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Shogun Assassin (1980)

My fondness for exploitation cinema stems from a simple notion: because there are generally no rules or censors—and hence, no one at the wheel other than the creator—there tends to be a deficiency in competent, rational editing, all of which translates to the screen a raw kind of id. An open window into the artist, if you will.

Which is why my love for Shogun Assassin (1980) is so odd; it’s a film completely dependent upon editing.

Throughout the 1970’s, there were a series of samurai exploitation films released in Japan under the banner, Lone Wolf and Cub. Six films in total, they chronicle a widowed father and son traversing feudal Japan on a very limb-endangering path of revenge. Ogami Itto, played by probably-too-chubby-to-be-a-Japanese-action-star-but-somehow-still-was, Tomisaburo Wakayama, was once the Shogun’s top samurai and executioner. But the Shogun, having spiraled into Philip Baker Hall in Secret Honor levels of batshit and paranoia, suspects that Ogami is planning some kind of power grab (I guess?) and sends assassins to his home, who end up killing Ogami’s wife instead.

And thus begins Ogami’s quest for revenge, while simultaneously raising his toddler son along their perilous life on the road.

Lone Wolf and Cub remained in relative obscurity in the U.S. until in 1980, Robert Houston and David Weisman had a truly novel idea: edit the first two movies in the series together as one and release it into the grindhouse circuit as Shogun Assassin. And hell fucking yes, the final product is exactly as you’d imagine it to be. It completely chisels all exposition into its barest, almost nonsensical form, and then fills the remaining portion of its lean 90 minute run time with all the best fight scenes from both movies. The structure of the entire film unfolds as such: 2-3 minutes of exposition then big, gory fight; repeat.

Did I mention they switched out the original films’ soundtracks with a boss righteous, standard 1-9-8-0 synth score?

Honestly, if none of this sounds appealing to you, I’m not sure I really want you reading my blog. Because I haven’t even gotten to the gore yet.

The entirety of the gore design in Kill Bill Vol. 1 comes from these Lone Wolf and Cub movies. So if you’ve seen that, you know what you’re in for here. And if you haven’t, then any qualified doctor will tell you that the human body holds hundreds of gallons of blood and is just a series of high pressure pumps ready to explode at the very sight of a chubby Japanese widower. There are probably more limbs and heads cut off in Shogun Assassin than “fucks” in The Big Lebowski. Are you even just a tiny bit curious how hyperbolic I’m being?

I love this movie. I’m not quite sure I know what’s going on in it, even after seeing it four times, but a better party movie may not exist.

Final item of note: there comes a real Catch-22 in deciding to embark on the Shogun Assassin journey. I firmly believe if you are new to the series, you should start with Shogun Assassin as an introduction, and if it’s your jam, go back and watch all six previous movies. However, in doing this, you will spoil yourself with the pacing. Because nothing will ever match the pacing of this fucking thing. I spent $60 on the Criterion blu ray set of the Lone Wolf and Cub series and tried three times getting through the first movie, before just giving up and gifting the set to a friend.

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