|A FilmExposed Film Review
Dir: Kenji Misumi, Robert Houston, 1980, Japan/USA, 86 mins
Cast: Tomisaburo Wakayama, Kayo Matsuo, Minoru Ohki
While there are no definitive figures, here's a quick summary of approximate mortality statistics in feudal Japan. Work-related deaths: 3%. Accidental deaths in the home: 2%. Deaths as a result of ninja activity: 88%.
At least that feels like the case after watching Shogun Assassin, currently touring as part of the Cult! Wild Japan festival. There are an awful lot of ninjas in this movie. Spooky guys in big hats? Ninjas. Roadside acrobats? Ninjas. Women gathering crops? Yeah, they're ninjas too.
The story isn't complex. In ancient Japan, the paranoid Shogun attempts to murder his favourite assassin Lone Wolf, afraid that the latter's skill and power will one day turn against him. The murder is botched, however, leaving Lone Wolf with a dead wife and an almighty grudge. Now single parent to a pre-school boy, he wanders the country carrying out hits for money, and exacting his revenge on the Shogun's men wherever he can.
The film was cobbled together, incredibly, by American producer/director team David Weisman and Robert Houston using footage from 1970s Japanese films Lone Wolf and Cub 1 and 2. Knowing this, it's unsurprising that the two films cut together to make rather an episodic whole. (Although it can hardly be denied that Kill Bill - Shogun Assassin's most obvious descendant - would have benefited from the same process of being trimmed down from two movies into one.)
The film is certainly violent, crammed with explicit swordplay and blood torrents like those more familiar from Tarantino's film. But the mayhem is mellowed slightly by the semi-comic voiceover narration from Lone Wolf's son. 'My father has so far killed 342 men...' he explains to the audience, pausing because Lone Wolf has now killed another three people in the time it took him to read out that last sentence. '...345,' he adds.
And it must be said, the action is exceptional. The film offers some wonderfully inventive visual surprises, like the moment during a desert showdown when sand turns into blood, or the sudden, grotesque shock of a handful of severed fingers dropping to the floor.
For kitsch fans, the film is also an aural treat. Yes, the standard clashing swords and slaps are all present and correct. But more unexpected is the early 1980s US soundtrack by Mark Lindsay, which sounds throughout like an extended Ultravox B-side. And especially notable is the sound effect for 'watchfulness' that appears regularly whenever Lone Wolf is looking out for his enemies - a repeating, saturated echo that comes straight from a dub-reggae studio.
The film is clearly on tour now to bask in the reflected glory of its better known progeny - not just Kill Bill, but Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Hard Boiled and even Home Alone owe debts. But it deserves to be seen with fresh eyes, as a vintage dose of theatrical blood-spurting ultra-violence. Go, but wear waterproofs.