Starring Sho Kosugi, James Booth, Donna Kei Benz, Norman Burton, Kane Kosugi, Shane Kosugi, Matthew Faison, Parley Baer
Directed By Gordon Hessler
Digging into the archives here at Silver Emulsion brought a staggering discovery to my attention. Although we have done our best to bring you reviews of classy motion picture entertainment on a regular basis, we are still far from perfect and definitely have a long way to go in our quest for celluloid gold. In our first six months we have covered a whole slew of classics but have sadly remained deficient in one of the greatest genres of film known to mankind. No I’m not talking about film noir, westerns, or Hollywood musicals. I’m talking fucking Ninjas! And when I’m talking fucking Ninjas, I am of course talking Sho Kosugi.
For those not in the know, Sho Kosugi is pretty much the Henry Ford of ninja lore. What child of the 80s could not remember begging mom and dad to buy a couple of those cheap ass plastic ninja swords in the supermarket toy aisle, banging them together with friends until they bent in half, sadly drooping along while they carried out stealth assaults? Who cannot remember the deluge of ninja related video games and TV shows at the time? That was all courtesy of Sho Kosugi and a little movie from 1983 titled Revenge of the Ninja.
Revenge of the Ninja was not a good film in any technical sense of the word. It was ridiculously cheesy, poorly acted, and clichéd as all hell. But what it did have going for it was a solid introduction to a mysterious world full of shadow assassins, smoke bombs, ninja stars, hidden daggers, and spiny caltrops that had been heretofore unseen on western movie screens. There was not a ten-year-old alive who could resist the temptation to tie a black t-shirt around their face and roll around the lawn like a broomstick wielding douche for hours after watching that film.
Ninja mania had effectively jumped the pacific and became Japan’s newest export. Sho Kosugi was catapulted into action hero status, and despite the inadequacies of American martial arts choreography, his unique blend of Asian mystique and ninjutsu lore prevailed, delivering entertaining films that rose above their shitty, half-assed plots. Pray for Death was a decent example of Kosugi in his prime doing what he does best, making up for any deficit in acting ability by delivering a steady stream of shurikens to the face (or ocular cavity, if you want to get technical).
You can argue that if you’ve seen one Sho Kosugi movie you have seen them all. Pray for Death makes it pretty hard to argue that point. With plot points lifted more or less directly from Revenge of the Ninja, you can’t help but feel that gnawing sense of Déjà vu sneaking up on you like a stealthy shadow assassin. The film opens with Sho wincingly reinforcing Japanese stereotypes by playing a typical businessman, depressed and disgraced over missing out on a lofty promotion. His American born wife suggests relocating to the U.S. and pursuing possible opportunities there. Although seemingly a major pussy on the surface, Sho secretly leads a double life. On the eve of his departure he goes to a Buddhist temple to pray and is haunted by flashbacks of a duel that accidentally left his brother dead. Sho’s father, an aging ninja master, urges him to let go of the past and simply provide for his family… which anybody even vaguely familiar with the formula at work here knows doesn’t have a chance in hell of happening.
The family arrives in Houston, a city deep in Texas known primarily for its teeming popularity among expatriate Japanese. Even though they seemed to live comfortably in Japan, their money only gets them as far as the slums in America, where drooling winos seem to live on every street corner and threatening black guys with big ghetto blasters bumping out Dave Koz’s greatest hits roam the streets in search of fresh-faced Japanese families to prey upon.
Sho and his family decide to buy an old, dilapidated storefront in order to open a Japanese restaurant. The building, which seems to collect more dust than seats at a Clippers home game, is being used as a mob dropoff point for smuggled jewels. When the jewels turn up missing, sadistic mob boss Limehouse Willy (and no I’m not making that name up) turns his evil eye towards Sho’s wife and kids.
Limehouse Willy is, simply put, one of the greatest villains to ever appear in a Sho Kosugi movie. Usually Sho ends up finding his foil in the guise of another masked ninja who is just as capable as himself, tossing around smoke bombs and clashing swords like it’s nobody’s business. Limehouse on the other hand, is just an unhinged psychotic with no redeeming qualities who is willing to stoop to any low in order to make Sho’s life a living hell. This guy has no qualms whatsoever with beating an 80-year-old man to death with a crowbar and then lighting him on fire. Later in the film he threatens to burn the face of Sho’s 8 year-old son to a crisp with a high-powered blowtorch, but instead decides to have his goons run the little boy (and his wife) over with a pickup truck, giving new meaning to the phrase “don’t mess with Texas”. It’s only after this crazy bastard slits his own wrist in order to infiltrate a police protected hospital and proceeds to rape and murder Sho’s recovering wife that Sho is forced to once again break out his iron ninja mask and venture once more onto the path of the assassin.
The scene that follows, with Kosugi preparing himself for revenge is simply one of the most divine moments in ninja cinema. Donning a blazing white kimono and prayer beads, he sits cross-legged among burning candles and starts busting out all of his crazy-ass ninja hand signs while simultaneously tending to the water purification ritual… Then this motherfucker begins forging his own battle sword! Cue the roaring 80s synth pop and you know damn well it’s time for business.
The final battle, which begins on the streets (watch for the INSANE scene where Sho flips over an oncoming truck!) and ends up in a mannequin factory (because, well… why the hell not?) takes both characters to their vicious extremes. The masked ninja mows through Willy’s henchmen amidst a torrent of smoke, shurikens, flips, and swordplay. Willy’s weapon of choice is appropriately enough, a chainsaw, which seems to spell trouble for any ninja not well versed in the art of defending against power tools.
All in all, Pray for Death is a decent entry into the Sho Kosugi filmography even though most of it consists of uninspired rehashes from his earlier films. If you are new to the work of this master assassin / subpar actor, I would definitely recommend giving the much superior Ninja Trilogy a spin first.