Shogun Assassin (1980)

David Weisman lived the kind of life that they make movies about. Directly after seeing La Dolce Vita, he quit Syracuse University’s School of Fine Arts, headed off to Rome and managed to not only meet Fellini, but design the poster for 8 1/2 and work for Pasolini. He followed that by working as Otto Preminger’s assistant and designing the opening of Hurry Sundown.

He also found himself part of Andy Warhol’s Factory and made the experimental film, Ciao! Manhattan before producing The Killing of America and convincing Manuel Puig to allow him to adapt his novel Kiss of the Spider Woman for film*.

Working with Robert Houston (Bobby from The Hills Have Eyes), he created a piece of pop culture remixing that we know as Shogun Assassin. But really it’s twelve minutes of Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance and the majority of the second film in the six-film series, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx.

These Kozure Ōkami films were based on the Japanese manga Lone Wolf and Cub, which was created by the writer Kazuo Koike and the artist Goseki Kojima. If the story of a killer redeeming himself while walking alongside a weapon-laden baby cart seems familiar, someone with a much greater budget in a galaxy far, far away would be very, very inspired by it.

Weisman had obtained the rights for $50,000 from the American office of Toho Studios and got a deal with Roger Corman’s New World Pictures to get it out to the grindhouses and drive-ins, while MCA/Universal Home Video released the videotape that got into rental stores.

This piece of pop culture has become culture in and out of itself, informing not only the aforementioned science fiction series, as well as being the movie that the Bride watched with her daughter at the end of Kill Bill Volume 2 and the dialogue that’s sampled throughout Wu-Tang member GZA’s album Liquid Swords, including the narration that begins this film’s bloodshed,

“When I was little, my father was famous. He was the greatest Samurai in the empire, and he was the Shogun’s decapitator. He cut off the heads of 131 lords for the Shogun. It was a bad time for the empire. The Shogun just stayed inside his castle and he never came out. People said his brain was infected by devils, and that he was rotting with evil. The Shogun said the people were not loyal. He said he had a lot of enemies, but he killed more people than that. It was a bad time. Everybody living in fear, but still we were happy. My father would come home to mother, and when he had seen her, he would forget about the killings. He wasn’t scared of the Shogun, but the Shogun was scared of him. Maybe that was the problem. At night, mother would sing for us, while father would go into his temple and pray for peace. He’d pray for things to get better. Then, one night the Shogun sent his ninja spies to our house. They were supposed to kill my father, but they didn’t. That was the night everything changed, forever. That was when my father left his samurai life and became a demon. He became an assassin who walks the road of vengeance. And he took me with him. I don’t remember most of this myself. I only remember the Shogun’s ninja hunting us wherever we go. And the bodies falling. And the blood.”

So yes, the original films were directed by Kenji Misumi, who also gave us several movies in the sagas of Zaitochi and Sleepy Eyes of Death. But by translating them into an incredibly bloody Americanized version that played scummy venues that had no pretensions of art, the world of Lone Wolf and Cub was introduced to audiences that otherwise would have never had their minds taken back to feudal Japan.

Ogami Itto was the shogun’s decapitator whose wife was killed by that very same shogun and has now gone on the ending path into vengeance. When his son Daigoro was just an infant, he gave him the choice between vengeance and death: either crawl toward the sword and join him on the road to Hell or the ball, so that he would be killed by his father’s hand and join his mother in heaven.

Daigoro chose the sword.

So while this film concentrates more on the bloody battles and less on the why that gets us there, it’s still pretty powerful with some blackly humorous dialogue from Daigoro, who says at the end, as he looks back on the bloody path of rage his father has cut, “I guess I wish it was different…but a wish is only a wish.

When Shogun Assassin was released by Vipco in the UK, it became a section 3 video nasty due to its heavy levels of violence.

*His brother Sam’s career has not been as highbrow, as his resume includes D2: The Mighty Ducks, George of the Jungle, What’s the Worst That Could Happen? and Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star.

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