Doc Martian's Lounge: August 2009

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Step by step, inch by inch

Shogun Assassin - 5-Film Collector's Set by Animeigo

Alright, let me get the hard part out of the way. There's only one thing I DON'T like about this box set. The commentary on Shogun Assassin. Nonstop barrage of data that'd be way better as a second accompanying booklet leaving room for discussion on elements like the ghosted images that float during a multi-ninja attack and where they came from, or whether the female ninja leader would be able to run backwards disappearing into the distance if she HADN'T jumped out of her kimono. I guess what I'm saying is I prefer the pop-up video style of commentary that riffs on the film than endless streams of data, even if the data is erudite and well-researched.

OK, hard part's over, now the fun begins. WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! 5 Films dubbed into English (one of which is a well-edited pastiche of two films) from the Lone Wolf and Cub movies (themselves based on a manga by the writer Kazuo Koike and the artist Goseki Kojima) released in 1972-74. Now 1972 was a strange time in filmmaking... most of the taboos of filmmaking that had built up since the first gasp of censorship in the 1930s had been broken in the late 1960s, in token forms, and in the early 70s, the gore, the sex, the language, the violence and the adult situations were being utilized not only by the grindhouse and exploitation companies but by the major studios as well... which gave more leeway to artists to incorporate these elements into their work. This resulted in films like Fritz the Cat, The Last House on the Left, Last Tango in Paris, Deep Throat, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and Pink Flamingos arriving on the scene in the Western markets. Similarly, 1972 saw Hanzo the Razor, Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion and the Sword of Vengeance/Lone Wolf & Cub/Baby Cart movies appear pushing the limits of what Japanese cinema consisted of during that period (after all... how many Kurosawa clones can one endure before committing ritual suicide).

Although these films were visually exciting and brash by any critical standards, they didn't translate well to U.S. markets and were a long cross-country journey away from European markets. That doesn't mean they completely languished on the shelves, there were some subtitled releases of the Lone Wolf & Cub series, but they usually didn't make it out of Chinatown... even though there was an interest in martial arts films with the success of Bruce Lee, the television show Kung Fu and Sonny Chiba's The Street Fighter.

In 1980. Ka-BOOM! Big Dubbed Cinema with Synthesizer Massacre Slaughterama 9000 with eerie little kid voice-over ATTAAAAAAAAACCCKKKKKKK! The second Lone Wolf & Cub film's (along with a 12 minute backstory from the first film) rights were purchased by Robert Houston (Bobby from Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes) and David Weisman (Andy Warhol associate and director of Edie Sedgewick in Ciao! Manhattan). Dubbing was done based on hypothetical scripts by deaf lipreaders with voice talent that featured Lamont Johnson, Sandra Bernhard (pre-fame), Marshall Efron and six-year old Gibran Evans (son of the film's promotional artist Jim Evans) providing a spooky voice-over and the voice of Daigoro (the Cub). All this is supplanted by a riveting score performed and co-written by Mark Lindsay, former vocalist of Paul Revere and the Raiders. The slow plodding of Ogami Itto toward his inexorable revenge upon the Shogun/Leader of the Yagyu Shadow Clan begins beneath the haunting score and the unearthly voice-over of his son Daigoro.

Part I
Shogun Assassin

When I was little, my father was famous. He was the greatest Samurai in the empire, and he was the Shogun's decapitator.

You probably first heard that at the same time I did, as the bedtime movie of B.B. in Quentin Tarantino's 'Kill Bill', I'm not saying that you didn't hear it earlier (you crusty old fuck) but chances are, you heard it there first. Me? I figured it was anime, and in a way, it is, being a depiction of a manga, but the cinematic artistry of Kenji Misumi (director of Baby Cart 1, 2, 3 & 5) surpasses the simplicity of design in most animated features with a simple iconography. Lone Wolf haggard and worn after the death of his wife. The baby cart loaded with weapons, the flashing sword, the blood, the split crazy fiber baskets on the heads of the Yagyu Shadow Clan soldiers, the road, inns, temples (where Ogami Itto meets his clients for assassination jobs) the home of a daimyo where blood is always shed by the visitors who arrive and nature. All of these themes repeat throughout the film series, the editing in the first film of the series is slightly sensationalistic however. Not that that leaves anything to be desired in my book, I like my films visceral with entrails strewn everywhere, but perhaps some of you would prefer to pick up the original films (also marketed by Animeigo as the 'Lone Wolf and Cub' series) with subtitles. Well you just go ahead you pretentious frauds! Argghhh Slash Massacree if it moves, kill it muhahahaahahahahahaahahahahahah. This here film a slaughterfest of epic proportions. When things aren't getting cut by swords and daggers and blades concealed in Daigoro's babycart, it setting things up so that MORE things can be cut by swords and daggers and blades concealed in Daigoro's babycart. Thumping great soundtrack splatter splatter splatter ka-blash ka-blash ka-blash slice followed by the plod plod plod of Tomisaburo Wakayama's Ogami Itto as he staggers along pushing the cart to the next slaughterfest. BUY THIS FILM! BUY MULTIPLE COPIES! SO WHAT IF YOU DON'T HAVE FOOD MONEY THAT MONTH! FEAST ON THE PAIN AND SPLATTERED CONDOMS FILLED WITH BLOOD AIYEEEEEE!

