SHO KOSUGI: 20TH CENTURY NINJA by James Loriega
Sho Kosugi's chilling portrayals of ninja have earned him a legion of fans. In this exclusive interview, Sho talks about being a movie superstar and real-life martial arts master.
"I was very, very weak! I was tall but I was weak," explains Sho Kosugi when asked what first motivated his study of the martial arts. Kosugi was in New York, where he had come to attend the opening of his latest film, Pray for Death. During lunch at his Park Avenue hotel, the karate champion, who has portrayed 5 different ninja characters in as many films, spoke at length about martial arts, his training, ninjutsu, Hollywood, and his concept of the ninja. Probably the most popular oriental martial arts movie star since Bruce Lee, Kosugi is quite outspoken, as the following interview attests.
WARRIORS: We are interested in learning more about your martial arts background, not in terms of the ninjutsu which you portray on the screen, but in terms of karate. Is it correct that you are a seventh dan in shito-ryu?
KOSUGI: No, not exactly. My martial arts studies began when I was five-years-old, in shindo-jinen ryu. Shindo-jinen ryu is very close to shito-ryu. Very close. The style was originated by Master Konishi, who just passed away about three years ago. In the U.S., students practice the Ryokubai system, which is the same style as shindo-jinen ryu. I started when I was five-years old because the studio was about a block or so from my house. My two older sisters believed I should learn some form of martial art because I was the only son and I was very weak. I was tall but I was weak. They felt that if I studied some form of martial art, it would help make me independent. That was the start. When I was seven-years-old, I met Mr. Yamamoto, a neighbor. I called him "Uncle Yamamoto". He is the one who taught me ninjutsu from the time I was 7 'til I was 12. The other neighbors looked at him like he was a strange person, perhaps because he lived alone and didn't have any family. No one had ever really wanted to know about him; and he in turn tried to avoid people. Even my family said to keep away from him. "Why do you have to go there every day?" they asked. They also thought he was a strange guy. But somehow, I found him to be interesting. It was easy for me to get along with everybody, and maybe he thought of me as a son or grandson, so he thought me a lot of stuff. He never spoke to anyone else. He would always close the door, close the windows. You never saw him leave the house, so you never knew if he was in or not. He was very strange. And that always made me very curious. I felt maybe he needed somebody to talk to. (He was about 70-years-old). I began going past his house - then I started talking to him. A couple of times he refused to allow me in, but I kept coming by. Eventually, I was allowed inside. He taught me after school; and even though I was still taking martial arts (shindo-jinen ryu), I was there constantly. His ninja techniques were not taught formally, like when one learns in a school. He taught me privately. He would speak to me about ninjutsu, but he refused to discuss friends or family. He once even told me who his master was, but that was once only and I don't remember. He taught me every technique - shuriken (spikes), stars, tekagi (iron claws), throwing techniques, yubi-jutsu (pressure point attacks), taido (body maneuvers). I became very involved. That lasted 'til I was 12-years-old. Then one day he completely disappeared - I don't know what happened. I came home that day from school as usual and I asked my mother, "Where's Uncle Yamamoto?" She said, "I don't know."
WARRIORS: What did you find most impressive about him?
KOSUGI: That for being 70-years-old he moved very well. And he had such eyes. This was the second person I met with such eyes. The first person was Master Konishi. In all true budoka, the more they train, the more their eyes reflect that peak in their ability. Their eyes are completely different. They're clear, but there's something in them. Like children's eyes - clear and very innocent - but they can turn very wild! It's difficult to explain. You'll know if you see it. In beginners you'll never see it, but the higher you go, and the more you train, the eyes tell everything. Uncle Yamamoto had very strong eyes. You could look at them one moment and they'd be clear, like water. You could see right through them. But once they concentrate, you're stuck, you can't move. It was the same with Master Konishi. Master Konishi was 87 when he passed away. He had those eyes. And this Uncle Yamamoto had the eyes. I never met Ueshiba (Morihei Ueshiba, the originator of Aikido), but I've seen his picture. And in the picture I've seen those eyes! You meet people who have been practicing martial arts five or ten years and they say, "I'll show you something. Look at my technique!" But you look at their eyes and, forget it, they don't have it. Now, I've been practicing 32 years, and I still don't have the eyes. I need another 30 more years. With eyes like that you can read a person through their eyes. How they think and what they're thinking. It takes a whole lifetime to get the kind of eyes that reflect the mind. I've only seen it in those three men that I mentioned and they influenced my life. From this point on I don't know if I'll meet any other true masters like them, but I'm still looking. There's no telling how many still exist, but they must be out there.
WARRIORS: In other words, you're saying that one needs to train with a master to become a master?
