The Lone Wolf Legacy, Part 2 – Shogun Assassin, the Bastard Cub
- 5 November 2012
There can be little doubt that the Baby Cart films owe a large part of their enduring popularity in the West to their Americanised bastard offspring Shogun Assassin. For many fans, this re-cut, repackaged and re-scored version of Baby Cart at the River Styx – with a dash of Sword of Vengeance thrown in – was their first encounter with the series. To some it even formed the start of a fascination with Japanese film.
Rendered all the more titillating as one of the forbidden fruits of Britain’s early-1980s video nasties scare, Shogun Assassin was and remains a sublime piece of entertainment, westernised with a remarkable care that made it much more than just another re-dubbed martial arts actioner for the grindhouse crowd. Popping up in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill or sampled by GZA/Genius of the Wu-Tang Clan; even with the Baby Cart series widely available for years, Shogun Assassin hasn’t lost its appeal, let alone faded away or been rendered obsolete.
In a way its stamina and quality defy the odds. The history of Japanese films dubbed and re-edited for the Western market contains its share of embarrassments, but even where such surrogate versions have their legions of fans – be it Godzilla, King of the Monsters and its trail of giant monster movies and Toho fantasy films, or the bonecrushing adventures of Sonny Chiba – these were without exception inferior to the originals, nostalgia notwithstanding. Shogun Assassin on the other hand can so proudly stand in its father’s shadow that if someone were forced to choose to see only one of the Baby Cart films, he or she wouldn’t go wrong to watch Shogun Assassin.
From 42nd Street with Love
The Baby Cart series already made it to American cinema screens as early as the mid-1970s. In Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, theaters like the Toho La Brea, the Kokusai and the Kabuki showed Japanese films to the expatriate community and anyone else who happened to wander in, most likely in search of martial arts movies. Among the latter were David Weisman and Robert Houston. Weisman was a former journeyman graphic designer who had worked alongside Federico Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Otto Preminger and who had made his directorial debut with 1972’s Ciao! Manhattan, an avant-gardish feature starring Andy Warhol acolyte Edie Sedgwick. Houston was a young actor who had made his debut in Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes.
With James Clavell’s novel Shogun riding high on the bestseller lists and a TV mini-series in the works, interest in Japanese history was on the up, and Weisman felt the time was right to give some of the films he had been seeing a wider canvas than Little Tokyo. With money loaned from a group of friends, he acquired the rights to Baby Cart at the River Styx, plus ten minutes of exposition from Sword of Vengeance, through Toho’s L.A. office. With Houston as co-writer and director he set about fusing this material into something suitable for U.S. release.
What resulted was six months in the studio rearranging, editing and dubbing, with a voice cast that included comedienne Sandra Bernhard, actor Marshall Efron (who had played opposite Robert DeNiro in Bang the Drum Slowly and under George Lucas on THX 1138), prolific TV director Lamont Johnson, and the staff of a nearby sushi bar for authentically Japanese grunts and yelps. Slabs of beef, vegetables and watermelons doubled as chopped torsos. Houston and Weisman also added their vocal talents, as did Mark Lindsay, the former lead singer of 1960s gimmick pop band Paul Revere and The Raiders, who also composed Shogun Assassin’s John Carpenter-esque synth score with Michael Lewis. None of these people are credited for specific characters, so it’s likely that everyone supplied multiple voices. The exception is the most impressive one of all, seven-year-old Gibran Evans, the voice of Daigoro. Son of Jim Evans, the designer of Shogun Assassin’s poster and logo, his entrancing tones dominate the film thanks to Houston and Weisman’s choice to have Ogami’s son narrate the film in voice-over.
Weisman and Houston sold the finished film for distribution to Roger Corman’s company New World Pictures, who released it in the second half of 1980. That the title had to have the word ‘shogun’ in it was obvious: its release coincided with the premiere of the TV mini-series based on James Clavell’s novel (it was Nelson Lyon, director of the sex comedy The Telephone Book, on which Weisman worked, who added the ‘assassin’). Corman, in his memoirs How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, called it "a rather bizarre Japanese film" that he "decided rather whimsically to acquire." Although for Corman it became a "surprise money maker," Houston and Weisman later claimed they never saw a cent beyond their advance.
