The Bad Movie Report

Shogun Assassin

If you bothered to actually read William Goldman's novel, The Princess Bride, you know that the movie only supplied you with half the framing device. Goldman fondly remembers his grandfather reading the novel to him; so much so that when, as an adult, he finds a copy of the book in an Out-of-Print book store, he purchases it and presents it to his son. Goldman is nonplussed at the boy's lackluster reaction to it, and then he actually reads it - turns out his grandfather edited out all the boring stuff, leaving only the things that little boys like to hear about. The Princess Bride, then, is Goldman's Edited Good Parts Version of the original novel.

What you have with Shogun Assassin is the Edited Good Parts Version of the Lone Wolf movies. It is mainly footage from the second picture, Baby Cart on the River Styx, with some excerpts from the first, Sword of Vengeance, to give us the backstory.

In this Americanized version, Itto Ogami is the Official Decapitator for the Shogun, who has apparently gone either impossibly corrupt or insane (the Shogun, not Ogami). The Shogun sends ninja to kill Ogami, but they only slay his wife instead, leaving the executioner to care for his infant son, Daigoro. Ogami instructs the infant to choose between a brightly colored ball, and his unsheathed sword. If the child chooses the ball, Ogami will send him "to be with his mother". Daigoro, however, reaches for the naked steel, and so begins their journey on "the road to hell".

The Shogun sends an envoy to command Ogami to kill his son and commit hara-kiri - Ogami Human wheat waiting for the harvest.instead kills most of the troops. The Shogun's son offers to fight a double- or-nothing-type duel to settle the matter. The wily Shogun Spawn tries to attack Ogami out of the setting sun, blinding him. The wilier Ogami, who has Daigoro strapped to his back, has tied a mirror to the boy's head, reflecting the sun right back into the bad guy's face. Blinded, the Shogun's son loses his head ...quite literally.

Being a villain, the Shogun sends another son, and a slew of armored troops, to tell Ogami, "You won your freedom, but not your son's. Hand him over and prepare to watch him be tortured to death." This would impress the average man on the street as a foolhardy thing to say to someone Do you know the way to San Jose?who just whacked out about twenty men the day before, but these Shogun boys seem to be slow learners. Ogami predictably turns into a Vegamatic®, Number Two Son tries unsuccessfully to outsmart the Deadliest Man in Japan, and Number Three Son moves up a rung. Ogami takes to the road with Daigoro, traveling the land as a professional assassin. Pushing his son before him in a wooden baby cart, they become known as Lone Wolf and Cub.

That's your back story. Our main story concerns the Shogun's ninja, who are constantly trying to do our heroes in, and who are even joined by a clan of female ninja, who fight even dirtier. Through a number of vicious fights, they are all reduced to fertilizer. Concurrent with that, Ogami is hired to assassinate the Shogun's brother, Lord Kurondo. The major obstacle to that is the three badasses who escort Kurondo, a trio known only as the Masters of Death.

The Masters of Death are indeed a formidable lot - one fights with a steel claw, one a metal club, Masters of Death - lethal, but tidy.the third with spiked gauntlets - and they messily dispose of wave after wave of rebels who try to get through them to Kurondo. Of course, eventually they must face off with Ogami, only to find their Mastery of Death was not quite as complete as they thought. With Kurondo and all his men scattered piecemeal about the desert landscape, Ogami and Daigoro walk off to their next picture. The end.

It's very tempting to go into more detail, especially in the extraordinary fight scenes. Don't expect the elegiac grace of the Chinese martial arts films here; the fights are nasty, brutish, and short - Ogami can kill with one blow, and doesn't like to waste time - but they're still crackling with a creative energy rare in western films of this sort. Also, Eeeeeeew!apparently in medieval Japan, all the men had approximately five gallons of blood in their body, under enormous pressure. Damn near everybody gets to die an ugly, ridiculously gushing death (did Peter Jackson ever watch these?). Shown to an unsuspecting audience, that first fight scene usually leads to an escalating chorus of "Whoa!"s.

The baby cart, incidentally, is tricked out more than your average 007 car. Concealed blades abound, some of which Daigoro can activate with well-paced kicks. And speaking of Daigoro, one Cute!of the wisest choices made in the translation was to make him the narrator. The idea has a certain charm amidst the carnage, and it certainly helps us warm to the characters, as Ogami is, of necessity, something of a cold fish. In my favorite bit of narration, Daigoro tells us that to pass the time on missions, he counts how many ninja his father has killed. "My father says not to count, but to only pray for the dead. But if I don't count, I won't know how many people to pray for. So far I've counted 342." One fight scene later: "Three hundred and fortyyyyyyyyyyy... five."

In case you don't hang around the manga crowd, the Lone Wolf movies are based on the comics of Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima; Koike in particular has repeatedly proven himself to be a superb storyteller through this and other action series like Crying Freeman. Some of the best modern American comic auteurs like Frank Miller have drawn a lot of inspiration from Koike. The Lone From "Lone Wolf and Cub"Wolf stories always incorporated interesting period detail and some plot devices and twists intended, as explained above, to make the reading (or viewing) audience go, "Whoa!". I will now proceed to completely ruin one of them for you:

After a hard day of wiping out two clans of ninja, the exhausted Ogami passes out from his wounds. Daigoro nurses him through the night as best a two year-old boy can, but he winds up getting captured by the surviving ninja and suspended over a deep well, used as bait to make his father surrender. Ogami refuses, telling his son to" prepare to stand by your mother's side." In Ha!  Finally got that damn mosquito!response, Daigoro kicks off his sandal. It falls down the the well. Splash. There is a long pause, then Ogami erupts like a whirlwind in a knife store, kills every single man in the clearing, then stomps on the rope tied around Daigoro just as the boy's feet hit the water. I blush to admit that it took me a couple of viewings to figure out that Ogami had counted out the seconds to the sandal's splash and knew exactly how much time he had. All done visually, like a good comic story.

The dubbing is pretty well done, by which I mean that the words match the lip movements and the dialogue isn't horrible; sometimes the words chosen are really odd, a turn of phrase particulary tortured, but that just seems to add to the comic book ambience. Why else would Spiked Gauntlets say something like, "Now we will show you.... Masters of Death!!!"

I would love to know how this particular Edited Good Parts Version came about. It seems almost like some sort of family affair; examination of the credits at the end reveal that the Wonderland Philharmonic, who perform the musical soundtrack, doubled as voice talent! Speaking of voice talent, Marshall Efron is easy to spot as at least three characters; not so obvious is Sandra Bernhard! Back to the music - it's late 70's art-rock electronic, which shouldn't have worked, and yet it does. One of the composers/ players/ voices is none other than Mark Lindsay, formerly of Paul Revere and the Raiders.

It isn't as hard to find the Lone Wolf movies as it used to be; oddly, as the originals have found distributors here in the states, this home-grown hybrid has gone missing. Older, independent video stores might have a copy for rental, but I think this baby went out of print long ago, and the price Reel was asking for a used copy ($69.99, if memory bears) seems to support that. Perhaps, like me, you'll just have to haunt used video and half-price book stores until a copy finally falls into your hands. Last week, I got my wish - maybe next week, it's your turn.



Good ol' American...or whatever...blood splashin' fun!

- November 22, 1998