We talk a lot in our field of interest, which is nowadays dominated by comic book movie adaptations, about how closely some movie or other hews to a particular source material. Simply being faithful isn’t always enough; you have to get the tone, the spirit of the original while still making it distinctly its own. This is why movies like Deadpool succeed and Watchmen doesn’t: they’re both “faithful,” but one doesn’t get the tone at all. Perhaps the most perfect version of this I’ve ever seen are the Japanese Lone Wolf and Cub films, which got turned into the English-dubbed Shogun Assassin.
In the early 1970s, a manga was published that changed the face of action books in Japan. Unfathomably popular and long-running, writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima unleashed Lone Wolf and Cub, a highly visual story of honor, betrayal, and bloody revenge that remains a touchstone for visual storytelling of its kind. It follows the adventures of a disgraced former “second” to the Shogun in Edo Japan. (The “second” went to various feudal lords, after the Shogun demanded they commit seppuku, and would cut off their heads to relieve the pain of self disemboweling.) After a he’s betrayed by a rival family, and his wife is killed, this samurai and his infant son, Daigoro, go on a quest all across the land to get revenge on anyone involved in the betrayal. However, because of the double-cross, all of Japan believes him to be an enemy of the Shogun and must fight off assassins and ninjas out to kill him. These stories were turned into six films between 1972 and 1974, all starring Tomisaburo Wakayama as Ogami Itto, the titular Lone Wolf.
And that brings us to producer Robert Houston, who wanted to bring the films to North America, with an English dub track. However, since the six original Japanese films are based on a property that weren’t particularly well known over here, he edited together the first two films, using 12 minutes of the first—Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance—and the majority of the second—Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx. And, since this was 1980, he had composer Mark Lindsay create a whole new, electro score for the movie, and added some creepy narration from a slightly older Daigoro. It’s this opening narration that made its way into Quentin Tarantino‘s Kill Bill vol. 2 and rapper GZA‘s album Liquid Swords.
I’m impossibly creeped out by this beginning. That little kid’s voice coupled with the music just gives me the willies for some reason. The visuals you can’t see include a lot of the elements from the first film, including the inciting incident of Ogami’s wife being murdered and him being framed. Later, in one of the series’ most iconic moments, before fully committing to his quest to become a “demon,” Ogami places a sword and a toy ball in front of the baby Daigoro and asks him to choose. If the boy goes over to the ball, Ogami will kill him and let him be with his mother, but if he chooses the sword, the boy will live but be raised in a world of violence and bloodshed. Luckily for us—and for the iconic imagery of a hardened swordsman pushing around a baby cart—Daigoro goes to the sword, and it creates the “greatest partnership in the history of mass slaughter.”
The first two Lone Wolf and Cub movies—written by Koike himself and directed by the great samurai film director Kenji Misumi—feel very episodic, not unlike watching issues of the manga up on the screen…which was the point. The movies were much more about action, heavy gore, and set pieces than any cohesive story. But Houston had to change things around for a single film to be palatable in America, and the method was surprisingly simple: in the original story, Ogami is betrayed by a rival clan, and his dogged search for the members of this clan, and for the leader of it, carries through the whole series. But in Shogun Assassin, the dubbing makes it clear that the Shogun himself is behind the betrayal, and that everyone Ogami kills along the way is a direct representative of the Shogun, who now lives in fear of his former decapitator. Smart, clean, concise.
What has made Shogun Assassin so infamous over the years has been the excessive violence, most of which comes from Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx. The inventiveness in the methods of dispatching the enemies are increasingly ingenious: Ogami uses his sword, but has also decked out Daigoro’s baby cart to be full of hidden, detachable weapons, like a quarterstaff with spring-loaded blades on either side, blades on the wheels that Daigoro himself can unsheathe to cut down enemies at the ankles, and a barrage of throwing knives and daggers. And each of the deaths in the film is as bloody as can be, often with literal geysers of red liquid exploding from a body after it’s swiped, stabbed, or cut. Arterial blood spray of this kind was not new—Akira Kurosawa used it first in his 1962 film, Sanjuro—but it becomes a literal art form in this movie, acting like a bright red exclamation mark on another gorgeously choreographed fight sequence.
Which brings me back to my initial conceit: that Shogun Assassin/Lone Wolf and Cub is the perfect translation from comic to screen. These movies are visual poetry. There are shots directly lifted from panels in the original manga, but there’s also a balletic fluidity in the action, in the camera movement, the editing, and in Wakayama’s graceful and powerful swordsmanship. The slightly portly actor was not what Ogami looked like in the manga, but he sold Koike on playing the part through his sheer prowess in katana-wielding, and his determination that he was right for the role. It’s that kind of spirit that Ogami has as a character, which only helped to heighten the performance. He’s stern-faced and impossibly stoic, until he strikes like a snake.
The ultimate success of Shogun Assassin comes not from what was changed by Robert Houston for an American release, but how much remained the same. Once the story got going, he let the original’s distinctive visuals and in-your-face gore do the talking. While the Lone Wolf and Cub movies should be seen by samurai movie fans everywhere, Shogun Assassin is a worthy remix.