Released onto the then still flourishing grindhouse circuit epitomised by the run-down cinemas on New York’s 42nd Street and L.A.’s Hollywood Boulevard, the film made a splash that went far beyond the normal reception for an exploitation film. According to Houston, "people would leave the theater and get right back in line to see it again." High profile American movie guide critic Leonard Maltin raved about it in such instantly quotable phrases as "brilliantly edited out of two different features," "inordinate amounts of combat" and "absolutely stunning visual ballet of violence and bloodletting."
In Britain the film gained notoriety on video a few years later, its reputation only growing in later years after copies were seized by the police and the film became unavailable during the video nasties scare. Though it was never officially on the DPP list of banned videos, it was one of the many titles that were quietly sacrificed to this decade-long, tabloid-fuelled paranoia.
Much of the achievement of Shogun Assassin is down to the decision to use Baby Cart at the River Styx as the source material. The iconic characters that populate the original film survive the transition without any problem, their otherworldliness only enhanced by being taken out of context. With its emphasis on style, the film also gave Weisman and Houston far less thematic and historical weight to contend with than some of the other episodes. Shogun Assassin logically does away with any of the film’s allusions to deeper meaning, focusing instead on inventing a simple but effective plot around the action scenes. What is left of Japaneseness is played up for its exotic qualities (some Japanese expressions are even sprinkled into the English dialogue), while any narrative gaps are covered up with Daigoro’s voice-over, which smoothly takes the viewer along for the ride, humanising the plight of the father and son protagonists for Western viewers.
There is also little to fault in the editing and reshuffling of the scenes. Moving River Styx’s final scene (Sayaka dropping her sword in sight of Ogami) to before the battle in the dunes and ending the film with the latter, for example, was a smart choice, closing the film on a suitably open-ended and resonant note with Daigoro looking back at one of the straw hats of the Bentenrai (here called Masters of Death) being blown away on the wind. Furthermore, the English dialogue contains some unexpectedly strong moments, such as when Daigoro keeps count of Ogami’s victims so he knows how many souls to pray for.
That the directorial pair decided to emphasise the exotic, the enigmatic and the violent, points to another likely inspiration on Shogun Assassin: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s classic midnight movie El Topo (1970), a western about a lone gunman and his infant son who travel across the desert, encountering a succession of outlandish villains. Equal parts mystical and cartoony, El Topo has exaggerated violence to spare, with blood flowing (if not spurting) copiously. Particularly in its English-dubbed form, the similarities between Jodorowsky’s film and Shogun Assassin are striking.
Having to deliver the goods in the space of a single film, rather than an ongoing series, Shogun Assassin wisely focuses on entertainment value, which it has in spades. That it survives the amputation of much of its thematic heart so well is a testament not just to the quality of the adaptation, but also to that of Baby Cart at the River Styx in the first place. What is most important though, is that Shogun Assassin is not just a distillation, but something entirely new that exists in its own space, separate from its source material. There is the Baby Cart series and there is Shogun Assassin, still standing rather proudly beside it. This is something almost no other Asian film dubbed and repackaged for a Western market has ever managed to do, and it is entirely thanks to the devotion of Robert Houston and David Weisman.
After Shogun Assassin, its two creators went on to bigger things, both finding no less than Oscar glory on their paths. Weisman produced Kiss of the Spider Woman in 1985, which was nominated for Best Picture and won its lead actor William Hurt one of the coveted statuettes, while Robert Houston collected one in person in 2005 for his documentary Mighty Times: The Children’s March.
The two men contemplated giving another Baby Cart entry the makeover, but decided against it, feeling that the other episodes lent themselves much less to successful westernisation. Perhaps they were referring to Lightning Swords of Death, the first attempt to officially release one of Itto Ogami’s adventures, in this case Baby Cart to Hades, in U.S. theatres. Shorn of six minutes and dubbed into English with rather less care than Shogun Assassin, it was released in 1974, obviously in an effort to cash in on the kung fu craze that was then sweeping the nation. With silver screen pugilists from the four corners of the globe vying for Bruce Lee’s crown in the wake of the Little Dragon’s passing, Columbia Pictures decided to throw the samurai into the fray. The poster even carried the tagline: "Raise a Kung-fu fist against Ogami… and he’ll chop it off!" In an ironic twist that shows just how strong the appeal of Houston and Weisman’s effort continues to be, when Lightning Swords of Death later surfaced on DVD (under the nonsensical title Lupine Wolf) it was promoted as a sequel to Shogun Assassin.
Continue reading Part 3: The Endless Road