Given its origins, Shogun Assassin has gone on to enjoy a pretty impressive legacy. Ostensibly a fairly straightforward story about a fugitive, deadly ronin wandering the countryside with his infant son following the murder of his wife, it’s actually a compilation of the first two Lone Wolf & Cub movies, a six film series based on a popular manga. After acquiring the rights to the films, US director Robert Houston set about heavily re-editing them, removing many slower passages but retaining much of the stylised violence, adding dubbed American voices and a John Carpenter-style synth score, and repackaging the film for the grindhouse circuit.
Normally this is the kind of butchery that would have most sane film lovers up in arms, but the results are actually astonishingly good. The reason for this lies in both the quality of the original material and the care and attention that Houston lavished on the project. Whilst cut to make the film as exciting as possible, it retains the series’ emotional core, that of the fully-rounded but understated relationship between the ronin Itto and his three-year old son Daigoro. Similarly, the dubbing is some of the most effective I’ve ever seen on a foreign language movie; Houston apparently enlisted the help of lip-readers to assist him with the script, meaning that occasionally the English dialogue genuinely seems to be spoken by the Japanese actors. And the new music score is a blinder – perhaps anachronistic or inappropriate for the setting, but the humming synths and ambient washes interact well with the hyper-stylised visuals.
It is, however, Kenji Misumi’s original direction that is the star here. The episodic, Western-esque narrative simply demands that Itto fights off different sets of ninjas sent by the eponymous Shogun (who ordered the murder of Itto and his wife) in a variety of locations. This results in some of the most eye-poppingly enjoyable swordplay and bloodshed I’ve ever seen in a film; Misumi continually surprises with new ways of severing limbs, heads and other body parts, and the make-up department really go to town with some of the reddest blood I’ve seen outside of an Italian movie. The backdrops are stupendous as well, with each confrontation taking place in a setting more dazzling than the last; the epic climax sees Itto take on an entire army atop a desert dune, no less. There’s a tremendous sense of fun here, as well; Daigoro’s customised babycart, which allows him to see of a few ninjas himself, is a terrific touch, and the clan of female assassins are great villains.
Anchoring the film are two knockout performances from Tomisaburo Wakayama as Itto and Akihiro Tomikawa as Daigoro. Wakayama economically but subtly conveys both sadness and rage at the fugitive lifestyle he is forced to lead and the deep love for his son, whilst Tomikawa delivers one of the best performances I’ve seen from a child actor in a long time; if you’re left untouched by the scene where Daigoro gathers water from a river to revive an unconscious Itto, you’re a colder person than me. Whilst Houston’s primary interest is in the action, he retains enough character moments like this to allow a depth and warmth to permeate the gore, adding a couple of much needed respites to the frenzied action elsewhere.
Shogun Assassin would go on to cast a long shadow over many subsequent martial arts movies; in particular, it found renewed currency when Quentin Tarantino declared it the primary inspiration behind Kill Bill. Whilst the original Lone Wolf & Cub films probably more fully realised as pieces of film-making, this doesn’t stop Shogun Assassin being both a terrific genre piece and a hugely enjoyable piece of cinema in its own right. By turns touching, tense, beautiful and enormously exciting, it stands alone as possibly one of the unlikeliest artistic triumphs of the grindhouse era.