SHO KOSUGI IN REVENGE OF THE NINJA: A LOOK AT THE STAR OF THIS GROUNDBREAKING NINJA FILM by Lou Salome
(Re-Published in the September 1984 issue of INSIDE KUNG FU Presents THE MASTER NINJA: WARRIOR OF THE NIGHT magazine.)

The eyes are pinpoints of purest evil. Although only the eyes of the (silver masked) black ninja are visible, peering out through his concealing mask, they are cold enough to pierce the heart and spirit of an enemy - if the enemy is even skilled enough to spot him before the death blow falls.

This time, his enemy - the black ninja - does spot him. Yet the black ninja's eyes remain calm with the assurance that comes from unquestionable power and invincible skill.

But there's a secret to this archetypal meeting of good and bad in Cannon Films' recently released Revenge of the Ninja. Hidden behind both ninja's masks is one face: that of martial arts expert Sho Kosugi.

Martial arts movie fans may remember Kosugi as the evil ninja Hasegawa in Cannon's Enter the Ninja released in 1981. In this film, the totally despicable Kosugi met a horrible death at the hands of the heroic white ninja Franco Nero. Enter did so well at the box-office that Cannon decided to try for a second. But this time out, Kosugi gets to play the invincible hero…and the fiendish villain.

"Except for the final duel between me and the (silver masked) black ninja, I do the fighting for both the good and bad ninja," Kosugi explains. "In the final duel, I fight my student, Eddie Tse (doubling for Arthur Roberts). The rest of the time, I'm doing the evil ninja. I change my style, make it more evil, more viscous. I can't use the same techniques or the same movements for both parts, or everybody will notice. So when I play the (silver masked) black ninja, I'm more evil. When I play Cho, I'm calmer. I hide my art more."

Kosugi now reveals that he also played more than one role in the first movie, Enter, as well. "Not everybody noticed, but I was not only the black ninja, I played the white ninja sometimes, and even some of the other ninja. I was killed about seven times."

The ninja are semi-mythical figures who emerged during Japan's middle ages, around the sixteenth century. According to tales, legends, and a few sparse historical references, members of ninja clans trained from childhood to become totally amoral, ruthless, and unstoppable killers. They designed a tremendous arsenal of exotic, mysterious weapons, and developed secret and magical skills which allowed them to disappear at will, scale sheer cliffs, walk on water, and live for weeks on a handful of rice. Tradition has it that the two chief clans were the rival Iga and Koga clans.

From Baby Brother to Karate Expert

Sho Kosugi is well qualified to play a highly-trained ninja. He began studying the martial arts at age five. "I was the only son, the smallest, and my two older sisters felt I was so weak and so protected by my mother, they forced me to go to the karate studio," he says. Later Kosugi began training in judo as part of his junior high school curriculum. He earned his black belt in judo in two years, but continued with his karate training until he was nineteen, and then moved to the U.S., where he got a bachelors degree in economics at California State University in Los Angeles. At the same time, Kosugi trained with the prominent West Coast weapons master, Fumio Demura, and gave martial arts demonstrations with his teacher at the Japanese village and Deer Park. "I did that for three or four years, and then did a couple of Korean movies," Kosugi continues. One of these movies was eventually shown in the U.S. under a variety of titles. In addition to appearing in these Far East martial arts movies, Kosugi made guest appearances on American television. But he adds, "Enter the Ninja was my big break."

Kosugi now claims to have had actual ninjutsu training as a child. "I studied ninjutsu when I was real small, with Master Yamamoto of the Iga clan. That's what he told me - I don't know if he is a ninja or not. He was my neighbor when I was a kid in Japan. I called him Uncle Yamamoto. He liked me, and he didn't have any family, and he started talking about ninja stories. As soon as I got back from school, I would go over to his house. He showed me all his weapons and started teaching me. When I started going to junior high school, he disappeared. I don't know where he went. My mother says he moved to some place and died, but nobody knows where."

Kosugi feels this ninjutsu training gives him a special advantage for his part. "Most of the people doing ninja movies don't know anything about ninja. They start doing regular karate. Ninjutsu is a completely different art, with different stances, different weapons. If you don't know real ninjutsu, it doesn't come across strong in movies," he explains.

Ninja's Wild Weapons

To further prepare for his role, Kosugi traveled to Japan and researched ninja weaponry. He also created some of his own weapons and killing techniques, which he describes with obvious delight. "There's a shinbo. It's like a yawara stick (a hand-held stick which is used to strike vital points), but you can swing it around your middle finger. Also, it has a sharp knife, like an arrowhead, in one end. You swing it and stick it into the eyes, the head, whatever. It's a very unusual weapon. The regular weapon is just a straight shaft, but the arrowhead makes it more visual. It looks nice on the screen."

