REVIEW: ‘Shogun Assassin’ (1980)

This is the first entry in Film Misery’s Movie Marathon of the Lone Wolf and Cub series.  See the full list here.

Shogun AssassinWatching Shogun Assassin is like watching one of Quentin Tarantino’s wet dreams.  If you put Kill Bill under a microscope, you’ll see the twisty double helix of Shogun Assassin’s DNA.  It’s a graphically bloody samurai spectacular, rife with swordplay, decapitations, showers of bright red blood, impossible stunts, and cacophonous music.  It puts the ‘grind’ in grindhouse, and serves as a proud cinematic emblem of the term ‘bashit crazy.’

As I mentioned in my introduction to the Lone Wolf and Cub seriesShogun Assassin is actually a re-edit of the first two films in the series.  In 1980, actor/editor Robert Houston fused approximately twelve minutes from Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance and  an hour or so from Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx to make a quick B picture.  As of this writing, I’ve not seen those films; I’m writing these essays in release order, but I’m starting with Shogun Assassin because I’ve seen it before.  So it’s not technically a ‘Blind Spot.’

Though, it may as well be.  I honestly don’t remember my initial reaction to the film—so it clearly didn’t make much of an impression.  I also don’t think I quite knew it was a marriage of two related but different films.  So, I’ll consider it as if it weren’t.

The very first thing you’re likely to notice about Shogun Assassin, the thing that will slap you in the face faster than the sword slashes and blood sprays, is the massive incongruity of its soundtrack.  It’s quite obviously dubbed—any dubbing of a live-action film is obvious, if we’re being honest.  But Houston did not only fit the film with new English dialogue.  He scrubbed the entire soundtrack, replacing it with new dialogue, foley effects, and, one assumes, music.

Shogun Assassin

In many films awash with spectacle, the plot serves as little else but an excuse for the spectacle.  This is happening on Broadway now, isn’t it?  Someone gets the bright idea to string together, say, a bunch of ABBA songs.  But a musical revue isn’t very attractive to investors, so someone else crafts a BS story on which to hang the musical numbers.  Then audiences get Mamma Mia, and have to endure cringeworthy exposition to get to the shiny, frictionless songs.

In this film, I don’t even think the plot is an excuse for the action sequences. There’s just enough of a plot to convince you that there’s a plot.  Once you’re convinced of that, Houston and his collaborators aren’t too concerned with it.  They have one goal and one goal only: presenting you with blood.

Or maybe it’s better to think of the premise of Shogun Assassin like the concept of God in deism: it’s there to set the whole process in motion, and then has little to do with the result.  Such as it is, the narrative concerns Lone Wolf, the Shogun’s official decapitator who has dispatched over 130 feudal lords.  He’s so incredibly good at decapitating you don’t even understand.  The Shogun understands however, and Lone Wolf’s skill frightens him.  He sends crafty ninja to kill Wolf, but succeeds only in murdering his wife—Cub’s mother.  (I don’t actually remember if any of these people have proper names in the film.)

Shogun Assassin

There is an interesting parallel that occurs early on.  Lone Wolf flashes back to a time shortly after the assassination of his wife, when he presented the infant Cub with an ultimatum.  Placing a sword and a ball in front of the baby, he demanded Cub choose one.  If choosing the sword, Cub would accompany Lone Wolf on his vengeful travels throughout the land; if he chooses the ball, Wolf will kill Cub immediately to send him to his mother in the afterlife.  (It’s obvious the child doesn’t understand this choice—what an ass!)  Shortly after this scene, the Shogun presents Lone Wolf with an ultimatum: either swear eternal loyalty to the Shogun or commit harakiri with Cub.

Nothing really becomes of this parallel, but it’s interesting nonetheless.  From these early scenes, we meet new characters.  There is the Supreme Ninja, a woman whose bevy of female ninja attacks our heroes one after another, like a string of Koopa.  There are the Masters of Death: three men, each with a distinctive handheld weapon, who confront the protagonists on a very flammable boat.  Each character introduction receives a quick bloody payoff, eventually.

With a plot that exists for the sole purpose of existing, and a soundtrack that follows but rarely ever quite matches the action we see, Shogun Assassin has already been flirting with surrealism.  (And I haven’t even mentioned the music, which makes everything even more out there than it already is.  It seems imported from some 1980s science fiction picture.)  What seals the deal are the fight scenes themselves.  They do not exist in our dimension.  They don’t obey the laws of physics: swords fly and limbs roll, not according to any Newtonian laws, but the laws of film editing.  Notions of anatomy are negligible: blood is fire truck red, bones and ligaments mere afterthoughts.

Shogun Assassin

It’s clear that the only thing holding all of these incongruous elements together is the very celluloid upon which the frames are fixed.  It’s a minor miracle that Houston has linked these scenes and sequences in such a way that they don’t fly apart as a result of some kinetic centrifugal force.  Whether this Dadaist insanity works for you will depend on your tolerance for abstraction in your art.  Are you cool with the frenetic, non-narrative light shows in such films as The Neon Demon or Enter the Void?  Then something tells me you’ll dig this, maybe even find it hypnotising.  If you find that sort of thing repellent—well, then, stay away.

As for me?  I dig it.  There are worse ways to spend ninety minutes than wandering through one of Quentin Tarantino’s fever-dreams.  If the actual films are anything like this American remix, I’m in for a wild ride.

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