I recently upgraded to Blu-ray. Not because I was especially excited to, but I realized I have a nice HD television and needed to replace my DVD player, so after some discussion with some friends, I ended up upgrading as cheaply as I reasonably could.
That was approximately the last time I had free money to spend, so I have yet to pick up any Blu-ray disks, although I certainly have some in mind.
So when Peter Nellhaus, of the essential Coffee coffee and more coffee blog, offered me a copy of the upcoming Shogun Assassin Blu-ray on the condition that I write in up before the August 24th release date, I jumped at the chance.
So, here I am.
Godzilla was released in Japan in 1954, less than a decade after an horrific war took place between the Japan and United States. The feeling of the Japanese as the country upon which two atomic bombs were dropped, is a subtext the director Ishirō Honda wove into the movie.
Obviously that theme was felt differently in the United States at that time. Not to mention, there were remaining hostilities against the Japanese.
So, it was with some courage even that Edmund Goldman, Terry Turner and Joseph E. Levine took the movie to develop for exploitation in the American market at all. So, it's remarkable that Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, the American cut they made, removing most of the atomic subtext and inserting scenes of Raymond Burr reacting to the events of the movie.
Even more remarkable that it's pretty good. It's nowhere near the masterpiece the original Honda movie is, but it was good enough to make money in the United States, to bring the future sequels upon sequels to the United States, and build enough of a following that eventually we were able to see the original movie here as well.
I'm not sure I would be so kind to David Weisman and Robert Houston, who took the majority of Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx along with some of the back story material from Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance, re-structured it, dubbed it, re-scored it and marketed it, remarkably successfully as Shogun Assassin.
Not that I think the intentions were bad, and there may also be an extent to which the status of the original movies as well as the original comic book series in the United States owes a debt to the success of Shogun Assassin.
It certainly is clear that a lot of effort went into the making of the patchwork movie. The use of 7-year-old Gibran Evans as the voice of you Daigoro in telling the story in voice over is a clever device to help draw the viewer into the story, and help fill gaps created by trying to take two rather episodic movies and try to turn them into a more more coherent single narrative story.
Not to mention, a significant effort was apparently made with the dubbing, employing deaf lip-readers in an attempt to get example of what the characters could likely be saying in English.
It's easy to see what it was the audience in 1981 saw in Shogun Assassin, but unfortunately I can't say, as someone already familiar with the original series, I was that happy with it.
I'm not much of a dubbing fan, and with Asian movies it's nearly always intolerable. There's a minor exception for the Ang Lee supervised dubbing for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which, as an alternative after multiple subtitled viewings, did offer some extra insight into how I, as an English speaker, should interpret the accents and such in the movie.
Asian languages have such an entirely different rhythm to European languages that there's something to jarring about hearing English spoken in those rhythms, no matter how artfully they are handled. As hard as I try, and there are a significant number of much loved Asian movies, especially martial arts movies, that I haven't seen in their entirety because it's too difficult for me to continue watching dubbed versions.
Weisman gives himself the lion's share of the credit for the overall quality of the movie, but I'm inclined to suspect that where it's handled better, it's more because of Houston, if only because of Weisman's rather casual disrespect of the original material on his commentary. I don't think it was intentional, and I suspect he did come into it with some affection for it, but it played very poorly for me as a fan of the original movie series.
For what it's worth, AnimEigo seems to have done as excellent a job putting together this package. As well as the Weisman commentary, which also features graphic designer Jim Evans and Gibran Evans, already noted as the movies voice of Daigoro, it also features a commentary by film scholar Ric Meyers and martial arts expert Steve Watson.
I can't help thinking that the latter commentary was made after hearing how badly the Weisman commentary was likely to play to fans of the movies, such as myself. And whether that was the intention or not, it certainly does work. Meyers and Watson do an excellent job of explaining the ways this movie does work, in terms of being a movie in its own right, as well as outlining the differences between it and the original movies, as well as some discussion of the other forms, such as the comic book series and the multiple television versions.
Frankly, while I can tell there are reasons for the oversimplifications the movie makes and can tell in various places that subtleties are left in that a lesser movie of this sort would leave out, I can't say I appreciated Shogun Assassin as a movie very much. Too much nuance is lost for me. The Mark Lindsay score is not bad, even interesting, but pales in comparison to the brilliantly kooky Hideaki Sakurai of the original movies. And, hard as I try, I'm not able to concentrate on the movie properly with the dubbing.
I wish AnimEigo much success with this disk, however, if only in the hopes that its success will lead to as nice a future Blu-ray release for the magnificent original movies.
UPDATE: I see that the Meyers/Watson commentary was featured on the earlier DVD release. It, much like the commentary for Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, is essential listening for those interested in the subjects.
And here's some further comment from the great Josh Olson: