Content Note: This article discusses cinematic depictions of sexual assault.
Sho Kosugi is an interesting movie star. A trained martial artist who put his skills to great use onscreen, Kosugi is beloved for his many performances of ninjas both good and evil. While he never became as famous as his 1980s action peers, there’s an argument to be made that he’s had a wider cultural impact than all but Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Think of a ninja. A stealthy warrior and assassin skilled in a staggering array of deadly arts. When ninja action exploded in American pop culture during the '80s, Kosugi played a key role in codifying their look and feel in movies. Even if you’ve never seen one of his films, you’ve seen a ninja in pop culture whose depiction his work influenced.
As far as the films themselves go, the best word for the two I’ve had an opportunity to see – 1983’s Revenge of the Ninja and 1985’s Pray for Death – is “interesting.” These two pictures have a great deal in common. They’re tonal muddles that put the adorable adventures of Kosugi’s real-life sons next to expected action and unexpected sexual violence. They present America as simultaneously the “shining city on a hill” Ronald Reagan liked to speak of and a brutal hellscape which must be purified by righteous ninja violence. The characters Kosugi plays are exoticized master warriors and yet, as rare instances of an Asian main hero in a Western film in the 1980s, break from Orientalist stereotyping in places. And on a purely visual level, they’re intriguing time capsules, preserving the normal look of the 1980s in the nooks and crannies between all the ninjutsu. In the decade of the yuppie, it makes perfect sense that Revenge of the Ninja’s final battle between Kosugi’s Cho Osaki and his nemesis Braden (Arthur Roberts) would begin on an outdoor tennis court on top of a skyscraper:
Revenge of the Ninja, the second of three films Kosugi made with Cannon, is the lighter of the two pictures discussed here by far. Kosugi plays Cho Osaki, the scion of a ninja clan. Revenge opens with the near-total massacre of his family by a rival band of ninja – aside from Osaki himself, only his mother (Grace Oshita) and his youngest son Kane (Kane Kosugi, who’d co-star in the great Scott Adkins actioner Ninja: Shadow of a Tear as an adult) survive. On the advice of his mom and best buddy Braden, Osaki re-locates to America, where he becomes an art dealer. While raising Kane, Osaki is wooed by his assistant and martial arts student Cathy (Ashley Ferrare). Unbeknownst to Osaki however, Braden is both a remorseless crime lord and a fellow ninja, using his pal’s gallery as a front for drug smuggling and his dark ninja powers to eliminate his rivals. When Kane accidentally discovers some of Braden’s heroin stores, things spiral rapidly out of control, culminating in Osaki laying siege to a mobster’s headquarters and ultimately engaging in a mortal duel with Braden.
Osaki is an immigrant chasing the American Dream, specifically the variant where he and his loved ones don’t have to live in fear of roving armies of rogue ninja. More seriously, he’s built a life in America while maintaining a connection to his Japanese heritage and customs – while he refuses to teach Kane ninjutsu and doesn’t want him fighting, he does teach his son about their family’s history and explains why he doesn’t want Kane learning the art. He’s a single father who’s not only liked but outright desired by his love interest. Her method of flirting is… goofy (here’s Osaki upon being approached by a scantily-attired Cathy for ‘teaching’ - “If you want to work out, you forgot your pants.”), but it’s notable nonetheless. Revenge’s America, while filled with murderous mobsters, treacherous friends and schoolyard bullies, is ultimately a welcoming place.
Pray for Death, Kosugi’s 1985 ninja vehicle, is a good deal bleaker than Revenge of the Ninja. For all intents and purposes, it’s Death Wish with ninjas. Kosugi’s Akira Saito is a businessman in Japan who was raised by a reclusive ninja master (Robert Ito) alongside fellow foundling Shoji (dancer Yosh). When Shoji went rogue, Akira struck him down, leaving him haunted by guilt. When Akira’s American-born wife Aiko (Donna Kei Benz) suggests their family move to the United States to raise their kids (Kane and Shane Kosugi), his master encourages him to do so, in the hopes that he might make a fresh start free of regrets. Thus, the Saito family moves to Los Angeles.
Things go to hell almost immediately. The Saitos hope to refurbish a restaurant, but unbeknownst to both them and the kindly old man Sam (Parley Baer) who they buy from, the property is in fact the stash house of murderous gangster Limehouse Willie (James Booth). When two bent cops steal from him, Willie - whose response to any inconvenience is either violence or violence (he sets Sam on fire when he believes the old man has robbed him), targets the Saitos. He rapes and murders Aiko and comes very close to killing the Saito kids. In response, Akira forges a sword and proceeds to wipe out Willie’s entire organization. He pins Willie himself in a factory’s active buzzsaw, fulfilling an earlier promise to make the gangster “pray for death.” The surviving Saitos resume their life, Akira’s violence having made America safe for them. They’re able to make a home, but not without Akira embracing the most traumatic part of his past to succeed where conventional law and order failed.
I cannot recommend Revenge of the Ninja or Pray for Death without caution, especially given their clumsy-at-best handling of sexual violence. But if you’ve got a heads up about their problematic content and you’re interested in the films that were built around Kosugi’s ninjas, they’re worth exploring. Ninjas, it turns out, can be remarkably good protagonists for tales about America and its promises, fulfilled and unfulfilled.