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Shogun Assassin 30th Anniversary Edition

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    Ian Jane
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  • Shogun Assassin 30th Anniversary Edition

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    Released by: Animeigo
    Released on: 8/24/10
    Director: Buichi Sato, Robert Houston
    Cast: Tomisaburo Wakayama
    Year: 1972
    Purchase From Amazon


    The Movie:

    For those unfamiliar with Shogun Assassin, a quick history lesson is required to understand what this film is all about. In the early seventies there were six films made from the popular samurai manga, Lone Wolf And Cub. The first two films in this series, Sword Of Vengeance and Baby Cart At The River Styx, were edited into one single film and dubbed into English. Released theatrically in North America in 1980 with a new score, the resulting film, Shogun Assassin, went on to do quite well theatrically and has maintained a strong cult following over the years.

    So what's the movie about? Well, it tells the story of a father Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and his young son, Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa). Itto was at one time the Shogun's official executioner, or, kaishakunin. He was the man who would slice off your head for you should it be decided that you need to commit seppuku. He was loyal to the Shogun and he took his job and his commitment very, very seriously.

    When the opposing Yagyu Clan start moving in on the territory, they murder Itto's wife and frame him for destroying the Shogun's crest, which is a huge sign of disrespect that in turn leads the Shogun to declare that Itto must commit seppuku. Rather than take his own life as punishment for a crime he didn't commit, Itto and his son escape and swear vengeance for his wife's death, vowing to destroy the Yagyu Clan and making a living by hiring out his services as an assassin. Together they travel the road to Hell (complete with a tricked out baby cart that launches speers and has blades hidden throughout its chassis) as assassins for hire, capable of killing anyone should the job meet Itto's requirements, for the sum of five hundred gold pieces. Unfortunately for father and son, the clan is still after them, and they don't intend to let them live any longer than they absolutely have to.

    Once Itto has gained a reputation across the land as one of the finest swordsman in all of imperial Japan and as an assassin to be feared and respected, Itto and Daigoro are spoken of by the people as almost mythical beings, as demons journeying together on the long road to Hell. Soon enough, the Shogun brings in some of his men to take down the Lone Wolf and Cub once and for all - carnage ensues and father and son must square off against the three Masters Of Death - a trio of deadly ninja assassins.

    Robert Houston (who won an Academy Award last year for his documentary short Mighty Times: The Children's March) and David Weisman (director of Ciao Manhatten) used about eleven minutes from the first film of the series and took the rest of the material from the second. Essentially made for the grindhouse crowd of the day, Shogun Assassin cuts out some of the slower, more character driven parts of the first two movies but little, if any, of the carnage. The end result is a tight, fast paced and gory action movie with plenty of arterial spray and severed limbs. So while this alternate version of the beginning of Itto Ogami's story isn't as cerebral or as melancholy, it definitely works well on its own and stands as a fairly unique take on the source material.

    It might sound like a corny way to present some fairly serious material but it works. The voice acting fits the characters well and the score, despite heading into disco territory a few times, really does a fine job of highlighting the action. The editing is cohesive and while there are a few strings of the plot that aren't fleshed out so well the material stands alone well enough that it isn't in the least bit difficult to follow. Because of this, Shogun Assassin has a charm that is unique and while it's not a better film than the two movies it was culled from, it is a whole lot of fun. The film has had a resurgence in popularity as of late thanks to Kill Bill Volume 2 but don't go into the film expecting it to relate to Tarantino's grindhouse 'homage' as they're not really all that similar. This is a gory, violent film with some interesting philosophical moments and some truly touching interplay between father and son. It's great entertainment if you enjoy such things, and a unique cinematic curio to boot!

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Shogun Assassin arrives on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer in the film's original aspect ratio of 2.35.1. This new transfer boasts nicer color reproduction (the gory arterial spray looks great!) and quite a bit more detail than the standard definition disc could offer. As far as print damage goes, there's a bit here and there in the form of some specks and scratches but never to the point where it's bothersome. Some scenes look a bit soft and a bit more faded than other shots and not every shot is pristine in its clarity but this is certainly the best that Shogun Assassin has ever looked on home video in this country so far. There aren't any problems with compression artifacts to note and the improved detail and texture certainly make it easier to appreciate the film's qualities.

    The sole audio track on this disc is a 48 kHz 1.5 Mbps LPCM 2.0 Stereo track that sounds just exactly like you'd want it to. Where you'll really notice the difference in quality between this mix and the stereo mix on the standard definition DVD is in the score, as it just sounds way more powerful and much more precise here. Dialogue is clean and clear and there are no problems to report with any major hiss or distortion and the levels are well balanced. Reference quality? Nope, but it sounds pretty damn good.

    Animeigo has carried over the commentary track with film expert Ric Meyers, and martial arts scholar Steve Watson that was recorded in 2008. The pair does a good job of giving a history of the film, explaining how it was re-cut and the soundtrack was redone and eventually released theatrically through Roger Corman. They also give a good amount of background information on the original versions of the films (discussing how there's a lot of nudity that's been cut out that was originally included in the first film!) as well as providing some historical context for what we see unfold in the picture. Those who are already really familiar with the series probably won't learn too much from the discussion but it does serve as a nice crash course in the history of Shogun Assassin.

    More interesting is the new commentary by producer David Weisman, illustrator Jim Evans (who created the iconic Shogun Assassin one-sheet) and his son, Gibran Evans, who provided Daigoro's voice narration in the film. This is a pretty solid discussion that sheds some light on how both Evans' came to be involved in the picture, provides some background information on them and on David Weisman, and more. It covers a bit of the same ground as the first track but there's absolutely enough new information in this track to make it worth listening to. Weisman has more to say about the project than the other to do, but it's a good group effort that actually sheds some light on poster art, which isn't something that we usually hear about in audio commentary tracks. There isn't much dead air here at all, it's quite an active talk, and fans of the film ought to enjoy this quite a bit.

    New to the disc is an interview with Samuel L. Jackson (12:43), who speaks for a few minutes about his appreciation of this film and how he and some of his friends would kill time while waiting for auditions by watching Japanese films and kung-fu movies in Times Square grindhouses in the seventies. He also speaks about discovering the Japanese language versions on VHS and about how he periodically has friends over for Lone Wolf And Cub marathons.

    Animeigo has also supplied a brief restoration comparison that shows the difference in quality between the bootleg DVD releases, their own DVD release, and this new Blu-ray release. A theatrical trailer for the feature, menus and chapter stops round out a pretty decent selection of extra features on this release. All of the extras on this disc are in high definition.

    The Final Word:

    This might not be a transfer that competes on the same level as the latest Hollywood blockbuster in terms of clarity and definition but it does make a marked improvement over previous standard definition releases not just in video quality, but in audio quality as well. The added extras, the commentary in particular, are a nice touch and the film is just as deliriously entertaining as it's always been and it holds up remarkably well as the legitimate classic that it is.
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