With all the darkness in the world lately, we here at F This Movie! thought it might be nice to spend the week of Thanksgiving talking about specific movies we are thankful for (and yes, I know that is grammatically incorrect but I decided that "Movies for Which We are Thankful" sounded douchey). It was a suggestion from Adam Riske, who wanted to revive a column we did back in 2010, just a few months after the site launched. I liked the idea so much that I asked all of our contributors to submit a piece, meaning we will be running these all week long. We'll get back to our regularly scheduled content next week. For now, let's give thanks.
I had a hard time choosing a movie to talk about for this series, partly because I have so many movies I'm thankful for and partly because I've already spent the last six years talking about a number of them. I landed on1980's Shogun Assassin for a number of reasons.
Grindhouse Film Festival at Chicago's Music Box Theatre this past #Junesploitation. Festival programmer Dan Halstead held a secret 35mm screening of Shogun Assassin to close the fest out and introduced it as "the greatest movie ever made." I'm not going to say he's right, but I do think he's on to something.
For those who are unfamiliar, the Lone Wolf and Cub movies were a series of six films made in Japan in the early 1970s, based on a popular manga series and starring Tomisaburo Wakayama as Ogami Ittō, former executioner for the shogun who is framed, disgraced and forced to walk the path of a rogue assassin, and Tomikawa Akihiro as Daigoro, his infant son who he carries with him in a cart. Robert Houston -- a former actor best known for playing young Bobby in the original The Hills Have Eyes -- bought the rights to Kenji Misumi's films from Toho and edited the first two movies, Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance and Lord Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx, into a single blood-soaked epic, dubbing the dialogue into English, dropping in narration from the infant Daigoro and adding a new synthesizer score courtesy of Mark Lindsay from Paul Revere and the Raiders.
Shogun Assassin hacks the first two Lone Wolf and Cub films (mostly the second) down to its barest essentials, resulting in what is basically an 85-minute fight scene as Ogami encounters new adversaries every few minutes, battles them and slices them up into piles of limbs and geysers of blood. By abandoning most of the plot, Shogun just kind of drifts along from moment to moment; the editing has a dreamy, non-linear quality that is improved, not weakened, by the new voiceover from seven-year old Girban Evans, whose delivery has a flat, wistful quality reminiscent of Linda Manz in Days of Heaven. It becomes a kind of anti-narrative, the skeleton of a highlight reel with just enough bones to hold in a soul. While the Lone Wolf movies make the case that father and son are condemning themselves to Hell, it does so over the course of several films. I would argue that Shogun Assassin does a better job of making that point in just one movie, probably because the editing and amazing synth score give the whole thing a much darker feeling of constant dread.
But maybe the biggest reason I'm thankful for Shogun Assassin -- aside from how happy it makes me and how it will always remind me of my baby girl -- is that it's a movie that helps me to redefine the lines of what a movie can be. Shock Waves host (and friend of F This Movie!) Elric Kane often refers to certain kinds of movies as "pure cinema." It has become a running joke on that podcast, but I know exactly what he's talking about. There are movies that aren't necessarily interested in telling a specific story or creating three-dimensional characters. They are images and sound, designed to invoke a direct response from the pleasure centers of our cinephile brains. Shogun Assassin is pure fucking cinema.
It doesn't necessarily subscribe to the conventional standards of what makes a great film in that it doesn't have a traditional writer and director and cast, etc., because Robert Houston took what Kenji Misumi had already done and reoriented it into something better suiting his own sensibilities. And while it may be the exception and not the rule, it is proof that new art can be created from existing art. I don't know that I'll ever decide how I fully feel about our culture of sampling and remixing -- it ultimately doesn't matter, because that's the world we live in now -- but I know that Shogun Assassin makes the case that it is possible to create two great films from the same source. While more traditional schools of thought stick to notions about how film can achieve objective artistic merit, Shogun Assassin reminds us that there aren't any rules about how a movie gets to greatness. What matters is that it's great.