"There are a lot of other devices. You know the Japanese flute? Well, you pull on the flute, and one side comes out, and pow! it's a dagger. Then there are the kokeshi dolls (Japanese figurines) with a wooden head. The head part comes out on a chain, and swings like a kusarigama (weighted chain and sickle). This was for the female ninja, the kunoichi. In the movie, my mother is a ninja, and she uses those women's weapons. It's hard to describe the weapons until you see the movie, because they've never been seen before."

In the movie, Cho Osaki (Sho Kosugi) is part of the Iga clan in Japan. After his wife is killed by the rival Koga clan, Kosugi leaves Japan with his mother and small son to start a new life in the U.S. Kosugi opens an Oriental gallery, and finds a number of buyers for his precious collection of Japanese dolls. Kosugi's closest friend, Dave Hatcher (Keith Vitali), a police karate instructor, becomes involved in investigating the brutal, unarmed murder of American Mafia members. At first, Kosugi refuses to aid in the investigation, but when his son Kane (Kane Kosugi) and girlfriend Cathy are kidnapped, Cho dusts off his ninja weapons and enters into the fray. What on the surface appears to be gang war between the American Mafia and the Yakuza (Japanese gangsters) turns out to be a personal feud: an evil ninja has singled out Sho Kosugi as his arch-rival.

Chopstick Daggers

The movie is packed with stunts and fights, using all the special ninja devices. Kosugi stars in four major fight scenes, which he choreographed himself. "In the first scene, I'm fighting ten ninja," he says. "The opening scene has a lot of swordfighting and fighting with a boshuriken. Instead of being a shuriken (a throwing star with sharp points) it's a small stick, like a chopstick with a small dagger at the end. You throw it like a dagger."

"The next fight scene is with the drug pushers. The evil ninja is trying to set me up by putting drugs in my dolls. I fight four guys, with two fans and a dagger that comes out from the fan. I stab the guy's feet and they're stuck to the ground. One guy has a cane, and the top part of the cane comes off and it's like a knife. There are a lot of surprise weapons like that."

"After the fight, there's a fight in the van. I chase the van on foot. I take a short cut, jump over two walls and jump on the car. Now the guys in the van notice I'm on top and start moving the van around. They flip me off, so I'm knocked down, but the van hits trash cans, and a newspaper stand, and a fire hydrant, hits another car and then kabam! Everybody comes out and starts fighting."

Although a stuntman did all the leaps and rolls off the van, Kosugi performed all the rest of the action himself. He remembers, "At one point the van comes up and is supposed to strike me. The stunt driver was so scared. He thought he had killed me, because I waited for the last moment to roll out of the way."

In fact, there were a few injuries during the production of the film. All the injuries were suffered by Utah stuntmen. "I like the people from Utah very well, but in comparison with Hollywood stuntmen, they're still at a very, very low level," Kosugi says. "I mean one person jumps out from the van's back door, and I kick him. He's supposed to jump into the grass from the van. He lands on his ribs, and breaks his rib cage and dislocates his shoulder."

"In the same scene, I was fighting a big guy, 6'8", and when he took a fall, he broke his elbow and had a concussion, he landed on the concrete so hard. Another one, he's about 6'3", 340 pounds, another big guy, he fights with Keith Vitali, and somehow he broke his tailbone. We had to take him right away to the emergency hospital."

The final fight is on top of a 28-story building, between Kosugi and the evil ninja, doubled by one of Kosugi's students. "Here I used a four-sectioned spear. It looks like a regular spear, then one spear comes out of that, another comes out, another part comes out, and so on. Another part is a dagger."

Ninja Students

As with the evil ninja, most of Kosugi's opponents in Revenge were played by his own students. "Every Friday since the first movie, Enter the Ninja, I have one class up at my studio from 7:30 until 10:30, three hours, just to practice special choreography for the movies, or for the special fighting sequence for this movie," Kosugi says. "I have seven, eight people working now at different studios."

In addition to Kosugi's students, two other martial artists make their debut in this film. Keith Vitali, who plays Dave Hatcher, is a two-time champion on the karate tournament circuit. The other martial artist is Sho's eight-year-old son, Kane Kosugi. "I've been teaching him since he was a year-and-a-half old, still in diapers," the father says. "He does very well with swords, his weapons are fantastic. I think he's going to steal the show. To tell the truth, he's better than Keith Vitali, he's better than me, he's better than anyone else."

Of course, a father's evaluation must be taken with some skepticism. But if Kane follows in his father's stealthy footsteps, we may someday see the birth of a "Kosugi clan" of ninja ruling the shadow world of martial arts movies.