Just as he had successfully introduced mainstream American audiences to the joys of martial arts movies, Bruce Lee died, leaving a void that production companies around the world struggled to fill. Soon, every Asian actor with an iota of charisma and athletic skill was lauded as the next Bruce Lee. When those same mainstream audiences was presented with a series of pseudonym’d performers – Bruce Li (real name Ho Chung Tao), Bruce Liang (real name Leung Siu-lung), Bruce Ly (real name Binhslee), et cetera – they lost considerable interest, but the struggle to cash-in on Lee’s legacy also produced a vibrant community of niche market martial arts stars, like Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Sonny Chiba, Cynthia Rothrock, and Sho Kosugi.
Though he had worked in both the film and television industries for some time, Kosugi (born Shōichi Kosugi) was most famous for his appearances in a series of American-produced ninja films that exploded during the late grindhouse era of the early 1980s. These films proliferated with the help of young viewers who had recently gained access to the relatively new technologies of home video and premium cable movie channels. I’m sure that there were plenty of adult fans as well, but it’s no coincidence that the “ninjasploitation” fad coincided with the blockbuster debut of the Karate Kid series, the wild popularity, occasionally ninja-centric G.I. Joe cartoon/toy line, and the propagation of Karate/Kendo/Judo/Aikido/Ninjutsu schools for kids. Many of these movies were notoriously cheap and framed thinly-plotted scenes of (usually) white actors with stock footage inserts of Japanese stuntmen fighting with their faces covered by ninja masks, which supposedly disguised the inconsistency. Kosugi’s standing as one of the few Japanese-born stars of the largely white American-fronted boom made him unique, as did the fact that his skills allowed him to serve as his own stunt double.
Following a few walk-on roles and a stint as a villain in Lee Doo-yong Bruceploitation pic, Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave (1976), Kosugi starred in a loose-knit trilogy for Cannon Films – Menahem Golan’s Enter the Ninja (where he played second fiddle to a very un-ninja-like spaghetti western star Franco Nero, 1981), Sam Firstenberg’s Revenge of the Ninja (his first true starring role, 1983), and the supernatural-tinged Ninja III: The Domination, directed by Firstenberg (1984). This was quickly followed by a television series stint on The Master (where he played a villain and Lee Van Cleef’s stunt double) and two headline roles in Hessler’s Pray for Death (1985) and Rage of Honor (1987).
Pray for Death
Japanese restaurateur Akira (Sho Kosugi) has taken his wife and two boys to the United States in search of a better life. But their slice of the American Dream is quickly soured when they fall foul of a group of vicious jewellery thieves. Unfortunately for the bad guys, they didn’t count on Akira being a secret black ninja. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Pray for Death helped set the stage for a more generic, exploitation-friendly American ninja movie market with slick imagery, better than average supporting performances (which help to conceal Kosugi’s English language troubles and lack of actor’s training), and tidily constructed (though not always spectacular) bloody action. Screenwriter James Booth’s script mixes American-branded lone wolf revenge clichés (a reluctant hero pushed beyond his limit by ruthless thugs) with vaguely spiritual, Japanese-themed, warring clan motifs (an event from the hero’s past follows him from Japan to America to continue haunting him). It is, effectively, Death Wish with a ninja and, for better or worse, this blend of genre conventions stuck with ninjasploitation for the next decade. Hessler’s career followed a very strange arc from his Vincent Price-starring AIP productions – The Oblong Box (1969), Scream and Scream Again (1970), and Cry of the Banshee (also 1970), through his Ray Harryhausen-produced fantasy The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), decades of TV work, and his brief run as one of the originators of the B-ninja subgenre. Besides the aforementioned slickness, Hessler’s major contribution here is his workmanlike visual clarity. He and editors Bill Butler & Stephen Butler (no relation?) are sure to stay out of Kosugi (who acted as his own martial arts choreographer) and his stunt crew’s way wherever action is concerned. There is a charming ‘so bad it’s good’-ness to some of the movie, but it seems to me that Hessler and his team were wise enough to have knowingly corned things up a bit for entertainment value.
