SHO KOSUGI: THE NINJA AS MARTIAL ARTS MOVIE SUPERSTAR by Karras Gort
He comes leaping out of the fog-shrouded forest, barely clearing the sinister blade. In one hand he wields a mighty iron claw; in his other hand the slim and deadly ninja-to lies curled, ready to strike down at his exposed enemy. The eyes glitter in a barely suppressed rage; the face is drawn back in a wolf-like snarl as he hovers suspended over the enemy, readying the coup de grace.
And then the strobe lights stutter and the camera-eye snicks. Sho Kosugi, the movie's ninja par excellence, lightly lands on his feet and straightens up with a smile and a rueful shake of his head.
"No good," he laughs. "The timing wasn't right." Kosugi, who has rocketed to the heights of superstardom since his "overnight success" in Enter the Ninja (and of course Revenge of the Ninja and Ninja III: The Domination) shakes his head once more. "The secret," he reflects, now suddenly serious, "is always timing. It's timing that counts in martial arts; it's timing that counts in acting. Sometimes I think the entire secret to life is timing."
He steps back, gives his midnight black uniform a firm tug, then tenses. In the wink of an eye he hurtles over the slashing sword of his partner to hit the mark. This time the strobes flash and everything is captured perfectly.
Later outside of the photo studio, Kosugi ponders the turns that have thrust him from a well-known practitioner of shindo-jinen ryu karate into the Hollywood limelight.
"Why did the ninja become such a popular trend in films," he wonders in response to a question. He mulls over his answer for a moment and then shrugs. "Of course, ninjutsu is something different - something that was relatively unknown to the American public," he begins. "But I think the real key to the success of the ninja films lies in its mystery - the ninja satisfies the audience's demand for mystery."
"You know the same thing was true ten years ago when the television series Kung Fu appeared. Here was the story about a martial artist who was from a style of training that nobody knew. And more importantly, the series always stressed that there was more to it than just years of study, or being fast with a kick or punch. It explored philosophy - and then added an air of mystery that captured the public. Here is this unknown Chinese man who is a great master - yet he's humble and retiring, true to his vows. But when pressed, his physical ability is awesome. That's what I mean by mystery - a combination of the elements that provoke the audience's interest - and keeps it."
The Ninja Saga Continues
Though Kosugi remains busier than ever - his interview with IFK was sandwiched between meetings, fittings and commutes between Hollywood and Houston (where Kosugi was doing some shooting for his upcoming epic Pray for Death), things haven't been completely smooth sailing since we last checked in with the new superstar of martial arts movies.
One of Kosugi's then-promising involvements was with NBC's ballyhooed series The Master. Despite the ninja craze, the television series - competing, it must be acknowledged, against CBS's Dallas - failed to gain a secure foothold during the networks' rating war. The result: The Master was cancelled.
Kosugi remains nonplussed about the demise of the series. In addition to portraying the evil ninja in pursuit of "Master" Lee Van Cleef, Kosugi was choreographing the stunts and fights and doubling for Van Cleef - putting him in the position of fighting himself!
"I wasn't surprised when The Master was cancelled," Kosugi says matter of factly. "The series didn't seem quite right from the beginning. I made a few suggestions in regards to the cast and to the storyline, but well…"
"I did enjoy working with Lee Van Cleef," he adds. "He's an excellent actor, and I learned a good deal from him. But he wasn't in good shape - due to an accident. And for the storyline - well, I thought it should be more serious, that it should focus more on aspects of the ninja and their rites of training."
"The stories were rather corny," is how Kosugi sums it up. "I always felt, as I said earlier, that the show should concentrate on more mysterious things - on what it means to be a ninja for example. That's why I mentioned Kung Fu - it had solid stories, it focused on the martial artist. That created mystery - and that's what kept that show such a success."
New Ninja Films
Though Ninja III: The Domination marked Kosugi's last involvement with Cannon Films, his movie career hasn't faltered a step since. Kosugi is currently awaiting the release of 9 Deaths of the Ninja from Amritraj Productions. The film in which Kosugi does play a ninja, represents some new twists from his past roles.
"It is a modern-day action drama and I do play a ninja," he laughs. "But this time, the film is set in the Philippines. I play an ex-ninja - a ninja removed from his group because he had too much compassion. Actually that story is told in flashback: during a mission we confront a group of hostile ninja - and I kill them all save one - and the survivor is a girl ninja, a kunoichi. Of course, right after I save the young woman's life, she then tries to fulfill her mission - by killing me! My master slays her - and then tells me that I can no longer be a ninja - I have too much compassion, and a ninja should have none."
