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FEATURE: Samurai and Son - The Oral History of SHOGUN ASSASSIN!
Behind the Scenes of a Japanese Grindhouse Classic
A vengeful lone wolf. A talking baby. A faded rock star. Sandra Bernhard. Edie Sedgwick. The Curse of the Spider Woman. The Wu-Tang Clan. Treachery. Greed. Roger Corman. The folly of exploitation film. An evergreen cult classic. "The greatest team in the history of mass slaughter." The making of Shogun Assassin!
September, 1980. New World Pictures releases Shogun Assassin, a compilation film containing highlights from the first two Lone Wolf and Cub movies from Toho Studios; i.e., it is an extensively rewritten, rescored, and dubbed-into-English version of Kozure okami - Kowokashi udekashi tsukamatsuru and Kozure okami -Sanzu no kawa no ubaguruma (both from 1972 and directed by Kenji Misumi). In a bold changeover from the original, Daigoro-the baby in the cart-performs a voiceover narration.
Shogun Assassin was something new, yet it retained the flavor of the original. The film became a cult classic and introduced the Lone Wolf and Cub characters to millions of viewers for the first time. 40+ years later, even though the original, unprocessed Japanese movies have become widely available with English subtitles (most recently from the Criterion Collection), some folks still prefer to fire up Shogun Assassin. So how the hell did it all happen? We tracked down and talked to those who were there....
Robert Houston (Shogun Assassin director/screenwriter) I'd been going to a Japanese movie theater on Olympic Boulevard to watch samurai movies with my friend David Weisman. David had been to Japan, was teaching himself Japanese, only ate sushi, and, for a period of six to eight months, it was as if we were living a Japanese existence. Shogun Assassin was an outgrowth of this obsession.
David Weisman (Shogun Assassin producer/screenwriter) Bobby was right out of Harvard and, if I remember correctly, this was his first feature film venture. I had been struggling for five years with my film Ciao! Manhattan (1972) which was an adventure unto itself-if you can imagine five years with (Andy Warhol superstar) Edie Sedgwick. The film broke the bank in Amsterdam, but a couple of slip-ups later, I found myself living like a beached whale out in California. I forgot all about the movie business for five years. But eventually, I wanted to get back in. I just wanted to get a ball rolling. When I moved to LA in 1973, there was the Toho La Brea movie theater. And I saw the Lone Wolf and Cub films. I saw all of them. I mean, I'd been a Japanese culture freak since the sixties. I figured; I'd start shoving it down people's throats. But the big thing happened when James Clavell's Shogun became a bestseller. I knew they were making a mini-series out of it, so that really lit a fire under my ass. I raised some money from a bunch of wacky ex-hippie friends of mine, and we just sallied forth and did it. I dragged Bobby kicking and screaming into it, and I never could have done Shogun Assassin without him.
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Jim Evans (Shogun Assassin poster illustrator and logo designer) It was chaotic in the beginning, but it was well organized in the sense that David was able to speak Japanese and get the rights to those films. He asked me one day what the coolest Japanese film I'd seen was, and I said there were these Lone Wolf films that I had brought my kids to see in Little Tokyo. Of course, he knew what I was talking about, and he said, "I could probably get those things," and I said, "Well, why don't you?"
David Weisman In 1979, I approached the Toho-Towa office in Century City. Mr. Ueda, who was the Toho rep, was in a state of shock that someone actually wanted to buy something. It was a long, drawn-out negotiation. Very cautious. Very careful. It went back and forth for months and months, and it was the better part of a year before we settled on a licensing deal. $50,000 for the seven-year rights to part two of the Lone Wolf series. The license also contained ten minutes of footage from the first film, which was the background story for the character of Itto Ogami and baby Daigoro. We adapted the films as best we could and sold it to (Roger Corman’s) New World Pictures completely finished.
Robert Houston It was a horrible process. It was all the humiliation of post production and none of the glory of production or pre-production. It was about six months in post-production. The whole thing was post. The most grueling part was working with the editor and cutting the material so we could lip-synch it phonetically. You couldn't come up with a worse job.
David Weisman We got some deaf-mutes in there for a couple of days on the editing machine, on the flatbed, and we showed them the film and asked them, "What do you think they could they be saying?" And they gave us suggestions and Bobby basically wrote from that. We took out all the material that had generically Japanese historical stuff that was incomprehensible to a Western mind and just pared it down to "Conan the Barbarian Walks the Earth."
