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Blu-ray Review: Shogun Assassin – 30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition

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Normally, there are two things that a distributor can do to a cult foreign film that will ignite the fires of discontent within my soul: unnecessary editing and dubbing. But while I’m a little more lenient with the latter form of alteration (some movies simply have a greater cult appeal to me when they are dubbed, such as Godard’s Alphaville and just about anything that K. Gordon Murray imported from Mexico), it’s the often questionable choice of poorly-executed cinematic evisceration that really frosts my pompadour.

So when are cinematic eviscerations and dubbing good things? When they’re done grindhouse style, of course! Take 1980’s grindhouse classic, Shogun Assassin, for example. Culled from the first two installments of Toho Studio’s epic samurai Lone Wolf And Cub series, Shogun Assassin managed to completely alter just about everything from the original 1972 films — from storyline to dialogue — but still kept its dignity.

No, scratch that. It didn’t keep the dignity of the original films. Instead, it outright erased all of the decorum that was present before and successfully built up its own twisted form of grindhouse-style honor.

The (new) story tells the tale of Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama), former executioner of the Shogun, who is “removed” from his position of power when the Shogun starts to go a little nutters and has Itto’s wife murdered. Declaring himself a demon on a road to Hell, Itto defies his former employer’s command to commit seppuku, slices up many of the Shogun’s soldiers (as well as family), and proceeds to wander the countryside as an assassin for hire.

But he is not alone. With him is his infant son, Daigoro (Masahiro Tomikawa), who rides along in a wooden baby cart rigged with all kinds of deadly contraptions. Of course, as anyone who has ever taken a stroll down the road to Hell knows, danger lurks at every corner — and the Shogun will stop at nothing to see to it that his now “disgraced” warrior meets an untimely demise at the hands of his deadly ninja.

Needless to say, the blood flows at the drop of a straw hat here: blades cut, carve, and divide their way through numerous would-be assassins — sending gorgeous Technicolor rivers of the red stuff spraying-and-a-spattering.

Really, how can you go wrong with a movie like this?

Honestly, you can’t. Well, unless you dive into all six of the entire original Lone Wolf And Cub films, of course, but comparing them to Shogun Assassin is like comparing chicken cordon bleu to southern fried chicken: they both come from the same source, but their end-result is something completely different.

But I digress.

In the late ‘70s, Warhol protégé David Weisman (not to be confused with Hollywood screenwriter David Weissman) acquired the rights to the first two Lone Wolf And Cub films from Toho, and re-assembled them into one easy-to-follow story. Together with project director Robert Houston, the two hired several deaf lip readers to help construct the dialogue to their version by matching the lip movements of the original actors (many professional actors were brought in to lend their skills, including Lamont Johnson, Marshall Efron, Lennie Weinrib, and a newbie actress named Sandra Bernhard), but there were many moments remaining wherein no dialogue took place whatsoever.

And so, in an move that is now considered to be “genius” by many fans of the film, narration from Itto’s own son, Daigoro, was written and voiced by a seven-year old actor named Gibran Evans (son of illustrator Jim Evans, who designed Shogun Assassin’s theatrical artwork). Throughout the whole 85-minute saga, Daigoro waxes his advanced (for his age) philosophy, lending the American-ized version of a Japanese serial a truly unique aspect.

Also new was an oft-psychedelic but always rockin’ soundtrack courtesy of musician Mark Lindsay (former frontman for Paul Revere And The Raiders) and his magnificent Moog Modular synthesizer. And, so with a fierce combination of oodles of swordplay, rivers of blood, Evans narration, and Lindsay’s kick-ass soundtrack (which has been unavailable in the U.S. since its initial vinyl release in 1980), Weisman and Houston inadvertently created the ultimate post-‘70s grindhouse masterpiece.

AnimEigo’s 30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition of Shogun Assassin takes the cult classic to a whole new level. For years, the movie had only been released (legally) on home video via a long-out-of-print VHS cassette from MCA/Universal. Then, in 2006, the staff of AnimEigo nailed their happy sacks to the wall by going through the painful process of rebuilding the entire video portion of the film by using their masters of the original Lone Wolf And Cub films. No small feat indeed, but their diligence and hard work was praised by fans of the cult fave left and right.

The same newer video edit is what appears here in Shogun Assassin: 30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition, and, save for a few seconds of unrestored stock footage (the original material was unobtainable) in the beginning, AnimEigo has done a remarkable job bringing what is quite possibly the only good example of cinematic evisceration and dubbing ever to Blu-ray.

Presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Shogun Assassin is given a 1080p MPEG-4/AVC transfer. It is by and far the best the film has ever looked, boasting strong detail, lush colors (especially all that blood!), and some relatively boomin’ contrast. The presentation is not without its flaws, though, and some imperfections exist in the form of a few minor scratches and grain. Ultimately, though, these tiny flaws add to the movie’s cult appeal, as it was a film produced for the grindhouse circuit to begin with.

Accompanying the film is the original English audio track, which has been upgraded into a wonderful Linear PCM 2.0 Stereo mix. The dubbed dialogue and narration come through just fine, as do the sound effects and Lindsay’s oh-so-‘80s musical score. Overall, the audio aspect of this release is also the best we’ve ever had. No subtitles are offered with this release.

In terms of special features, Shogun Assassin: 30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition boasts several all-new bonus materials, beginning with two audio commentaries. The first is with project producer David Weisman, artists Jim Evans, and his son, actor Gibran Evans. Anyone looking for a complete account of the film’s history will want to give this track a listen, as the three contributors offer up their various past experiences with the project with much gusto. The second commentary, with film scholar Ric Meyers and martial arts expert Stephe Watson, gives some alternate insight into the film from a more “educational” side.

Also included here is an interview with actor Samuel L. Jackson. Although he had absolutely nothing to do with the film whatsoever (apart from being one of the many people who saw the film in theaters when it first hit 42nd Street), Jackson’s love for the movie (and Asian martial arts film in general) shines through in the 12:43 minute session. Thrown in for good measure is the original trailer (in High Def), a Restoration Gallery (comparing the new BD release to the 2006 DVD and the earlier bootleg DVD release), trivia-laden Program Notes, and the credits for this Blu-ray release.

All in all, this is a must-have release for grindhouse enthusiasts and fans of Shogun Assassin in general. Highly recommended!

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.