Part II
Shogun Assassin II: Lightning Swords of Death

After the storm comes a calm, but in this case, it is merely the eye of the hurricane. The film known as Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades has been dubbed (without a score by Mark Lindsay {SOB!}) by a new set of voice artists and team of translators. I'm the first to admit it doesn't pack the punch of the first film in the series. Like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail however, Once your arm has been cut off, the rest hardly matters, you're beaten no matter how many times you re-iterate your ability to still fight. Just sit back and let the anticipation and joy as Itto continues on his assassin's road fill your soul. Edo Period Japan, in all its finery is again the backdrop for the adventures of the Lone Wolf and Cub.

Strangely, with less bloodshed, you are able to see how Ogami Itto is less characteristic of a Samurai with the Bushido code largely related to his relationship to his lord or a Ronin protecting his own interests as he is representative of a feudal saga-like Knight Errant. He protects the weak, avenges wrongs, cultivates renown, and acts like frickin' Lancelot more than Miyamoto Musashi. My theory for this is that these stories take place in late-era Edo (as evidenced by the revolvers) where Western culture has crept into Japanese culture surreptitiously at a psychic level. I picture Queen Victoria fascinated by intelligence reports of a Shogun's deposed executioner walking the earth and meting out justice and defending himself against the vengeance of the usurper of his position, or maybe he has been taken under the psychic wing of a Westerner he encountered at court before being deposed by inciting the Shogun (now distinguished as separate from the Yagyu Shadow-clan leader Retsudo). This film does a lot to establish Ogami Itto’s strength of character and distinguish him from just another killer in the hire of officialdom. He is outcast and even finds himself tortured by buri-buri whipping torture (long story how he gets there, watch the movie you dope!) where guys with canes spin him on a rope, beating him and shouting buri-buri at him repeatedly. buri-buri! buri-buri! buri-buri! buri-buri! buri-buri! buri-buri! I’m getting dizzy. MUST KILL MANY SAMURAI NAOW!!!!!! PLOD! PLOD! PLOD! Not to spoil... but he gets his chance... he guns down dozens of his target’s mercenary samurai with a cannonade from the baby cart and chops down the rest with his sword! What this film lacks in its less sensational aspects and more naturalistic scoring, it makes up for by giving Ogami Itto a heart. He’s not just a murder machine, he’s a murder machine with a heart of gold as well as a priest of the warrior code! buri-buri! buri-buri! buri-buri! buri-buri! (sorry, couldn’t resist doing that again!)

Part III
Shogun Assassin III: Slashing Blades of Carnage

NAKED TATTOO CHICK WITH A WAKIZASHI TAKING THE TOPKNOTS OF HER FRESH KILLS! OMGOMGOMGOMG! I’m such a fucking fanboi when it comes to merciless women! This film returns to the storm. Mayhem, Slaughter, HYPNOSIS AND FIRE MAGICK FROM A BLAZING KATANA! The only Japanese cinematic elements I find MORE entertaining are GIANT RUBBER SNAKES ATTACKING KOFUN PERIOD PRINCESSES AND THEIR SERVANTS! I digress however.

This film begins to explore the character of Daigoro. While he is demonstrated as capable and even skillful and insightful before, here he shows cunning, determination and knowledge of weapons when confronted by an opponent. There also returns the antagonist of the series, Yagyu Retsudo as he demonstrates the origin of the cliche ‘Its all fun and games until the leader of the shadow-clan loses an eye’.

