SHO KOSUGI: BRINGING THE NINJA TO THE SCREEN by D.M. Kirkland
Before Enter the Ninja made this gentleman-warrior a household name, few people had ever heard of Sho Kosugi. Since then, the modest, self-effacing Kosugi has made three more movies and $100 million (for Cannon Films) along the way.
Born in Japan, Sho was the youngest child and only boy. Because his upbringing was so sheltered, his older sisters insisted he study karate (starting at the age of five). Later, in high school, he added judo and had some exposure to ninjutsu from a neighbor. Asked by a TV reporter had he ever had to use his martial arts training outside of cinematic entertainment, his reply was direct. "Only once," said Kosugi, "short, quick and with only kicks." Ironically, this sole fight took place on his first day in the United States. That time, 18 years ago, the 19-year-old Kosugi was hassled by three thugs in the airport. Sho made quick work out of them. "I believe they went to the hospital."
Sho came to the U.S. to major in economics at California State University in Los Angeles. To keep up with his martial arts training, he studied with karateka Fumio Demura, and took part in demonstrations in the Los Angeles area. Over the next 3 or 4 years, he also had brief flings in films, appearing in a couple of Korean-made movies. Kosugi had tried acting as a small boy in Japan. "I went to acting school, but after six months, the teacher threw me out. I kept running around. The teacher said, you'll never be an actor," he recalled.
Being cast as the Evil Ninja in the 1981 film Enter the Ninja catapulted Sho onto a road leading to adventure. In the beginning, this movie suffered from the fact that neither the producers nor director really knew anything about the art or traditions of ninjutsu. Kosugi returned to Japan to research the history, weapons and techniques of the legendary Iga and Koga clans. The legends, often considered to be part myth, said the Ninja had fighting prowess and secret magical powers that enabled them to remain motionless for hours, walk on water, scale sheer surfaces, and disappear at will. Sometimes considered amoral rather than evil, they were feared as assassins, fought among their own rival clans, and were considered untrustworthy allies. Because they were centered in the difficult mountain terrain, Ninjas were feared, and often ignored, but never exterminated.
"The government of that period was very worried about the Ninja," explained Kosugi in an earlier interview. "The Ninja not only knows martial arts, but medicine, poisons and explosives. The government outlawed it and today, ninja is only allowed to be studied as martial art. Not to be used in assassinations, espionage or spying."
Kosugi learned enough about traditional Ninja weaponry to create his own arsenal of weapons and killing techniques for the big screen. At the same time, he began to revise the fight-scene choreography to reflect the stances and moves of ninjutsu, instead of standard karate. In Enter the Ninja, Sho doubled for so many ninja-opponents, he estimates he "died about 100 times in that one movie." Revenge of the Ninja followed in 1983, with Sho playing a 'good' ninja tracking down an 'evil' ninja. Not surprisingly, Kosugi did both parts, changing his fighting style in the evil role to be that of a more aggressive individual. Revenge offered Kosugi a chance to do even more of his own stunt work. Shot on location in Salt Lake City, Cannon Films used local stuntmen in the film. Men, who had little expertise in the car-chase type stunts. Although several stunt men were hurt, Kosugi miraculously came out without a scratch.
Revenge of the Ninja was Kosugi's first cinematic chance to show off his eldest son, Kane. Sho began training his son at the tender age of 1½, wearing diapers instead of a gi. "My son is a very special person," said Kosugi. "He stood up when he was only six months old. Kane didn't crawl like other babies and I could see his leg power was there. The martial arts are good for small children. The skills teach a youngster mental and physical discipline. Each hand movement and stroke in karate has a meaning."
Sho teamed with both his sons, Kane (now, 11) and Shane (9) in his latest film Pray for Death. The boys play the sons of a Japanese businessman Akira (Kosugi), who finds his just-bought American restaurant is in a sleazy part of town. Worse, a gangster is killing off the neighborhood over lost jewels. While Akira deals with the adult situation, the sons face bullies from local toughs to the gangster's henchmen. Shane and Kane perform so well, and with such enthusiasm, that a future movie without them may be impossible.
What Sho's got going for him are 32 years of earnest martial arts enlightenment. Many of the ninjutas in his later movies (both by Cannon and by other studios) are students who train with him. Since fight choreography is such an important part of martial arts movies, Kosugi leads a weekly class in choreographed fight practices, specifically to meet the needs of ninja films. By providing the studios with trained personnel, Sho can save the production company time and money. "Everything has to be right the first time. You have seven days of filming for 48 minutes on film in television," says Kosugi. "There is no time to waste."
Although Pray for Death is R-rated for violence and some profanity, it is the best-yet Kosugi film, and another must-see for ninja fans. For one thing, Kosugi gets to 'ACT' in this one - there's a bit more story than in the preceding movies. But don't worry, there are more than enough fights and stunts (graphic gore) to please the hardest fans around. And the production quality of Pray for Death is a step up, bringing the martial arts films, in this case at least, close to the polished look of a James Bond film. Speaking of which, in his upcoming picture, Code of Revenge [later to be released as Rage of Honor], Sho plays a drug enforcement agent in South America.
The box-office success of Kosugi's films - Enter the Ninja (1981), Revenge of the Ninja (1983), Ninja III: The Domination (1984) and Pray for Death (1985) is directly attributable to the spirit and dedication of Sho Kosugi. His obvious respect and empathy for the Ninja tradition allows the viewer to look past the outward accomplishments of the modern ninja characters, to see the long process of spiritual forgiving that put each character - good or evil - in his place in the saga of the ninja. If his students develop along the same lines of caring and feeling empathy for their ninja characters, then Sho Kosugi will have made American ninja in the cinema a reality for the future.