The insanely paranoid Japanese Shogun has been poisoned by his advisers against his loyal Lord Executioner, Ogami Itto.
After killing Itto’s wife, the Shogun orders him to commit ritual suicide. Itto chooses to disobey and later gives his infant son Daigoro his own “choice.” He places a toy ball and a sword within his son’s reach. If the boy chooses the ball, he has chosen to join his mother in death. If he chooses the sword, he will join his father in revolt against the Shogun.
This film has a curious history. First there was a Manga (Japanese Adult Comic) in 1970 called Lone Wolf and Cub. Then the comic was made into a series of plays, and then became a television series. Later, six films were made. The rights to the films were purchased by an American producer who had the first two films recut into a new film with a new dubbed English language track imposing a modified story on the images. The result (in my opinion, having also seen the original films) is a new film superior to any of the individual six Japanese originals.
Shogun Assassin is first and foremost a brutal bloodbath. The Shogun has sent assassins to eliminate this rebel and Itto dispatches these attackers with regularity. But, I would argue, the violence is rendered with artistry. Tomisaburô Wakayama‘s swordplay is a thing of beauty. Watching him, one can understand (just a little) the whole Zen poetry swordsmanship connection found in Japanese Samurai history. He seems chubby, but underneath he is a solid athlete (or plays one on TV) and his sword can fly out of its scabbard, pass through three people, and float back home in what seems one elegant motion. Its a ballet of death.
The reworking adds an evocative and tender narration by Daigoro (provided by the 7 year old son of a designer on the re-worked film), which adds an overlay of innocent beauty to the brutality of the plot.
The story was remade as the graphic novel Road to Perdition, which was then made into the film with Tom Hanks. Clearly a potent story, to have passed through so many incarnations.
Trailer below – the bit of action at the 50 second mark always blew my mind – actual swordsmen or swordswomen, is that legit skill on the part of Wakayama? Because it looks amazing!