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January 2011

Shogun Assassin

cast: Tomisaburo Wakayama, Mashiro Tomikawa, Minoru Oku, and Akiji Kobayashi

directors: Kenji Misumi / Robert Houston

85 minutes (18) 1980
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Eureka blu-ray region B
+ DVD Region 2

RATING: 6/10
review by Jim Steel

Shogun Assassin

Notorious for its extreme violence when it was first released in the west, it was reputed to one of the films to fall foul of the UK 'video nasty' banned list, something that was more than enough to ensure its cult status. Whether it was ever on the list is a matter for some debate but anyone watching this, back in the 1980s, wouldn't have been at all surprised by its inclusion. These days we're a bit more jaded and it's a bit less shocking. You wouldn't leave it lying around for the kids to find, but it's certainly no Cannibal Holocaust. It does have a very complicated history, however, which we need to look at in order to see what exactly we have in front of us.

Lone Wolf And Cub was a black-and-white manga series that ran from 1970 to 1976. It was very popular and has been reprinted often, including in English translation. Collected editions are easy to find. Between 1972 and 1974, six films were made from the series. Then, at the end of the 1970s, Roger Corman's studio bought the rights and Robert Houston edited the first two films together to create Shogun Assassin. They did a surprisingly coherent job of retaining a plot, although the resulting film has become somewhat picaresque in nature.

The dubbing is as annoying as expected, although it too could have been worse (listen out for Sandra Bernhard's voice amongst others), but one major mistake was in trying to update the soundtrack with a synthesiser score. John Carpenter's contemporary films just about manage to get away with this sort of thing, but it sounds really dated here and grates on the ear. It's co-composed by Mark Lindsay from 1960s' legends Paul Revere and the Raiders as well, pop-pickers. Curiously, they have also taken the opportunity to remove much of the nudity that was in the original, a decision that was probably based on appeasing the American censors.

The plump, weak-chinned Tomisaburo Wakayama initially looks the wrong choice for the part of Ogami Itto, the 'lone wolf', but he's been selected for his superb martial art skills. After his paranoid Shogun master has his wife killed, Itto flees with his small son and embarks upon a series of adventures which mostly involve the Shogun's ninja assassins attacking him in increasingly bizarre fashions which he survives by frequent spilling of blood. Bizarrely the story is narrated by his small son (Mashiro Tomiko with the voice of Gibran Evans) who, being maybe three years old, is pushed around the countryside in a wooden pram that is stuffed with weapons. Itto manages to make his living as a sword-for-hire, helping the oppressed and thwarting the Shogun's plans.

You've probably gathered that there is about as much point in watching this for historical veracity as there is in watching Leone's westerns for the same, but it is also a valid comparison in other ways. Many of the villains are delightfully over-the-top and special mention must be made of the three Masters of Death (Minoru Oku, Akiji Kobayashi, Shin Kishida) who first appear on a suspiciously new-looking ship. The three brothers are armed with a claw, a club and mailed gloves, and they are even around long enough to get the chance to show character development that is slightly above that of cannon fodder.

The film comes with two commentaries (one by a martial arts expert and a Japanese film expert, and the other by members of the American production crew) and subtitles (for the English soundtrack, so don't get your hopes up), an interview with fan Samuel L. Jackson (Tarantino must has been unavailable), the 1980 trailer, and trailers for DVD releases of the original six movies.

It's great fun but if you haven't seen it then I'd recommend going for the original films instead. Unless you really feel that you can't live without the dubbing and the synths, of course.



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