The Plot – A loyal samurai, Itto Ogami serves as the Shogun’s official decapitator and leader of his royal armies. The burden of such a position and the stress it causes is washed away every evening when Ogami returns home to his wife & son. As the years pass the Shogun is rumored to have gone mad and his once peaceful reign becomes a paranoid & bloodthirsty campaign. Ever watchful of his enemies, the Shogun’s eyes turn to Ogami. Although a loyal samurai, Ogami is the one man that doesn’t fear the Shogun and this angers him. To teach the samurai humility the Shogun sends ninja to kill Ogami’s wife & son. Their mission is only partly successful and as his wife dies in his arms Ogami swears vengeance on the Shogun and all who align themselves with him. From this moment forward he is no longer Itto Ogami… He is now the “Lone Wolf” – Assassin with son.
The Review – After seeing Kill Bill last weekend, I was reminded of this movie which I first saw with my father back in the early 80’s. Shogun Assassin is actually an Americanized version of the Lone Wolf movies series. This 80’s film splices together the first two Japanese films to create one kung-fu slasher epic. I have not seen the original series, but this version stands up fairly well on its own. I sat down to rewatch the film and while it doesn’t have Kill Bill’s cinematographic flash, there were definitely some great moments.
One of the things that makes this movie work is the narration as told by Ogami’s son Daigoro. Having a gruesome tale repeated by a child creates even more impact when you witness the events onscreen. Throughout the film Ogami hardly ever speaks and his brooding silence is offset by Daigoro’s animated curiosity. I marveled at the similarities in sword play between “The Bride” in Kill Bill and the “Lone Wolf”. I’d be willing to bet Tarantino saw Shogun Assassin at some point as the sword flick Uma uses to whisk the blood of her sword resembled Ogami’s technique. The fight scenes were as graphic (if not a little 80’s cheese) as they were in Kill Bill. You’ll see the same number of limbs severed, tomato red blood spurting and probably a few close-ups Tarantino didn’t get to use in his movie.
I can’t forget to mention the baby cart. Not just a traveling piece, the cart has spring loaded blades and detachable swords which Ogami uses in the movie. In fact, Daigoro is purposely put in harms way armed only with this baby cart. You’ll also see plenty of badass female ninja. In one scene entitled “The Interview” the leader of the Shogun’s ninja clan makes the mistake of questioning the ability of his female counterparts. I won’t give anything away, but it becomes quickly apparent the ladies have no problem cutting down the competition.
You’ll be hard pressed to find a quality copy of this film. While I own a it on DVD there are a lot of defects which lead me to believe the master reels were lost a long time ago. Still it’s worth noting the cinematography which stands out given the decade of the film. Like any good film there are little nuances that slip past you the first time you watch it. In one such scene Daigoro is captured and suspended above a well. There’s hardly any dialogue just a moment where Daigoro kicks off his shoe and lets it drop. Seconds after the shoes splashes, Ogami bursts into action killing all the ninja. It hadn’t occurred to me until I watched the film again that Ogami uses the shoe falling to time the distance of the well. The scene is a powerful one, but very subtle in its delivery.
Well, needless to say I’m a fan of the film, but where does that leave the average viewer? Like Kill Bill, I think this film is appreciated by a certain audience. If you’re a kung-fu buff or want to get an idea of where some of Kill Bill’s inspiration may have come from or you simply want to be amazed by a samurai that fights with a child strapped to his back then this movie is for you.
Grade: A-/B+ (The movie targets a very specific audience and I’d be happier if I could find a quality DVD copy)