DirectorKenji Misumi, Buichi Saito, Yoshiyuki Kuroda
Release Date(s)1972-1980 (April 24, 2012)
Studio(s)Toho Co., Ltd. (AnimEigo)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: C+
- Extras Grade: B+
- Overall Grade: B+
This two-disc set collects the entirety of the Americanized versions of the Lone Wolf and Cub/Baby Cart series of films (of which there are 6 Japanese language versions). The first film, Shogun Assassin contains the first two films in that series (Sword of Vengeance and Baby Cart at the River Styx) edited down into one film.
It ends up being about ten minutes or so of the first film and a majority of footage from the second film making for a lean and mean 85 minutes of awesome samurai violence. Ogami Itto, in this version, quits his job as executioner for a corrupt Shogun and rather than commit ritual suicide, he and his son (who "chooses" to join him after picking a sword rather than a ball as a plaything) make a bloody exit from the Shogun castle and make their way out in the world. There's actually something worth mentioning that is showcased in this edit: in this version of the film, the Shogun is Yagyu Retsudo - who in the original Japanese series is only the puppet master for the Shogun's ninja team and, because of a greedy power play, the one who is responsible for Itto's downfall. It is Yagyu whom Itto has sworn vengeance on - not the Shogun. Anyway, here, the Shogun not one for being betrayed, sends him best assassins out to kill Itto. All are destroyed, culminating with a gang of three master assassins meeting a swift but bloody end at the end of Itto's blade. Oh, yeah, spoiler alert. The film is remembered for its staccato (and quite silly) narration from Diagoro (Itto's son) keeping us updated on the action of the film and was featured prominently in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill 2. On its own though, Shogun Assassin has become a fondly remembered cult film and is partly responsible for samurai fandom in the 70s, 80s and 90s which allows for so many of these films to be on DVD and Blu-ray.
The rest of the films in this set are the remaining films in the series presented in their entirety, without any subtitles or Japanese dubbing available. Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades is renamed Shogun Assassin 2: Lightning Swords of Death, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril is Shogun Assassin 3: Slashing Blades of Carnage, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons is Shogun Assassin 4: Five Fistfuls of Gold and Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell is Shogun Assassin 5: Cold Road to Hell. From all I can tell, there are no changes made to these films or any edits that I can see that would make them more in line with the Shogun Assassin cut of the first two films. They are just presented here in a collected set.
The Kenji Misumi connection is - he was the director on the first two films that make up Shogun Assassin. He also directed Lightning Swords of Death in this set, as well as Five Fistfuls of Gold. Sadly, he was not responsible for my favorite entry: Slashing Blade of Carnage that featured the tattooed female assassin Oyuki. I'm going to save discussion of these films for the upcoming Blu-ray release of the original versions of these films. That should be later this year (2012). As it is, for fans of samurai films who don't like to read, these are all very well produced and Ogami Itto is a stoic yet endearing hero. These films are fun, full of bloody battles, comic-book fight scenes and plenty of the things that make exploitation-style samurai films some of the best samurai films.
AnimEigo did a great job with this set. The first disc of this set is basically a repackaged Shogun Assassin disc that was released stand-alone in 2010. The second disc is the remaining 4 films - all beautifully remastered. Video across all films is presented in a nice, crisp and colorful 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer at approx. 2.35:1 (for all intents and purposes, don't email me Home Theater Forum guys - I know, I know). It would see AnimEigo remade the first Shogun with brand new elements rather than try and save an old print of the original cut - which was a smart move. The other films are straight transfer and all look might fine. There are some aging issues across the board, but these transfers are leaps and bounds above the previous VHS and DVD releases. Audio is a bit different. The first film features lossless and uncompressed two-channel LPCM mono mix which gives the film a nice full sound. The rest of the films feature lossless mono tracks which all sound good but lack the extra push the 2.0 mono track has on the first film. It's slightly obvious, but nothing that truly hurts the release.
Extras on board are exclusive to disc one: There are two tracks here. There are two commentary tracks. The first features film scholar Ric Meyers and martial arts expert Steve Wilson discussing the original Lone Wolf and Cub series, giving insight to the way of the samurai, how samurai films impacted bother cinema and martial arts and Wilson dissects some of the swordplay. The second track has producer of the American version Davis Weisman joined by Jim Evans who illustrated the original theatrical poster as well as Gibran Evans, who played the part of the iconic narrator Daigoro. He did the voice when he was just seven years old turns out. We get a bit of insight to the Americanized version with a lot of time spent "remembering" things for the first time in a long time. It's not a bad track, just lacks focus. There's also an interview with Samuel L. Jackson presented in 1080p as he talks about seeing the original release in NYC theaters and how the film impacted his career and design to make samurai films himself (which he did with Afro Samurai). There's also a Restoration Gallery with comparisons of this version with previous DVD and bootleg releases as well as text-based Program Notes.
Kenji Misumi was a remarkable filmmaker and a key player in Japanese cinema. These two disc sets are a great way to visit some of his films and see for yourself what great cinema he made. Again, check out that story I linked above - it will give you a little bit of insight into the man who made so many great samurai films.
- Todd Doogan