SHO KOSUGI RETURNS TO THE SILVER SCREEN IN PRAY FOR DEATH
A Japanese businessman moves his family from Yokohama to Houston, Texas - and unwittingly becomes involved with the shadowy evil of the American underworld. When the mob moves in on his family, Sho Kosugi is forced to reveal his secret identity as a ninja master. Summoning up all of his martial might, he issues a solemn ultimatum: either the evil minions of the mob leave him and his family in peace, or else they'll "PRAY FOR DEATH!"
"This is my best film ever," Sho Kosugi says with a weary grin as he sips green tea during a rare break in his frenetic - if not frantic - schedule. "The Hollywood Reporter (one of the movies industry's Bibles) gave us a very good review. They said the film reminded them of Death Wish with Charles Bronson, Enter the Dragon with Bruce Lee - and that it was as scary as Halloween! I'm very pleased with the way this film came out - and I think the audience will love it - and not just for the martial arts action!"
"You know," Kosugi adds, "this is the first foreign-made movie about the ninja that's been brought for theatrical release in Japan. The very first ninja movie ever! That's a real honor."
Since Kosugi's career first skyrocketed with the release of Cannon Films' Enter the Ninja, his life has come to resemble the proverbial Hollywood merry-go-round. The week Kosugi stopped by the IKF offices, he was busy overseeing the final construction details of a new house in Los Angeles' San Gabriel Valley, attending press and crew screenings for Pray for Death, involved with pre-production meetings for his next film, and trying to recover from a monumental case of jet lag incurred while, among various other trips, scouting locations in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Mexico, and attending the Cannes Film Festival in France.
"My life is very busy," he laughs.
Pray for Death
In his latest ninja outing, Kosugi plays a Japanese businessman whose wife is half-Japanese and half-American. Resigning his job in Yokohama, he takes his family to Houston, Texas, where he purchases a restaurant, intent on building a new life in America.
"Unfortunately the restaurant is a safe-house for criminals," Kosugi explains. "And when the former owner leaves, the crooks discover that a lot of jewels and stolen goods have disappeared. At first they think it's the former owner, then a corrupt policeman in their pay. And, finally, they suspect me - and that's when the action really starts."
"I don't want to reveal too much about the story - I don't want to spoil it for you. But," Kosugi adds with a mischievous grin, "in the movie I'm finally forced to reveal my identity as a ninja - a secret that I've kept from even my wife and children. Of course, I have to use my martial arts skill as a ninja master, and some new ninja weapons, to enforce my oath of revenge - but I won't tell you what it is I have to avenge - see the movie!"
"Of course, there's a subplot," Kosugi continues. "It concerns my youth. In the story, my brother and I were orphaned as children. We were adopted by the master of a temple; the priest was also a ninja master. But a terrible event occurs in the temple - it's the reason why I've kept my identity as a ninja secret. The master of the temple, who is played by Robert Ito (of TV's Quincy fame) tries to help. But in Houston, I'm forced to return to my old ninja teachings."
The film is another Kosugi family affair. As was the case in Kosugi's second movie for Cannon (Revenge of the Ninja), Kosugi's oldest son Kane portrays the ninja master's oldest son. And, fittingly enough, Kane's younger brother Shane joins him as the ninja's second son. "They're very professional young actors," Kosugi adds with a gleam of parental pride in his eye.
"The great thing about Pray for Death was that I was involved in all aspects of the filmmaking. I sat with the editor, and gave my input on editing the fight scenes, which was wonderful."
Kosugi pauses and takes a deep breath. "My last film was terrible. I had no control or input over anything. It (9 Deaths of the Ninja) drew a lot of criticism from everybody! We shot the movie in the Philippines. And then it was edited there after I left - I had no input. The editing was all wrong in the fight scenes. I decided after that film that I needed to be more involved during the filmmaking. And now, I find that I've moved into more pre-production work like casting and scouting locations."
"I just don't want to be a movie star. The next two years are very critical for me. I want to make good pictures, I want to choose scripts carefully. I just don't want to make a bad picture."
Of TV, Choreography, and Fame
Lingering in the back of Kosugi's mind is his involvement with NBC's short-lived ninja television series The Master. In the series, Kosugi not only played the role of Okasa, the evil ninja, he also directed the martial arts choreography and stunt doubled for leading man Lee Van Cleef as well.
"I had another offer for a television series this summer - 24 episodes," Kosugi reflects. "I said no. One of the frustrating things about television is that you're too limited by time. You have seven days in which to shoot 48 minutes of television. That's simply not enough time. For a film, on the other hand, you have two months to shoot 90 to 120 minutes of film."
"One the set of The Master, there were always stunts and action sequences that just weren't quite finished. I wanted to stay, to take more time. But there wasn't any time. It was 'Ok Sho, let's go.' Working in movies gives you the time to choreograph the routines and perfect them. Like in Pray for Death - there's a really amazing and dangerous stunt that involves a moving, giant trailer truck. It took a lot of time to perfect - but it's really great, it adds to the film. Television just doesn't allow you the time to perfect things like that."
Part of Kosugi's attraction lies in his expert choreography, which leads to a natural question. How difficult is it for Kosugi the actor to change places with Kosugi the choreographer?
"Choreography for the films isn't that difficult," Kosugi explains. "Since these are modern ninja movies, the major emphasis on martial arts choreography falls on me or my sons. That's easy. Truthfully, the key to choreography is scouting the locations. If you do your homework, the choreography follows."
Scouting locations for Pray for Death Part II and a film called Devil's Odds have consumed a great deal of Kosugi's time this past summer. [Note: These 2 films were never made.] He rolls his eyes jokingly as he counts the places he's visited: "I've been to Thailand, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur (the capital of Malaysia), Vera Cruz and Acapulco - all scouting locations!"
"Romancing the Stone was filmed near Vera Cruz; part of Rambo: First Blood II was shot near Acapulco. Vera Cruz was nice - we'll probably shoot part of a film called Way of the Ninja there." [Note: Way of the Ninja was the working title for Rage of Honor.]
But perhaps Kosugi's most pleasant odyssey occurred this spring, when he attended the Cannes Film Festival in France. "I was really surprised to find out how popular my movies were in Europe. Distributors wanted pre-sales on my next two films. Fans recognized me on the street and asked for autographs."
Kosugi adds, "I even had a yacht to stay on that the film company provided. And do you know who was staying on the yacht next to me? Clint Eastwood! He was a very nice gentleman. He came over one day and we had a very nice talk about films, martial arts…Cannes was really lovely."
Kosugi reflects a moment. "I sometimes think of ten years ago. Teaching karate in a small studio. And now - Cannes, movies, becoming involved in the production end of filmmaking…"
Kosugi shakes his head and grins, "Such an opportunity…and what timing!"