Robert Houston Daigoro narrates Shogun Assassin because I felt that it was the only way to warm up and humanize this story for Americans. A friend of ours had a little son named Gibran who had this unreal, strange, captivating voice. So here was this little round-faced American kid and here was this little round-faced Japanese kid in the movie, and the two were just meant to be together.
Jim Evans I guess I was kind of a strange father, because I had a different take on violence. Gibran had probably seen those films before in Little Tokyo when he was about four years old. It was more like a poetic ballet of blood than anything else, so I really didn't mind him seeing it.
David Weisman I mean, this is not violence we're talking about, this is fucking fantasy! It takes a very, very well-tempered, pounded-60,000-times-over-ten years samurai sword to cut someone's finger off! Where the fuck are you going to find that? You can't do it with a kitchen knife! You've got to chop it off!
Gibran Evans (the voice of Daigoro) I was seven at the time, living in the mountains in Malibu. We went to Little Tokyo a lot and collected tremendous amounts of Japanese robots and toys. We had one of the first VCRs out there, and I think I first saw one of the Lone Wolf movies on tape. It was so different from anything I'd been exposed to. The most interesting thing to me was the baby cart itself, all the gadgets that the kid had at his disposal. It was really cool. They had this big Lay-Z-Boy chair in the studio, and they padded it with pillows under my legs and arms, so I couldn't make a move and make any noise that would affect the recording. They basically fed me the lines and I read them back. I was just a kid, so money wasn't the first thing on my mind. They told me I was going to get paid a dollar a minute, and it came out to about two hundred dollars. I was pretty happy. That was quite a lot for me back then. Plus I got all the Coca-Cola and Famous Amos cookies I could eat.
Robert Houston Sandra Bernhard dubbed numerous voices for the film and was the main female ninja. She was a struggling stand-up comedienne and a manicurist in Beverly Hills at the time. I thought she was just great. Sandra was willing to do it, but even then she knew she was headed for greater things. She said, "You've got to show up at the dubbing studio with $200 cash and you've got to put it in my back pocket without saying a word."
Jim Evans My wife and I had just split up and she was marrying her Aikido teacher, and he turned out to be a Kendo instructor as well. So, I photographed his body holding two swords for the picture of Ogami as you see it on the poster. It's his body with Ogami ltto's head on it. This guy also did all the sound effects for the film. They recorded him cutting into watermelons and cantaloupes and things with David's own personal samurai sword.
Robert Houston Mark Lindsay (ex-lead singer of popular sixties rock and roll act Paul Revere and the Raiders) had a recording studio in his house and he had been dreaming of making a comeback for about ten years. So basically Michael Lewis, the composer, made nice with Mark long enough for us to spend eight weeks or so up there composing the music. They both had Ferraris. Lindsay and Lewis. That was their bond. So, we would go up to the Ferrari parking lot and stay up all night doing this music. Six months after Shogun Assassin came out, I got a call from someone who said, "You better go to the Egyptian Theater and see this new movie." So, I went to the film and New World had used our soundtrack from beginning to end on another picture. (The offending title was the 1981 T&A karate film Firecracker, aka Naked Fist.) We went to the New World business affairs guy, and he said, "Yeah, okay, how much do you want?" They just did it as if it was a natural way to do business. They didn't even blink. They just started to negotiate like, "Okay, hey, we stole something, so we'll pay for it."
David Weisman We had to get an R-rating. So we submitted the film to the MPAA and their carefully selected panel of housewives and Mormon businessmen saw it and said, "We can't give this film an R! My god, the children of America!" You know? So, I asked, "What do I have to take out?" and they said, "Well, we're not a censorship board. You have to cut it and submit it to us." I started wringing my hands saying, "Oh gee, gosh, what am I going to do?" So, I came in a second time, and they said, "It's still too violent. There's too many perforations, amputations, decapitations, too many dismemberments." So finally, I went around the block two or three times. Each time, I'm doing cuts on a work print with a pre-mixed soundtrack and it's costing me money, so I said to. them, "Look, you gotta give me a break somewhere, I can't afford to keep cutting the film and re-doing the soundtrack." So, I started begging again, saying how much it was costing me. Now I had a theory that sound makes for sixty percent of your impression and the picture only makes for about forty percent.