Which explains how Kosugi in 9 Deaths of the Ninja comes to play the leader of DART - the "Deployed Anti-Terrorist Reaction Team." Their mission? "A political delegation in the Philippines is kidnapped by terrorists," Kosugi explains. "It's up to DART to come to the rescue." With ex-green berets, a computer, and his own deadly skills as a ninja, the task is foreordained to meet with success. And needless to say, 9 Deaths of the Ninja is another Kosugi total commitment - in addition to playing the lead role, Kosugi served as fight choreographer and stunt coordinator - a feat he'll duplicate with Pray for Death - but more on that later.
There is an upcoming Sho Kosugi role in which Kosugi does not portray one of the legendary warriors of the night. The film is called Hanauma Bay [later to be released as Aloha Summer]. But fear not - Kosugi does have a role as a martial artist.
"It's a very nice film," Kosugi says, "and I loved working in Hawaii. What a beautiful place!" In the new work, Kosugi is a "fifty-two-year-old Kendo instructor! You see the story is very nice - it's about a group of teenagers in Hawaii. Two of the teenagers are from a very traditional Japanese family visiting the islands. I play the father of the Japanese family - a very stern kendo instructor. This film has everything - it's about teenage romance, coming of age - and very interesting biracial tension. It's something very different for me."
Which leads to a logical question. Granted, ninja roles have propelled Kosugi into a very lucrative acting career - but is he worried about being typecast in film after film as a ninja - sinister or heroic?
"Sometimes," he says frankly. "But this is a wonderful opportunity. I am in a position to take advantage of it. Still, I don't expect this to continue forever. That's why it's encouraging to see roles like Hanauma Bay being offered to me."
Kosugi returns as a ninja, however, in Pray for Death - it was in fact the shooting schedule for the film that led to Kosugi's frantic schedule in the preceding weeks. "It's like Death Wish," Kosugi beams. "First they do horrible things to my family in New York," he laughs. "Then comes the fun part - I reveal myself as a master ninja warrior and take revenge for the insult and injury that they have inflicted on my family - and I revenge my honor."
Once again, Kosugi will be rounding out his duties as both choreographer and stunt coordinator. "And there are going to be plenty of new ninja weapons that I've specially developed for this film. I'd tell you what they are," he says with a wicked little laugh, "but that would spoil the suspense. You'll just have to wait until you see the movie." (We did get to see one little innovation of Kosugi's, which we agreed not to reveal; suffice it to say that the innocuous little device started sprouting wicked little knives all over its exterior.)
So will Kosugi ever slow down? "I need a vacation," he chortles. But such is not in the cards - not in '85 at least. Following the filming of Pray for Death, Kosugi hotfoots it to Spain. His next assignment? Operation Subrosa, which Kosugi describes as "a very James Bond-type of spy-action thriller. You know, I dress as a ninja only at night. During the day I get to wear fancy clothes and be surrounded by pretty girls. Just like James Bond!" This new departure for Kosugi promises to keep him occupied until the spring of 1986 - and more filmwork beckons after that!
"We are currently discussing an untitled film after Operation Subrosa. I think this one will be done in Los Angeles. And after that - well, we are discussing another film project."
Kosugi isn't just the superstar of ninja movies - he's the exclusive member of the International Ninja Jet Set!
The Ninja Trend - Quo Vadis?
"I don't expect this to last forever," Kosugi had commented in explaining the ninja boom. But how much further will the ninja craze go - if not as martial art, then in martial arts movies?
"Another two or three years," is Kosugi's assessment. "You see, first the public wasn't aware of the ninja. Then came the three ninja films from Cannon. That whetted the audience's appetite. Now we're reaching the point where the public does know about the ninja - but the audience identification and enthusiasm is still there. So I expect this popularity to last. If we continue to make good, solid action adventure movies, it will definitely last two more years - and maybe longer."
Certainly Kosugi's pace shows not the slightest sign of faltering for the next two years. Once the owner of two schools of martial art located in Southern California's San Gabriel Valley, Kosugi today no longer operates even one school.
"I can't teach at this pace," he confesses, "There's no way at all that such a thing is possible. So I owned two schools; first I sold one. The other school is no longer a dojo; it's devoted to ninja merchandise which I design and manufacture. But teaching - out of the question for awhile."
Kosugi's personal ninja fan boom also continues unabated: "I receive at least 150 pieces of mail a week," he says. "It's hard, but I sit down and answer every piece of mail. I owe it to my fans."
"How long will the ninja trend continue?" he wonders. "Really, I don't know, I just don't know. But I do hope it continues," he says grinning. "I do like making movies."
With that - an interview and photo session sandwiched between a Confucian memorial ceremony in the morning and a hectic round of business meetings dealing with future movie projects in the afternoon, Kosugi was up and ready.
Tomorrow, after all, was Sunday - and Sunday meant a flight to Houston for Pray for Death. Then there was Monday - and a quick flight to Hollywood for a costume fitting.
Kosugi shook his head slowly - here he was in his element - the first supersonic ninja.