Sail to Hell on a river of blood in Appellate Judge Dan Mancini's lighting review of death! We dare you!
They'll sail to Hell on rivers of blood!
The original Shogun Assassin is more fun than it has a right to be. A mish-mash of the first two entries in the Lone Wolf and Cub series of Japanese pulp jidaigeki, it's a piece of ultra-violent exploitation cinema that traces the adventures of Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama, Black Rain) and his toddler son Daigoro. Once the official executioner for the Shogun, Itto was betrayed by the Yagyu clan (who also murdered his wife), and forced to hit the road as an itinerant assassin, his young son in tow.
Facts of the Case
Shogun Assassin 2 picks up the story as a young woman sold into indentured prostitution kills her new master by biting his tongue off. Noble Ogami agrees to take the girl's punishment rather than hand her over to a female constable named Torizo (Yuko Hamada, Gamera vs. Guiron). He endures water torture and the dreaded buri-buri in which, suspended upside down, constables thrash him with bamboo rods.
Once healed, Ogami meets Torizo's father, Miura Tatewaki (Jun Hamamura, Jigoku), whose arm Ogami cut off in his capacity as the shogun's executioner. Tatekwaki wants to hire Ogami to assassinate Governor Genba (Isao Yamagata, Floating Clouds) who betrayed his clan and thieved his way into his position of power. Genba in turn wants to hire Ogami to kill the lord who, coincidentally, is responsible for Ogami's loss of position. When Ogami passes on the offer, Genba, fearing for his life, hires an army of samurai to kill the our hero and his son. Luckily, Daigoro's baby cart is tricked out with guns, grenades, and other weapons.
Instead of raising the ire of genre fans, Shogun Assassin's dubbed English soundtrack and funky Americanized score only added to its pulp appeal. After releasing all six of the original, unadulterated Lone Wolf and Cub flicks on DVD, AnimEigo released an excellent edition of Shogun Assassin, in large part to cash in on references to the movie in Kill Bill, Volume 2. One can hardly blame them; and, anyway, it's fun to be able to compare the two original Japanese films to the completely reorganized and westernized dubbed version. AnimEigo has gone back to the Lone Wolf and Cub well once again to release this sequel of sorts to Shogun Assassin. Originally released in the States as Lightning Swords of Death, it is nothing more than a dubbed version of the third Lone Wolf and Cub flick, Baby Cart to Hades. As such, it's a lot less interesting than its predecessor. As a matter of fact, if you own the Japanese version of Baby Cart to Hades, there's not a lot of reason to buy Lightning Swords of Death. If you own neither but are inclined to buy one or the other, I heartily recommend the original version over this dub.
Having gotten all that straight, let me confess that I'm not much of a fan of Lone Wolf and Cub, whether presented in Japanese or English. Based on a manga series by Kozuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, the six films were produced by Zatoichi star Shintaro Katsu as a vehicle for his brother, Tomisaburo Wakayama. The Lone Wolf and Cub flicks are as formulaic and predictable as the Zatoichi series, but they lack the charm brought to the blind swordsman pictures by Katsu's warm and humorous screen persona. Lone Wolf and Cub films are dour affairs. Ogami is an impressive warrior, but he's so stone-faced I find it difficult to care about the outcome of his adventures. The movies take themselves deadly seriously even though nothing about their ridiculous content warrants it. Movies so rife with arterial spray, severed limbs, and impalings ought to be aware of themselves as dumb entertainment. Not so the Lone Wolf and Cub flicks; instead, they seem convinced they're high art, or at least intent on convincing us of such. The series' off-putting tone is surprising considering four of the six films (including this one) were directed by Kenji Misumi, who also directed seven of the far more tonally astute Zatoichi programmers.
Lightning Swords of Death is structurally problematic. Its first 40 minutes are relatively action-packed, but serve mainly to set up the film's real plot—Ogami's being hired to kill Governor Genba. Once Ogami enters Genba's world, everything that happened in the film's first half is rendered largely inconsequential. That would be fine and dandy if the movie presented itself as light entertainment, but, again, its straight-faced demeanor only emphasizes this significant flaw. The flick's most egregious sin is a lengthy bit of philosophizing by a character who's been run through with a sword and takes an inordinate amount of time to die. His soliloquy is meant to ground the action in thematic claptrap about abuse of authority and the victimhood of noble warriors used as pawns by calculating politicians. Instead, it's patronizing. How are we supposed to take a speechifying actor seriously when he has a sword poking into his belly and out of his back? It's like the Asian equivalent of Steve Martin reading Hamlet with an arrow through his head—except the scene isn't supposed to be funny. Misumi should've just admitted to himself that he wasn't making an art film in the mold of Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri and gotten on with the bloodletting. That is, after all, the main draw for the series' fans.
Despite its many flaws, Lightning Swords of Death looks boss on DVD. Instead of making due with beat-up extant source materials for this relatively obscure dub release, AnimEigo reconstructed the film using their superlative transfer of Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades as a foundation. They simply replaced the opening credits with those of an English-language print and swapped the Japanese audio with the English dub. The results are excellent. Colors are vivid, detail is sharp, and source flaws are minimal. A tad too much edge enhancement is the only flaw in the transfer worth mentioning.
The English dub is presented in a vanilla single-channel mono. AnimEigo must have performed a digital restoration of the track because it exhibits no age-related flaws. It won't rock the walls of your home theater, but it's a fine presentation of the source.
The disc houses some informative program notes. You can augment the feature itself by activating the notes through the subtitle menu, or you can read them at your leisure through a separate option in the supplements menu. An image gallery and trailer for the film are also offered as extra content.
Lightning Swords of Death doesn't come close to repeating Shogun Assassin's campy, kinetic fun. Why anyone would plunk down his hard-earned dough for it when the original Japanese version of the film is readily available on DVD is beyond me.
This inferior entry in the Lone Wolf and Cub series is guilty of being unnecessary.
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