Monday, 17 January 2011

Shogun Assassin

"It's the tender tale of a mighty swordsman trying to balance his career as an assassin with the problems of being a single dad while being stalked by legions of extremely hypertensive ninjas." - AnimEigo (current official distributors)

Well, this is one of my top five movies of all time. The story of Daigoro and his dad, who have been targeted by the Shogun and his henchmen (and cheating sons), and who now works as a hired swordsman, this is an unbelievably dope film. The soundtrack is amazing, the sound effects are stunning, the dubbing is great, and overall it's one of the best exploitation films of the 80s.

Saying that, it's probably best that I explain its origins for those who may not know them.

Back in 1970, the characters of Ogami Ito (the dad) and Daigoro (the son) first appeared in a Manga written by Kazuo Koike (with art by Goseki Kojima). The basic story was this: Ogami Ittō was the Shogun's executioner. Disgraced by false accusations from the Yagyū clan, he is forced to take the path of the assassin. Along with his three-year-old son, Daigorō, they seek revenge on the Yagyū clan and are known as "Lone Wolf and Cub".

The story eventually stretched to 28 volumes. It was ridiculously successful in Japan (selling at least 8 mill) and the rest of the world when it was translated. (The English version eventually emerged 17 years later.)

Of course, something this popular and visual couldn't help but be made into a film. Well, six films, to be exact.
The first was released in 1972 as "Kozure Ōkami: Kowokashi udekashi tsukamatsuru", or - if your Japanese isn't up to scratch - "Wolf with Child in Tow: Child and Expertise for Rent". In the West, the film was titled "Lone Wolf and Cub - Sword Of Vengeance".
The second film - "Lone Wolf and Cub - Baby Cart at the River Styx" (aka "Kozure Ōkami: Sanzu no kawa no ubaguruma", or "Wolf with Child in Tow: Baby Cart of the River of Sanzu") emerged in the same year, along with the next two in the series ("Baby Cart To Hades" and "Baby Cart In Peril"). Number 5 ("Baby Cart In The Land Of Demons" followed in 1973, and the sixth film ("White Heaven In Hell") came out in 1974. All of the films starred Tomisaburo Wakayama as Ogami Ito and Akihiro Tomikawa as Daigoro, and were directed by Kenji Misumi.

All clear so far? Good, good. Because this is where it gets a bit confusing.

David Weisman, an underground filmmaker who had ties with Andy Warhol's Factory, obtained the rights for the original films for $50,000 from the American office of Toho Studios. Weisman was a fan of the movies, and together with Robert Houston (who played Bobby in Wes Craven's original The Hills Have Eyes) they pieced together a massively simplified version of the first two films that excised any reference to the clan wars - or anything particularly complex - and invented a whole new narrative. They had to restructure the two films so that three hours of film was edited down to just over 80 minutes.
Weisman and Houston hired deaf lip readers to match dialogue to the lip movements of the original Japanese actors. They filled in the narrative gaps left (after all, the film was two seperate stories added together) by adding voice-over narration by Daigoro, performed by 7-year-old Gibran Evans (son of the poster illustrator, Jim Evans). Rounding out the spoken word talent to create this Frankenstein's Monster of a film were Lamont Johnson and Sandra Bernhardt, who provided the voices for Ogami Ito and the Supreme Ninja respectively.

Finally, Houston and Weisman added an eerie, electronic-based score by Mark Lindsay (who was the lead singer for Paul Revere and the Raiders), although some of the original music from the OG Lone Wolf films remained.

"Shogun Assassin" emerged in 1980, released by Roger Corman's New World pictures.

The basic plot now goes like this:
Ogami Ito was the Shogun’s executioner after his many years serving as his master samurai. As the shogun becomes older and more senile, he becomes increasingly intimidated by Ito. The Shogun decides to assassinate him, but instead, the assassins he sends kill his wife.
Ito then escapes with his son Diagoro and is chased to the ends of Japan by a slew of would be killers. It is believed that when the Lone Wolf loses his son, he loses his power as well, and he is tested multiple times, up until his confrontation with the masters of death and the shogun himself. With his son and his cart armed with blades, and other assorted tricks up their sleeves, Itto seeks out justice, but will he find it?

You REALLY need this film in your life: if you haven't seen it, the two main cultural references that most people will know this film for are from Kill Bill Part II (where two of the main characters watch it on video) and from the Gza album "Liquid Swords", where the dialogue is ruthlessly pillaged.

Not convinced? Check this out.

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