KOSUGI: Well, to start with, I doubt you'll be able to find one. Then if you find one, they don't like to teach. That's a big problem. There are a few masters in Japan, even a handful in Taiwan. The reason I often go to the Orient is not to visit family, but to find if there are still masters. A good master can talk and can see.
WARRIORS: Do you think the best masters are in Japan?
KOSUGI: No, I don't think so.
WARRIORS: Do you think there may be one in the United States?
KOSUGI: No, I don't think so because the United States is only 200-years-old. I mean, how much tradition can there be? Technique-wise some Americans are very good, but you cannot find a real ultimate master here. You have to go to China if you want to go beyond the physical to the mental. Taiwan or Red China.
WARRIORS: Have you been to China yet?
KOSUGI: No, but I'm looking forward to it.
WARRIORS: Getting back to your martial arts background…
KOSUGI: In junior high school I began practicing kendo and judo. I have black belts in both because we were required to undertake some type of martial arts training for physical education. My school offered judo, kendo, and aikido. I took up judo and kendo. I only studied these arts for three years because I was still studying (academic subjects) and still practicing karate. So I'm only a black belt (shodan) in these arts. In high school I studied iaido and kobudo weaponry.
WARRIORS: Do you have any plans to write a book of your own about ninjutsu?
KOSUGI: So far, I am not willing to write any book about ninjutsu. I don't want to do that because my teacher, Uncle Yamamoto, taught me almost like a father instead of an "uncle". And when he taught, he taught me more than an art. It was more like out of love, you understand. It was something he didn't teach to anyone else, so I would hate to lose that concept. I hate the idea of "mass product"; or the idea that because right now everything's going good why don't you write a book? I don't want to take advantage of it; I would feel very guilty about it. What he gave me out of love I will give only to my sons. I can concentrate my personal attention on teaching them. If something goes wrong, I'll always be there. If I write a book teaching what I know, what will happen is that many people will misunderstand or misinterpret it. Even when the book illustrates a basic technique, how can you convey the mental attitudes? You cannot! In a book you can only demonstrate superficially what the techniques look like. It's very tough. It's difficult even in a video format. I made a video - "Master Class" - but the mind has to be in ninjutsu techniques more than in any other martial art. I can't tell - unless I'm there demonstrating and explaining how - if the readers or audience understand the concept of what is being done. In "Master Class" I included sword and nunchaku, but only basic techniques. I didn't put in kama-yari (sickle-spear) or kyoketsu-shoge (hooked knife and rope) or any complicated weapons.
WARRIORS: Are you training your sons yourself?
KOSUGI: Yes. I have a studio in my house. It's about 1,600 square feet and two stories high.
WARRIORS: We assume that in between filming, and perhaps even throughout, you continue working out. Could you give us an idea of what your workout consists of?
KOSUGI: Well, a regular workout consists of about four hours of training. Three to four hours daily, depending on time (available). For the first 30 minutes, I do nothing but jogging. After that, I do another 30 minutes of exercise, nothing but stretching - working all the bones, everything. The next hour or so is spent on regular martial arts techniques - kicking, punching, and so forth. Then for another hour I do weapons. I have about 600 to 700 different weapons. I practice just to remain familiar with them. One day this one, the other that one. You have to feel them. Then after weapons I do a little weight training. Not too heavy, just enough to flex the muscles and stay in shape. And finally, for at least another 30 minutes, I meditate. (Sometimes this will last an hour.)
WARRIORS: How early do you start your workout?
KOSUGI: About 7:00 a.m., or a little before.
WARRIORS: We know that there are many misconceptions as to what ninja are. In your movies you often portray the ninja as the hero. How does your concept of the ninja differ from Hollywood's concept?
KOSUGI: As you know, in motion pictures you have an hour-and-a-half to tell a story, convey a concept, and entertain an audience. Martial arts films, or actually every type of film, is basically a fantasy. A movie is not a documentary. A documentary is quite a different thing; you have to portray everything as it actually is. Now, ninja films are not documentaries; we are dealing with the concept of ninja, who can be either good or bad. Not all ninja were bad. Many people still think that because the concept of the ninja has been misrepresented from the very beginning. Even in Japan they misrepresent the ninja because they wore black outfits, or because they always approached from behind. I'm Japanese so I can say it. If you mention "ninja", they automatically think of bad guys. It's not true, it's not true. There were good ninja and bad ninja. They weren't just assassins - they did spy work, espionage. Like modern CIA agents. Right now, you wouldn't call a CIA agent a bad guy. If you're working for the established government you're a good guy, no matter what you do. But if you're working against the government, for the Soviet KGB for instance, you're the bad guy. So how are you going to determine your interpretation of the ninja?
WARRIORS: What you're saying then is that a person's concept of the ninja depends upon the person's politics?
