SHO KOSUGI: HAPPY TO PAY THE PRICE by Dave Cater
We all know how disorienting it is to be an outsider. Whether it is our first day at school, first day on the job or first day in martial arts class, you feel alone, ignored, unwelcome. But few can fully comprehend the trials Sho Kosugi endured on his maiden trip to America in 1968. Although he had neither family nor friends, a job nor a place to stay, Kosugi the adventurer sought a future in a city of 10 million people almost 8,000 miles from his native Tokyo.
Armed only with two suitcases, $500 and a head of dreams, Kosugi landed at mammoth Los Angeles International Airport and searched in vain for the bus that would take him to a remote downtown community called "Little Tokyo", his new home away from home.
There were just two problems - big problems. He didn't know how to get to "Little Tokyo" and he couldn't read or speak a lick of English. Three-and-a-half hours later, a city bus dropped off Kosugi at a street corner. Not surprisingly, he had taken the wrong bus - one that traveled south instead of east. Instead of the friendly signs of Japanese restaurants and comforting native conversation, Kosugi bundles in tow, was greeted by a darkened path of inner-city mess littered with drunks, bums and other riff-raff of every size, shape and severity.
Suddenly out of the shadows appeared three men, including one brandishing a shiny blade. Startled, he froze as two of the men grabbed him from behind. The third approached slowly, his knife poised. Kosugi, who had studied martial arts in Tokyo as a teenager, couldn't understand what the thugs were saying. But the weapon transcended all language barriers. A quick flick of his right leg and Kosugi connected with a perfect shot to the chest of the man with the weapon. He fell to the ground, the sidewalk a bloody mess. Awed by his display of martial arts power, the others fled. While they carted the would-be thief to the hospital, Kosugi went to a Los Angeles Police station house, where he spent the rest of the day.
Welcome to America, Sho Kosugi. Fortunately, all his luck in America hasn't been as bad. Just like the character he played in Pray for Death, Kosugi recovered from the rude greeting to create a new - and highly successful - life.
Today, at the age of 38, Kosugi is among the top action film stars in the world. He and his wife, Shook, have three children - Kane, 11; Shane, 10; and Ayeesha, 2 - and reside comfortably in a fashionable section of suburban Los Angeles. When we finally caught up with Kosugi, a deceivingly tall 6'1", 184 lbs., he had just finished the final editing for his latest movie, Rage of Honor. The movie, in which Kosugi plays a U.S. drug enforcement agent, is due for release in October. This is his seventh film. Here's what he had to say about the movie and his life.
IKF: How did you get your start in martial arts movies?
KOSUGI: It was in 1981 and my big break came in the movie Enter the Ninja. Before then I had done a Chinese movie in Taiwan and a Korean movie in Los Angeles. But Enter the Ninja was my big start. (Famed karate competitor) Mike Stone had a script and approached Cannon Films about doing it. Cannon liked it and put Stone in the lead. But Stone had some type of problem with the producer or director and got fired. At the time, I had a small role as a ninja stuntman. But the director liked my action and my acting so he kept adding more lines and more things and suddenly it was me against Franco Nero.
IKF: You've done seven movies since 1981. What are they?
KOSUGI: Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, Ninja III: The Domination, 9 Deaths of the Ninja, Made in Hawaii (Aloha Summer), Pray for Death, and my newest Rage of Honor.
IKF: Made in Hawaii? Where does that fit?
KOSUGI: It was a teenager type movie I did in 1984. Just a cameo appearance where I play a kendo instructor.
IKF: Of your films, which one is your favorite?
KOSUGI: Definitely Pray for Death. It was a lot like my life. I came from Japan, and I was a martial artist before I went to school here. I struggled at first so I felt like I was playing myself, even though it was a different situation. I like the idea of revenge, you know, family, tradition and revenge.
IKF: The family element plays an important part in all your films. Why?
KOSUGI: It's something I can get into. It's something I can feel. I'm very comfortable. I cannot just make a CIA agent-type film where some guy gets killed. I like the more personal revenge because I can feel it inside.
IKF: Obviously your family is important to you. Is that why your sons have been a part of two movies?
KOSUGI: In Revenge of the Ninja, the producer liked the idea. I wanted to make a father-and-son movie. In Pray for Death, which had both my sons, I liked it because I usually don't have enough time to spend with them. It gives me a great chance to work with them, choreograph them. I know their good points, so I can recreate those points. If someone new came in and tried to choreograph them, it would be very tough. They wouldn't know their good points, their bad points.
IKF: Most critics think of you as a martial artist first and an actor second. Would that be a safe assumption?