The naturalistic soundtrack and character development continue, but the 3rd film in the Shogun Assassin series (4th film in the Lone Wolf & Cub series) is more action-packed than its immediate predecessor, this as well as the addition of an often topless anti-heroine should keep the interest of those with shorter attention spans and less interest in Edo-period Japanese cultural practices, I mean I love a good historical novel/film but man do I love seeing dozens of combatants sliced into ribbons in the methodical pursuit of vengeance against a foe who has used guile to cast down a hero from his happy place!

Part IV
Shogun Assassin IV: Five Fistfuls of Gold

This film REEKS of spaghetti western. Ogami Itto meets his most challenging adversary, Barney the Giant Purple Dinosaur, oh wait, that’s Shogun Assassin VI: Five Fistfuls of Giant Purple Dinosaur Guts! Ogami’s adversary HERE is an Abbot who convinces him that to fulfill the contract upon him will leave the Lone Wolf spiritually bankrupt, Ogami buys it for a time, but upon seeing his son tortured for a crime he did not commit while upholding a promise to a mere stranger (a pickpocket caught flatfooted when her accomplice goes off to take a leak), he realizes that the fulfillment of his assassin’s contract upon the Abbot (a contract delivered by 5 sword-slingin’ Nippon cowboys who provide bits of data on the contract as Ogami sends them swiftly to meet the Lord Buddha) has merit. Yagyu Retsudo makes an appearance in this film as well, primarily to spur the audience into not forgetting him for the climactic final battle in the 5th Shogun Assassin film, but also to illustrate clan warfare and the role of intelligence data in struggles between clans. The data here is substituted by Lone Wolf leaving Retsudo gnashing his teeth, tearing out his hair and vowing eternal vengeance. Highlights include masked warriors, slaughter of daimyo families and ritual decapitation as their servants show diligence in performing their duties in spite of the cowardice of their leaders.

Part V
Shogun Assassin V: Cold Road to Hell

This film feels the most episodic of the adaptations of the manga series. The two key vignettes united by a unifying narrative strand. The primary strand is that of Yagyu Retsudo being pressured by the Shogun to put an end to Ogami Itto or be put in a position where his clan loses face by requiring other clans to declare the Lone Wolf an outlaw. To first accomplish this, Retsudo sends his only remaining legitimate offspring, a dagger-juggling gal who quickly gets slice-n-diced by Ogami. This pressures Retsudo to call upon a hidden resources, the dark hill-dwelling clan bastard son who has disowned him and learned dark magic physical disciplines to drive Itto from society by killing all he comes in contact with. For once, the unflappable Ogami Itto appears frazzled. However when presented with an opportunity to duel, that’s all she wrote for Yagyu Hyouei who mortally wounded leaves combat to impregnate his illegitimate sister. I mean that’s just all a shadow-clan leader can take. Retsudo stabs them both and leads an army to take out the former shogun executioner himself. But not before utilizing the services of 3 hill-clan zombies who crawl through dirt and snow only to get soundly butchered by Ogami Itto (they interrupted his dinner). So Retsudo is left with his army, and what an army, over 100 strong. He surrounds Ogami in the snow leading to a gunbattlin’ bob-sleddin’ climax to the series. This results in the largest single person on-screen body count in movie history. 150 dead samurai. Retsudo flees muttering vague threats and promises. Shades of SPECTRE or Dr. Claw or Darth Vader or any movie serial villain you can think of. Meanwhile, Ogami Itto is momentarily free and has soundly tromped his enemy a second time. Lone Wolf and Cub are safe to be made into a television series.

Part VI
Slowly I turned...

OK. The first movie is the undeniable gem of this batch. True movie magic. Beauty mixed with epic cheesiness. However, if you have any interest in Japanese Cinema or hard-boiled action films or bloody mayhem and martial arts gore, you aren’t going to be satisfied until you’ve seen them all. 1 is the Wasabi. 2, 3 & 4 are the Sushi with a variety of flavors but with plenty of body to fill you as a meal so that you aren’t just telling people you saw these movies where 3734780283402384083048390840 guys got decapitated, and 5 is the sweet ginger palate cleanser that leaves you walking away from the film series feeling satisfied and cleansed by a massive massacre in the snow as well as a crazy dueling babycart (yes Retsudo has a babycart too!) scene. All together? 5 stars, not that you won’t have moments that are less than riveting, but taken as a slowly digested whole. MAXIMUM ENTERTAINMENT.

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