KOSUGI: Yes! More than anything else. Even before the Tokugawa period, there were many ninja roaming about Japan. Some worked for the government, some for their lords. Just before Tokugawa (about 1600), the ninja became scattered when Nobunaga Oda began persecuting them (1581). Nobunaga was a smart guy. He was concerned over the fact that the ninja were a highly developed people. Not only physically in terms of skills, but in terms of knowledge. For example, before Nobunaga began using guns (matchlocks), the ninja were already using them. He figured if they ever decided to take over the country, they could have. So he began massacring them - men, women, children, it didn't matter. He surrounded them so that they had nowhere to escape. Still, some ninja managed to escape. That's when ninjutsu became outlawed. On the other hand, after Nobunaga was killed, Tokugawa (his successor) hired Iga ryu ninja as spies (to keep Japan unified). Other styles that survived, such as Yoshitsune ryu, Tokushiro ryu, Koga ryu ninja, spread across Japan and continued their ninjutsu training.
WARRIORS: How do you regard the ninja? What is the ninja to you?
KOSUGI: To me, the ninja concept is simply that of purity. Perhaps "lack of feeling" describes it better. The ninja - his mind, his art, everything - is very pure; that is, unclouded by emotion. Certainly, some were seen as evil because they would accomplish their tasks no matter what - without any feeling. It was always emptiness, similar to the concept of Zen! As you know, the samurai were of a higher social class than the ninja. They had the code of the bushi (warrior), a code of honor. They didn't want to do any "dirty" work. The ninja did that. And even some higher-level ninja, such as jonin (ninja commanders), didn't want to do dirty work either. But the true ninja, the genin, they were like robots. You weren't allowed to have a mind of your own. You might be ordered against an enemy or against your own family. If a jonin or a chunin said you had to kill, then you had to kill, no matter what. Ninja societies were stricter than the yakuza, stricter than even the mafia. There was never any mercy. And you could not escape being a ninja. If you were born a ninja, you had to die a ninja! There was no exception to this at all.
WARRIORS: What message were you hoping to convey in Pray for Death?
KOSUGI: Well, to tell you the truth, in Pray for Death, I was trying to portray the struggle of immigrants, something like what I myself once went through. When I first came here (to the United States) I struggled so much; there were so many problems; I didn't speak English. When you enter a different country, it's not easy at all. And society doesn't accept you right away - it's very tough, very tough. When you are born in the country, naturally you are a citizen, you are a part of society, a part of the people. But when you go to another country, the culture is different. It's not easy. So to some extent, I wanted to portray my background. I also wanted to show that there's always hope. In this movie I had an opportunity to put some of my ideas forth from the very beginning. As I have more say over what is done, I can express more in all aspects of filming, coordination, directing and editing.
WARRIORS: Are there any other messages that you like your movies to convey?
KOSUGI: In my next movie the theme is revenge; revenge as a theme is always impressive. I think that's because at this point in our society, everyone is very disappointed. If you are hurt, or your wife or girlfriend is hurt or raped, the criminals escape. When they are finally caught they go to court, and the judiciary process takes two-and-a-half to three years to deliver the sentence. If they go to jail, within five years or so they're back on the street - "rehabilitated" or "pardoned." The weak are the victims, and the victims stand alone. They are not allowed to take revenge or return the hurt. On the other hand, when you go to war and one country "hurts" another country, you don't have to go to an international court over it. No: Then it's okay to "go for it!" So now, why is one action "wrong" and another "right"? Right and wrong can be very blurred. Society in general feels the same way. That's why people enjoy "revenge" movies; the movies allow people their fantasies. The protagonist acts on the audience's behalf. I enjoy portraying the instrument of revenge. I can get the audience emotionally involved. And as a ninja, I can satisfy their needs for vengeance. But I don't want them to forget hope. A movie simply about revenge is not good; it has to communicate hope. Without hope, even after vengeance has been exacted, there will still be bitterness. That's why hope is an important theme in Pray for Death. In the end scenes, after the police arrive, they let me go. If they'd have handcuffed me, there would have been no hope. But they didn't, leaving me free to pursue my original hopes, to give it another shot. And I think the audience enjoys that kind of movie - I like them myself!
WARRIORS: Tell us about your next film project.
KOSUGI: In my next movie (Rage of Honor), I play a drug enforcement agent. It's the first time I've used a gun in my life; not only in a movie, but in my entire life. But then, when we train for so many years in the martial arts, a gun becomes another one of the tools. The director was quite surprised at the unorthodox way I shoot. But with all the stance training, the positioning, give me any gun, any weapon, and - whether it's technically right or not - I can handle it my way. In this movie the theme is more honor that revenge. In the story, I have to choose between my fiancée and my partner. The girl represents love and the partner represents honor. He once saved my life, and now he's been killed so I'm indebted. Disregarding the girlfriend's wishes for my avoiding risk and not becoming involved, I chose honor above love. In the end, I wind up saving her, so I have love and honor.