Director: Kenji Misumi/Robert Houston
I know that, as soon as I finish this review and hit the "Publish Post" button, a small group of Lone Wolf and Cub fans will be sending their ninja armies to wipe me and any trace of this blog entry. If you don't see a "Trailer of the Week" tomorrow, just know that I meant it to be for the Sonny Chiba vehicle The Executioner. Also, tell my wife and kids that I love them.
It is true that Shogun Assassin is a bit of an unloved bastard flick in the chambara community, discussions of which usually start with the question, "Why see this when you can see the vastly superior originals?". A little confused? OK, here's the story:
In the late '70s, producer and 'director' (used in the very loosest definition of the word) David Weisman and Robert Houston, fans of the Lone Wolf and Cub films, bought the rights of the second in the series, the title of which we now know as Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart At the River Styx as well as some expository bits from the first, Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance. Under the auspice of bringing the series to a western audience but presumably worried that the series "orientalism" might not be well received, Weisman and Houston decided to cut their own version by splicing together bits and pieces from both films, overdubbing voices and narration for story purposes, and creating a synth-pop score by ex-Paul Revere and the Raiders lead Mark Lindsay. If this isn't weird enough, a young Sandra Bernhard was also added in as a voiceover part as the lead woman ninja and then the whole package was eventually picked up by Roger Corman's New World Pictures for distribution. I swear all of the video mashup hacks on Youtube couldn't have dreamed of such a scenario.
Well, the question at this point is: does it work? Yes, to a degree it does. The story gets transformed to a straight up adventure tale: main character Ogami's wife gets killed by the shogun's clan after which Ogami and his son walk the earth like Caine in Kung Fu to kill the shogun's brother (why they don't want to just kill the shogun himself is not too clear) who is protected by the "Three Masters of Death". All the while, various "ninja" are ordered by the shogun to do them in but Ogami is not one to let just anyone try to get in his grill and dispatches them to their graves.
Now, the final question: does Shogun Assassin deserve a place in the Lone Wolf and Cub pantheon? Well, without sounding like a film snob, HELL NO! Shogun Assassin is the equivalent of someone clipping out pieces of Picasso's paintings, pasting them together, and calling it "A Bunch of Cubes". In its favor, it does move along at a nice pace and has some of the best sword fights and goriest kills of the first two films. Also, in retrospect, we have to consider the film's place in history. At the time of its release, it was all but impossible to see chambara flicks unless you lived near a Chinatown or Japantown and the Lone Wolf and Cub series (incidentally, of which there are six films) was definitely out of the picture even though it had almost been a good decade after the series initial release in Japan. Even Shogun Assassin on VHS was a bit difficult to find if you lived in a suburban American town so this was the only outlet for chambara outside of Kurosawa and Inagaki. You can imagine that this film introduced the genre to thousands and, even though it's not the cinematic experience that its source material is. It might be worth seeing as an oddity or nostalgia piece.
If you prize the originals, though, don't bother.
Compare this with the original Toho production trailer of Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart At the River Styx: