1980 – Japan, USA
Director(s): Robert Houston, Kenji Misumi
Starring: Tomisaburô Wakayama, Akihiro Tomikawa, Kayo Matsuo, Tokio Oki
Words: Nathan Scatcherd
The kind of bloody, balletic Samurai film you rarely see made anymore, Shogun Assassin stands as perhaps one of the finest examples of the Jidaigeki subgenre (literally translated from Japanese as ‘era drama’, although the term is commonly used to specifically mean Samurai movies). The narrative was pieced together by director Robert Houston from the first two Lone Wolf and Cub films (Sword of Vengeance and Baby Cart at the River Styx, both directed by Kenji Misumi); the plot involving a crazed, paranoid Shogun who attempts to have his chief decapitator killed. His assassins fail, only killing the man’s innocent wife and sending our once-decapitator protagonist, Lone Wolf, out on a trail of bloody vengeance with his infant son, Cub (who appears fairly snug inside a kind of tricked-out battle pram).
With its stitched together nature, the plot is essentially just the vehicle for the real draw; a series of increasingly stylised, violent and dream-like action sequences. Lone Wolf and Cub are assailed by ninja at every turn, and the fighting has a deliberately paced, almost operatic quality which makes the violence feel at once visceral and surreal. Every slash results in excessive sprays of claret, as our stalwart protagonists cut through swathes of the Shogun’s assassins (and Cub does indeed get in on the action himself – in one sequence his wooden pram is revealed to be quite well equipped for dealing with trouble, extending hidden blades as he rushes fearlessly into the fight).
The score by W. Michael Lewis and Mark Lindsay is a collection of frequently moody, threatening synth tracks which give the proceedings a distinctly ‘cult’ vibe – rather than using traditional Japanese instrumentation in an effort to conjure up Westernised images of ‘Eastern mysticism’ and exoticism, it uses its sparse, occasionally droning electronic score to underline both the relentlessness and basic hopelessness of its protagonists’ mission; to wander the land, slicing down the Shogun’s assassins, never resting for long, half hoping to die in glorious battle and be spared the interminable trekking and killing.
Speaking of music, Shogun Assassin carries an extra level of interest for fans of Wu-Tang Clan, or specifically GZA’s album Liquid Swords, which takes many of its most memorable samples from this film. The title track utilises Shogun Assassin’s opening narration to murkily atmospheric effect, and the GZA – with the RZA on production – both no doubt recognised the inherent drama in the music that helped give Shogun Assassin such a singularly dark, exciting vibe.
If you have even a passing interest in Samurai movies, you can’t do much better than this strange, scrappy, violent, transfixing gem.