who produced the first three films in the series) and his young son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa), journeying by boat to another part of the region. One the way, they meet a young woman named Omatsu who has been purchased to work as a prostitute. When, by chance, Itto and son hole up in the same inn as she and her pimp, they end up defending her when she kills him after he attempts to rape her.
The clan that purchased her wants her to pay for the death of her captor because he was one of their own, but Ogami refuses to hand her over and instead allows them to torture him in her place (in a particularly harrowing scene). Once that's over with, they ask him to take on a job for them and in return, they promise to leave the girl alone for good. A local deputy named Endo Genba (Isao Yamagata) is his target, but his assassination is not going to be an easy task as he has an army of samurai at his disposal as well as a master swordsman named Magomura Kanbei (Go Kato) on his side.
With a renewed focus on Ogami's warrior code and his strong sense of honor, Baby Cart To Hades, or as the title screen of this English language dubbed version calls it Lone Wolf With A Child… Lightning Swords Of Death, is a powerful film about a man's sacrifice. He literally puts his life on the line for Omatsu, a girl he hardly knows and who he has no intention of collecting anything from in return, and he almost dies in the process a couple of times. It's this strict adherence to the code that makes Ogami Itto such an interesting character and it's perfectly demonstrated in this movie from the opening scene to the final showdown with Kanbei.
The highlight of the film, at least in terms of action and fight choreography, is the scene in which Ogami and Daigoro square off against an army of samurai brandishing bows and arrows, guns, and swords and many of whom are on horseback. The way in which this problem is resolved might owe a little bit to Sergio Corbucci's Django as it's a little similar in the way it's handled Either way, Lightning Swords Of Death is a great blend of period sets and costumes, tragic drama, and exploitative action.
Slashing Blades Of Carnage:
At a young age, a woman named Oyuki was selected to be taken away from her clan so that she could be trained as one of Lord Owari’s personal female soldiers. During her training period, however, Kozuka Enki, the man in charge of her education, takes advantage of his position within the organization and he rapes her. She leaves the comfort of her new home, enraged and disgraced by what has happened to her, and after she gets a back tattoo to mark her forever, she sets out on her own quest for revenge against Enki and won’t let anyone stand in her way.
While Oyuki is dealing with her problems, Ogami Itto and Daigoro are once again on the trail of their own mission of vengeance, hot on the trail of the Yagyu clan who they have vowed to destroy. Oyuki’s life and the lives of the father and son assassin team will soon intertwine with interesting results.
While yes, the trademark moments of harsh gore and bloodshed are still here, this film contains one of the most memorable sequences out of the six films in the series in which Daigoro, separated from his father and protector, opts to stand his ground armed with only a stick against a full-fledged samurai. This scene is not only intense in the way that it puts a completely sympathetic child character in danger, but it also demonstrates how the son has learned from the ways of the father. Daigoro, who usually plays second fiddle to his dad, is fast learning the code of the samurai and the way of the warrior through his journey and his character does show some evolution throughout the six films.
Again, the showdown towards the end of the film against yet another army of enemy samurai is the action set piece to beat, with blood and severed arms aplenty. Itto is put into a pretty precarious situation and it’s pretty intense when he has to essentially carve his way out of trouble. An earlier scene in which Ogami squares off against a band of ninjas inside a temple also stands out as a really well executed action scene, with his opponents using the shadows to their advantage, hoping to surprise him and take him down.
One of the more interesting aspects of this fourth film is the relationship that develops, however briefly, between Itto and Oyuki. Two people with so much in common and on a very similar path in life meet up for a short period of time and find solace in each other’s company in a strange sort of way. This adds a more human element to the story that grounds it a little bit, and which continues to make the characters more sympathetic and therefore more interesting.
Five Fistfuls Of Gold:
When the next chapter begins, Ogami is forced to fight for his life against an assassin sent to kill him. As he finishes the killer off, he finds out that the Kuroda clan has sent a series of men after him to test his skills and that each of these men can be identified by the fact that they will be wearing a decorative veil over their faces – one that is illustrated with some demons.
Ogami continues on his travels but as he does, he is continually confronted by these veiled assassins until he learns that for political reasons, Lord Kuroda is having his daughter pose in drag as his son. Kuroda entrusted a monk with this information but that turned out to be a rather bad move on his part, as the monk is in allegiance with the Yagyu clan who Ogami has sworn to destroy. With Lord Kuroda now confident in Ogami’s skills, he sends him off to take care of the monk and get the documentation back before it is made public and his house is shamed. The clincher is that Lord Kuroda doesn’t want anyone to find out about the whole son/daughter thing he’s got going on, not even Ogami Itto…
In addition to the main plot, we also learn more of Daigoro’s growing strength when a female thief swipes a wallet and under threat of getting caught hands it off to the boy. Rather than open his mouth and tell who the real thief was, he opts to keep quiet and accept a beating in return. Ogami watches as his son takes his licks, and while we know he could easily save him, he leaves his sword in its sheath and lets Daigoro take the beating, a sign of acceptance on his part and recognition that his son is committed to following the path to Hell with him. While on the surface this might seem irresponsible of Ogami, in fact it’s quite the opposite. If anything, this scene, as demented as it is, demonstrates the strength of their bond and of their mutual understanding of what it is they are doing together and why. It’s a fairly powerful moment in what is one of the more action oriented films in the series. Of course, with the main story focusing on Ogami’s mission for Kuroda and in turn his quest for vengeance, the focus of the story lays with that plot and not with Daigoro’s growth but it is a very interesting scene and one which aptly shows the unique bond that makes these movies work so well.
When it all winds up in the end, this is a pretty interesting penultimate entry full of some interesting political backstabbing and fun plot twists that keep the story engrossing even without the action scenes, though thankfully those are here too. Ogami cuts his way through his opponents here as he always does, as is his fate and as is his destiny.
