Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Second Age Review Backlog 10: Shogun Assassin

For essentially as long as they have existed, samurai films have had, shall we say a problem, namely that the single greatest one is also one of the earliest. Yes, Seven Samurai not only the greatest samurai film, but also the single greatest foreign film and the single greatest thing to come out of Japan, is a next to impossible standard to live up to. A genre with a similar problem, namely spoof comedies, works around this by making the style, setting and subject of it's spoofs different but with samurai films that's not really an option. The setting will always be feudal Japan, the style will always be a slow burning actioner and it's subjects will almost always relate to honor, strength and their application in daily life. Therefore, a samurai film will almost always have to rely on what new, or if not new than interesting, things it brings to the table.


But there's another problem, which is quite frankly a little bigger. The problem is that a lot of Americans are unaware of the rules the film, or rather the setting, is operating on. To be fair, a lot of foreign films have this problem, but samurai films have it the worst. The first thing to understand is that Japan has it's own film market, which is almost as strong as North America's and therefore feels no need to alter itself to meet the demands of the American film market. The second thing to understand is that samurai are not ancient history to Japan. Samurai in their proper form existed as recently as the 1890's and the culture of honor and strength that they burned into the psyche of Japan was still strong up until the end of World War II. Therefore Japanese people don't need to have the rules and setting explained to them. Just as in O Brother, Where Art Thou? we instinctively knew that the combination of time and setting (1930's and southern United States) meant that a combination of an economic meltdown and a drought had just destroyed most of the characters livelyhoods, Japanese people instinctively know the rules that are in play.

So with both of those things established, it comes down to the quality of the film. It is my sad duty to report that it is nowhere near as good as Seven Samurai. Nor is it a particularly deep intellectual exercise. What it IS however, is totally fucking awesome.

The plot is entirely concerned with a man who goes entirely unnamed who is a samurai in the service of the increasingly paranoid and violent shogun. In literally the first 2 minutes his wife is killed and he is left to both care for their infant son and avenge her death. To do this he outfits his baby carriage with a series of spears and blades, teaches his mostly pre-verbal son (who's level of intelligence and maturity strains credulity) how and when to activate them and wanders around the countryside looking serious and slitting up ninjas.

What's odd about this film is that the character who gets the most characterization is the son, who's name escapes me. What would otherwise be a series of loosely connected action scenes are held together almost entirely by his voiceover, whereas the father gets maybe 10 lines of dialogue in the entire movie. There are some other characters hanging around the margins, but none of them outside a ninja girl get more than 5 minutes on screen. Even the shogun does almost nothing besides stand there looking scary and yelling badguy dialogue that makes him sound like Zordon.

The action scenes are surprisingly well shot and inventive, the absolute peak of which is a scene where the main character's sword is stolen and he's forced to resort to the Baby Carriage of Death. No really, and believe it or not it's sooooo fucking cool. Some of the scenes are kind of confusing and the film has a bad case of exponential henchmen syndrome (the syndrome by which enemies get less effective the more of them there are) but neither of those damage just how fun they are.

The writing is solid and well delivered, despite being a rather obvious dub. The acting is a mixed bag, adding and subtracting to the film in equal measure. At the top is the shogun who, despite my sarcastic comments at the top, has some genuine screen presence and threat, whereas at the bottom is the ninja girl who at one point bursts into a high pitched cackle and then stops 3 seconds later. All of the dubbing is solid and is never so out of synch with the lip movements so as to detract from the dialogue.

All of this works despite, indeed because, the film takes itself deadly seriously. In an early scene the father offers his son a sword or a ball. If he chooses the sword he will follow him in gaining his revenge, if he chooses the ball he will... reunite him with his mother (yeahhhhh). The film never turns around to wink at the audience about how absurd it is to ask a 3 year old to make this choice. It just watches sagely as the child is obviously led toward the sword.

The film is not without it's problems, due primarily to a problem with tone. The film may take itself deadly seriously, but it doesn't mean we do. Some of the worse dialogue or more absurd concepts got roars of laughs from the audience, and the product as a whole is rather difficult to take seriously. Apart from that, the editor or at the least the continuity editor, seems to have been on vacation the entire time. At one point it randomly becomes winter for no reason and then 20 minutes and one boat ride later, their in a desert for some reason.

At the end of the day Shogun Assassin is a B-Movie and I can't really recommend that you watch it unless you have a judo grip on the concept of ironic enjoyment. But for what it's worth I had an insanely good time at it and if you like samurai movies, then you should definitely track it down. So you make your own decision and I'll see you next time.

Next on Second Age Reviews: Clue

Elesar is a 20 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he is now going to forever cite this movie as "Kill Bill if it didn't suck."

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