SHO KOSUGI: THE VISIBLE NINJA by Lou Salome
Ninjutsu - the art of invisibility? No necessarily - Sho Kosugi is probably the most visible ninja - on both movie and television screens - the world has ever seen.
"As soon as I finish shooting the last episode of The Master - it's a special, my son's in that one - I'm off to the Philippines to shoot 9 Deaths of the Ninja. And then either we start shooting The Master again for the second season - if NBC picks it up - or the next stop is Dallas to do The Dark Warrior," Kosugi grins, and stops for a breath. "And after that I'm committed to another project in New York - Pray for Death. I'm booked up to 1985!"
Kosugi has been the hottest ninja on screen since his spectacular appearance as the black ninja Hasegawa in Cannon Films' Enter the Ninja. Kosugi's "discovery" is a classic Hollywood success story. After Mike Stone, the legendary karate champ, successfully pitched his ninja script to Cannon Films, Stone picked his own crew of martial artists to work with him on location in the Philippines. As one of his group, Kosugi was to work as an "extra" with a few lines. "Originally I had a little tiny part," Kosugi recalls, holding his fingers about one sixteenth of an inch apart to prove how miniscule his role really was. "But the producers liked what they saw on screen - and the part grew and grew." The rest is history - viewers applauded Kosugi's performance as the black ninja, which included one of the most moving - and longest - death scenes since Ali MacGraw sang her swan song in Love Story. Viewers may not have realized that Kosugi also doubled for almost every other ninja in the movie, including star Franco Nero.
The boxoffice success of Enter led to the production of Revenge of the Ninja, this time with Kosugi as the star. Here Kosugi got another chance to show off his ninja-like dexterity by portraying numerous masked ninjas, choreographing the fight scenes, while at the same time single-handedly busting a drug ring and killing his evil ninja foes. Revenge was another boxoffice blockbuster, and the world - at least the ninja oriented world - realized that a dark star had been born.
And so, when NBC decided to bring ninjutsu to the small screen, Kosugi was their first choice for both the evil ninja and for the ninja consultant - another multifaceted job which included donning a skullcap to double for Lee Van Cleef (the Master), and choreographing and coordinating fight scenes.
"It's harder doing television than movies," Kosugi admits. "For television, you have seven days of filming for 48 minutes on film. In a movie, you spend six to eight weeks for an hour and a half on film. So you know what that means - in television everything has to be right the first time. There's no time for long shots, close ups, many takes - like you have in the movies."
The inherent difficulties of TV production were not made easier by the fact that our quick-change ninja was shooting yet a third Cannon Films epic - Ninja III: The Domination - at the same time as his work on The Master. For this movie, Kosugi had to rely on ninja magic, as well as technical skills, to exorcise the spirit of an evil ninja who has taken over the body of a beautiful woman. Not easy work - especially when the action is in Phoenix - and your television show is in Los Angeles! "I flew back and forth 13 times," says Kosugi, still exhausted at the thought of it, "Every Friday night I flew to Phoenix, every Sunday night it was back to L.A. Thirteen times!" But the filming was finally completed and Ninja III is scheduled to be released by MGM in September.
9 Deaths of the Ninja
Will there be a Ninja IV? Well not with Sho Kosugi. Now much in demand for ninja projects, Kosugi has been wooed away by offers from other independent producers. The first in line, 9 Deaths of the Ninja, is ninjutsu's answer to James Bond. Kosugi is an ex-ninja, now the super-cool head of an American anti-terrorist group. When a busload of diplomats is shanghaied in the Philippines by a terrorist group, Kosugi and his team are called in to rescue the delegation and corral the terrorists. Luckily, Kosugi is armed with the latest in high-tech ninja weaponry - the exact nature of which our star will not reveal. "You'll be surprised," he grins, admitting that he had a hand in designing some of the more spectacular ones.
Kosugi is even more excited by his next project, The Dark Warrior, produced by Richard L. Albert. The publicity still for the film suggests a ninja Road Warriors: Kosugi is in the dark leather jacket of a high-styled Hell's Angel - but instead of a switchblade, he brandishes a samurai sword! Here Sho Kosugi plays Kishi, a mysterious ninja brought to Houston to fight a criminal mastermind who is actually (surprise!) and archenemy evil ninja. [Note: This film was never made.]
Even further down the road, there's Pray for Death, which will be set in the streets of Manhattan. "It's a revenge film like Death Wish," Kosugi explains. "People like revenge - they like to see you do on film what they'd like to do." And Kosugi has had lots more offers! "But I don't want to make commitments for two years ahead," he says. "That's just too far in the future."
The Overnight Sensation
Why has Kosugi been working as hard as a whole clan of ninjas? "You have to take advantage of something like this while you can - this may not last more than a couple of more years," Kosugi says. "And I've made more money in the past year, than in the ten years before!"
And indeed like many other "overnight sensations", Kosugi has more than paid his dues as both martial artist and entertainer before his cinematic breakthrough. His dreams of movie star glory actually began when he was a small boy growing up in Japan. "When I was very young, I went to acting school in Japan," he recalls. "But after six months, the teacher threw me out. I was too active - I kept running around. The teacher said, 'You have no patience! You'll never be an actor!' "
These qualities were clearly better suited to the martial arts - at least in the eyes of the acting teacher! - and Kosugi went on to study these more active skills, eventually earning a black belt in both judo and karate. (Kosugi has also claimed to have ninjutsu training from "Uncle Yamamoto", a family friend.) After moving to the U.S., Kosugi began studying with renowned karateka Fumio Demura, and for several years he participated in Demura's martial arts demonstrations at the Japanese village and Deer Park, an amusement park in Southern California. These demonstrations were famed for their professionalism, their use of costumes, lighting, music and acting to convey the drama of the martial arts to the audience. This was Kosugi's real education in show biz - and he went on to test his skills in a handful of low-budget Korean and Taiwanese martial arts films.
Despite Kosugi's lack of formal acting training, he does seem to have that special something - charisma or presence - which makes a performer become the center of energy on screen, and grab the audience's attention. A martial artist might call it - ki power. And Kosugi does want to keep this power of the martial arts central to his life. Even though he would like the chance to try other non-martial arts roles, he's faithful to his background. "I always keep in mind that I grew in the martial arts and I was given my chance in the movies by other martial artists. I'll never forget that I come from the martial arts - I'm not going to give it up and do nothing but 'acting'. The martial arts are what I'm good at, what makes me special - if I take that away, I'm nothing but another tall Japanese fellow trying to make it in the movies!"