Cold Road To Hell:
It all comes down to this one, the final chapter in the six part series of films. Ogami Itto’s sworn enemy, Yagyu Retsudo (Minoru Ohki), has really got nothing left to live for. His three sons are dead and he has no one else to carry on the family tradition save for his sole daughter, Kaori (Junko Hitomi), who he has had trained since birth to become the ultimate killing machine. The last card that Yagyu has to play, she proves to be quite a formidable swordswoman and Yagyu looks forward to using her to complete his quest of killing the lone wolf and cub.
Yagyu also has an illegitimate son named Hoyouei, the product of an encounter with one of his concubines. Seeing as Hoyouei was illegitimate, he was sent off to live with a tribe of mountain dwellers called Tsuchimugo’s who taught him some mystical fighting skills. Hoyouei hates his father and when he learns of the status of his clan, he decides to kill off Ogami Itto and Daigoro to prove his worth and to usurp control of what’s left of the Yagyu clan for himself.
You’d think that a film that is known for its fantastic endings would really amp things up for the final film but sadly, Cold Road To Hell (originally titled White Heaven In Hell) doesn’t deliver on the level that the other films do. The final chapter definitely has its moments but it just isn’t as strong as the first five films that came before it. When Yagyu Retsudo and Ogami Itto finally square off to finish their feud once and for all, the ninjas tripping around on skis make it a little too campy to take seriously and for the first time in the six film series things start to feel hokey.
Thankfully there are some stand out moments in the film that make it worth watching such as when Ogami attacks some of his enemies in a swamp, making short work of them in an absolutely fantastic and very bloody showdown. Lots of swords and flying daggers pierce through people’s heads and the addition of a primitive bazooka to the baby cart itself is an interesting touch that somehow manages to work in spite of itself. A few evil samurai who are able to travel underground make for an interesting set of opponents, and Ogami manages to find a neat way to take care of them.
In the end, however, it just isn’t quite as strong as the first five movies. It could be the addition of a new director, Yoshiyuki Kuorda, or it could be that the writers were just tired of the material but the ending feels a little rushed compared to the pacing of what came before it. Regardless, White Heaven In Hell still gets enough right that it’s completely worth watching if for no other reason than Tomisaburo Wakayama is quite simply the man and he’s given a lot of people to fight here and as convoluted as aspects o the movie are, it does bring the storyline to a close.
Animeigo has gone all out and completely rebuilt the first Shogun Assassin using the same masters that were provided to them for their restored version of the Lone Wolf And Cub films from which the movie was originally edited from. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs and the results completely blow away the bootleg DVDs that have been making the rounds for a while now and the PAL release of the film from Vipco in the United Kingdom. The film sports rich, robust color with a pretty decent level of both foreground and background detail. Animeigo should be commended for taking the time and effort require to treat this film right in Region One for the first time. There is some print damage here and there and additionally the colors in some scenes look a little boosted, there’s also some line shimmering in a few scenes but neither of these faults prove to be over powering at all – you’ll likely notice them but it won’t ruin the movie for you. The picture could have been a little bit sharper but overall things do look very nice all the way across the board here, even if they’re not perfect. There are a couple of really quick stock footage inserts of a castle that Animeigo was unable to restore – they’re presented here from the old source materials and as such don’t look as good as the rest of the movie but they’ve been cleaned up some and aren’t really a problem.
The rest of the films in the series are about the same as far as quality goes. There’s some mild print damage here and there but generally the anamorphic widescreen 2.35.1 transfers are clean and stable and more than watchable.
All five of the Shogun Assassin films hit DVD in an English dubbed Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo soundtracks, just as it should be! No Japanese language? Nope! If you want that, watch the original films. These discs gives us the films as they played in North American theaters (where applicable!) complete with the score we all know and love and those oh so familiar voice actors present in all their glory. There’s a bit of hiss present in some spots and some popping here and there but Animeigo has obviously put some effort into cleaning up the soundtrack as best they can so while it’s obvious that they didn’t have the best elements to work with, things still sound pretty decent on this disc. Animeigo has provided optional subtitles that translate into English some of the signs that appear in the film as Japanese text.
The first film in this set was originally released on its own but in this set it’s got a few more extras. In addition to the trailers and program notes that were included on that original release, Animeigo has included a commentary track with film expert Ric Meyers, and martial arts scholar Steve Watson that was recorded in 2008. The pair do a good job of giving a history of the film, explaining how it was recut and the soundtrack was redone and eventually released theatrically through Roger Corman. They also give a good amount of background information on the original versions of the films (discussing how there’s a lot of nudity that’s been cut out that was originally included in the first film!) as well as providing some historical context for what we see unfold in the picture. Those who are already really familiar with the series probably won’t learn too much from the discussion but it does serve as a nice crash course in the history of Shogun Assassin.
There’s also a video interview with English dubbing director Scott Houle (31:23) who supervised the English language tracks that were created for the three later entries in this collection. Houle talks about the various voice actors that he worked with on this project, what kind of hardware and software was used to create the English tracks, and some of the quirky problems that can arise while working on a project like this.
The other four films in the boxed set are lighter on extras and include program notes, trailers, menus and chapter stops. Inside the fancy slipcase packaging is a booklet of liner notes containing some helpful and insightful essays from Patrick Macias and some interesting bits about each specific film in this collection.
The Final Word:
Animeigo has done a pretty solid job redubbing the last three films in the series and collecting them with the theatrical cuts of Shogun Assassin and Lightning Swords Of Death makes perfectly logical sense. This collection may not appeal to purists who only want the original Japanese language tracks and nothing else, but it does have some odd cult appeal and there’s no disputing the worth of the first two film’s in the collection. Good stuff!