KOSUGI: I went to acting school in Japan when I was six years old and within six months I was kicked out. I was so active as a kid I wasn't able to sit down in one place. The teacher asked me to sit down and read a script and I couldn't do it. That's when she kicked me out.
IKF: Are you taking acting classes now?
KOSUGI: No, but I am taking special English classes, because I have to make the words clear. I go two or three times a week.
IKF: Many people have questioned your martial arts background. Can you help us out?
KOSUGI: I started studying martial arts when I was five. Kendo and judo was a requirement when I was in junior high school. Since then, I also have studied iaido, kobudo, ninjutsu and shindo-jinen ryu, which is close to the Japanese style of shito-ryu.
IKF: What is your current training schedule?
KOSUGI: When I'm not working, I train three-to-four hours per day. I get up at 6 a.m. and run 30 minutes and then do 30 minutes of exercises. From there I do one hour of kicking, one hour of weapons, 30 minutes of weights and 30 minutes of meditation.
IKF: What weapons do you practice?
KOSUGI: The spear, sword, sickle, sai and jo.
IKF: I'm sure a lot of people, especially children, think it's easy to be a martial artist. Are they right?
KOSUGI: As I stated, I'm a martial artist and not an actor. I have been training the last 33 years and I've learned a lot from the martial arts. A lot of people think martial arts is nothing but fighting. But that's not true. Of course, you have to show some fighting. But there's also the mental attitude. I try to emphasize to the audience how much skill it takes - not five-to-ten years, but 20-to-30.
IKF: Is that the only message in your movies?
KOSUGI: No. I'd like to emphasize to the audience that martial arts movies are fantasies. It's not going to be a real-life story. I'd like to have it be like real life, but when you put martial arts in there, you have to use fantasy. I don't like the audience to do the same thing. It can be very bad.
IKF: There has been a lot of adverse publicity surrounding ninja movies. Is the criticism justified?
KOSUGI: There are a lot of people who are out to make money - special ninja magazines, other movies - and there's nothing wrong with that. But few people know the real art of ninja. The art is quite different. Again if you only make art, you won't be able to make a movie. From a commercial standpoint, sometimes you have to compromise. Someday, though, I'd like to make a traditional ninja movie, one very, very traditional ninja movie. That is my dream.
IKF: Do you worry about people taking your movies as authentic?
KOSUGI: Yes, I really worry about that. But it is a fantasy. Just like Star Wars, Cobra, First Blood and "Rambo". It's very important for youngsters to understand this. Adults know it's just a movie, but youngsters, it's tough. Every week I get 300-400 letters from children all over the world.
IKF: What do the want to know?
KOSUGI: They want to be a ninja, like me. They want to know what is the best way to train. I tell them they have to realize what I do is fantasy. If they really are interested in the martial arts, they have to start with the basics. I've been training so many years, it looks easy on screen. Sometimes we can cheat. Even with me, I get hurt a lot. I've barely missed getting killed four times.
IKF: Tell us about it.
KOSUGI: In Revenge of the Ninja, we were shooting a scene on top of a 36-story building and the wind was so strong I almost fell off. A stuntman caught me in the nick of time. In "9 Deaths", I was hanging on to a chopper 100 feet off the ground. It was raining and I wasn't wearing a harness. It got so slippery it was razor-close. In Pray for Death, I have to climb up on a truck from underneath. We decided to do this on a regular street, without getting permission. So we just cut into regular traffic. There were too many cars behind us and we couldn't slow down. We were all going 30-40 miles per hour. Again, it was night and I almost lost my grip because of the dampness. I could have taken the fall, but the cars coming from behind? No way.
IKF: Why don't you use a stuntman?
KOSUGI: If you're a stuntman, you have to stay away from the close-ups. Since the audience is coming for me, my movie, I want to do my best as often as possible. Nowadays, though, the producer is getting more worried.
IKF: Your new movie, Rage of Honor is a departure from previous films. Why the change?
KOSUGI: In the movie, I play a U.S. drug enforcement agent. Still, I use some martial arts skills. I'm happy with the change, because the martial arts audience is so limited. I'll never forget my audience, I just want to introduce the martial arts to a bigger audience.
IKF: We heard you had an accident on the Rage of Honor set.
KOSUGI: In one scene, I'm supposed to jump over a pit about 12 feet by 8 feet by 20 feet deep. As I get to the other side, the special effects man is supposed to create an explosion. But he couldn't see and as I reached the halfway point, "bam, boom, explosion." The explosion caught me in the air. I got first-degree burns on my (left) leg and I had to go to the emergency room. For five weeks, I had to wear a supporter. I still have a scar. It can be very dangerous, but sometimes you have to pay the price.