I asked, "Can I show it to you without the soundtrack?" And they looked at each other and said, "Well, that's quite unusual, but we don't see anything in the rules that prohibits that. All right." I showed it to them without the soundtrack, and they said, "That's better, but we'll have to see it one more time with the soundtrack." And I said, "So are these cuts approved?" And they said yes. I put some footage back in and showed it to them again. Now here they are, taking notes, but at twenty-four frames per second. How fast can they write and still keep an eye on the ball? So, it becomes a shell game. Back and forth. I kept slipping things back in. Finally I said, "Fuck 'em! We got the R rating certificate, who's gonna know? Put everything back in!"
Robert Houston There was a big argument about the title. David had this Svengali figure around him named Nelson Lyon (director of the 1971 obscene phone caller comedy The Telephone Book). Nelson insisted that the film had to have the word "assassin" in the title. David and I were much more enamored with title Samurai and Son, but at the end of the day we figured that it probably sounded too much like Sanford and Son.
David Weisman The convergence of the finished film, the distribution deal that I made with New World, all of these things converged with the forthcoming broadcast of the Shogun mini-series on TV. It was on the air virtually the same week that the film was released. There was no choice. We had to go with the word "shogun" in the title.
Robert Houston The New York Times said that we were not without talent, but that the film was a joke. The audiences went crazy. They fucking freaked out. I mean, you're playing in grindhouses. You're on 42nd Street, you're on Hollywood Boulevard. People would leave the theater and get right back in line to see it again.
David Weisman I say probably one hundred prints were struck. Maybe it was two hundred. It could have been up to three to four hundred. I don't remember how much it ended up making. We wound up spending over $350,000. Most of it was spent on creating the soundtrack and doing it in Dolby. We could have done a lot better at the box office but given the circumstances ...
Robert Houston We had expectations of making a profit, but then again this is the film business, so we didn't see a dime beyond our advance from New World. Now, five years later, Roger Corman publishes a book called “How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime” and Chapter Six begins, "And then I found a little gold mine called Shogun Assassin." So, it was a gold mine for Corman, but it was a no-profit, no-nothing for us. Not only did Corman steal the music, but he stole the profits as well.
David Weisman We considered doing another film from the Lone Wolf and Cub series, but it never panned out. The second film is really the item, the most adaptable movie. The others get into this phantasmagoric, whacked-out, who-knows-what. You can't find a handle to put them together. It wasn't worth it to try.
Jim Evans In some ways, I sort of metaphorically saw myself as the character in the film. I'd broken up with my wife, and I had my two kids at the time, and I was raising them. I saw myself sort of like a lone samurai wandering through town, doing my illustrations, and taking the kids everywhere with me.
Gibran Evans It was something unique and pretty great. The experience rekindled in my memory when GZA/Genius from the Wu-Tang Clan sampled a lot of my voice for his Liquid Swords album.
Robert Houston I regret that I worked in exploitation film at all. It doesn't pay. There's just no respect. For every Sam Raimi, there are a thousand people who are talented who want to make exploitation pictures, and the only ones who get any notice are the guys who get made fun of in American Movie.
David Weisman Ask me what I think of it now, and I say, "Eh, it's okay. It's kind of primitive." I bought a house with it, so what can I regret? Without Shogun Assassin, I never would have made The Kiss of the Spider Woman (produced by David Weisman, with a Best Actor Oscar for William Hurt). Ciao! Manhattan and its aftermath was so devastating. I couldn't pull myself out of the gutter for five years. Shogun Assassin was how I finally did it. You know how in the movie, where Ogami ltto is lying half-dead, recovering from battle, and Daigoro brings him water? That's what Shogun Assassin was for me.
David Weisman published the book “Edie: Girl on Fire” in 2006 and directed a short film of the same name in 2010. He passed away in 2019.
Robert Houston's 2004 short film Mighty Times: The Children's March won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Film.
Jim Evans and Gibran Evans run the Division 13 Design Group and have worked for clients including Disney, Paramount, Sony, and Warner Brothers.
Mark Lindsay never got back to our requests to share his take on Shogun Assassin, but his work as a vocalist with Paul Revere and the Raiders was celebrated as part of the soundtrack to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
TokyoScope by Patrick Macias is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.