Due to its violence – specifically sexual violence – Pray for Death was heavily cut in many territories. The complete uncut film runs about 98:30 and it was released that way on occasion, but the most common release was the US R-rated cut, which runs about 94:30. Apparently, earlier UK versions also trimmed any nunchuck and throwing star footage. At the risk of frustrating the film’s fans, I think this is actually a rare case where the edited version may be preferable, not because the violence is particularly shocking by modern standards, but because Pray for Death really seems to be aimed at children – the plot is easily parsed, it is framed by idealized father/son relationships (note that the children are Kosugi’s real-life children), and there is a pair of kid-on-kid fight scenes. Most of the censored violence is pretty tame, but Aiko’s (Donna Kei Benz) murder sequence feels out of step with the tone of the rest of the film. Not that any of it is particularly appropriate for young viewers…
(For a complete rundown of the difference between the R-rated and uncut releases, click here)
Initially, Pray for Death was available only on a barebones, R-rated anamorphic DVD from MGM/Fox and a (possibly uncut ?) anamorphic disc from Black Mirror in Hungary. Then, MGMHD broadcast a 2.35:1, 1080i version (possibly uncut?), followed by a German Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from Koch that included both the unrated and R-rated versions. I do not have that combo pack on hand, so I’m not sure how Arrow’s new Blu-ray compares to it, but I imagine that these cut and uncut 1080p, 2.35:1 transfers have the advantage, considering that it was made from original interpositive vault elements. The results are sharp and about as clean as can be expected from the material. Hessler and cinematographer Roy H. Wagner shot much of Pray for Death to look kind of like a horror movie, so it is very dark. The remaster tightens lines and punches up the highlights enough to ensure that important details don’t disappear into black mud, like they did on VHS and DVD. The colours here are neutral and consistent. Some sequences are suspiciously smooth and bereft of grain, so it’s possible that a smidge too much DNR was employed. However, in the early ‘80s tradition, Wagner does employ a lot of soft focus, which also accounts for some of the fuzzier moments. The footage also looks more natural in motion than it does on this page. It seems that the R-rated cut was the base for both transfers, because the deleted clips (most of which last only a second or two) often appear more contrasty and slightly dirtier. The difference is slight, though – I suspect I only noticed because I knew what to look for.
The original two-track stereo soundtrack is presented here in uncompressed LPCM 2.0 audio. The clarity is very impressive, from crisp, naturalistic dialogue and incidental effects, to its occasional stereo-spread noises, which usually pop-up during the big action scenes. There are some very goofy effects choices – the lumpy thud of Parley Baer’s deadly beating, for example – but I assure you these less-than-realistic choices were the filmmakers’ problem, not this soundtrack’s. Thomas Chase and Steve Rucker’s “East meets West” music (both composers went on to work mostly in television animation) is the standout element, including warm synth and punchy percussion. The sound does take a slight dip into muffled mushiness during some of the previously censored sequences, but it usually springs back quickly.
Sho and Tell Part 1: Birth of a Ninja (19:00, HD) – An exclusive new interview with Kosugi conducted in 2015. The actor/martial artist discusses his time as a martial arts instructor, his early film career, and the lead up to his breakthrough with Pray for Death.
Sho Kosugi on Martial Arts Forms (19:00, SD) – An archive interview/ninjutsu demonstration with Kosugi from the film’s New York premiere in 1985.
Sho Kosugi trailer gallery (Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, Pray for Death, and Rage of Honor
Rage of Honor
Federal agent Shiro Tanaka (Sho Kosugi) used to live for his job – now, he lives only for revenge. When his partner is killed during a bungled drug bust, Shiro throws away his badge and the rule book with it: arming himself with an array of deadly weaponry – including nunchucks, blades, and ninja stars – he sets out to Buenos Aires to settle the score with the bad guys. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Kosugi and Hessler’s second feature ninjasploitation epic is a definitely a companion piece to Pray for Death, but changes the lone wolf vigilante narrative for a very ‘80s-flavoured, post-Miami Vice-type cop adventure. Screenwriters Robert Short and Wallace C. Bennett draw inspiration from a pool of ‘80s cop movies to create the absolute most generic amalgamation of Nighthawks (1981), 48 Hours (1982), and To Live and Die in LA (1985) imaginable. Everything is here, from the sadistic, mullet-headed villain, to the gruff captain, the murdered partner, the beleaguered wife/girlfriend, and the hero’s ‘wild goose chase vendetta’ (an actual line from the movie). A terribly defined computer disc (we’re talking an old-school floppy, here) is tossed into the mix for the sake of a MacGuffin. Had it been a Japanese production, this may have been Kosugi’s respectable answer to Jackie Chan’s Hong Kong Police Story series, but the gobsmacking Americana tone and Kosugi’s miscasting as a Japanese police officer working as a DEA agent in the US (what?) ensure that Rage of Honor remains anchored in the B-movie ghetto.
Fortunately, the filmmakers are clearly aware of their limitations and their audience’s expectations. The most obvious narrative swipes are reserved for the first act and Rage of Honor quickly evolves into a cartoon pastiche of those more ‘serious’ Hollywood films. There is zero pretension behind the pure entertainment value of over-the-top, overly-familiar dialogue, neon lighting schemes, and convoluted turn from crime drama to unexpected Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) rip-off. They even embrace Kosugi’s non-American personality by moving the action from America (Phoenix, Arizona, aka: the least cinematic major city in the United States) to Buenos Aires, where even his English-speaking counterparts are out of place. It becomes a pan-continental experience where, one minute, Kosugi is battling ninjas in a Argentinian jail and, the next, he’s running from face-painted aboriginals in the middle of the jungle. It might be as close as we ever got to a ninja/cop/cannibal cross-over during the era when those three things were blowing up the box office at grindhouses around the world. Hessler expands his repertoire with some James Bond-level boat stunts, while Kosugi stretches his skillset into mindbogglingly dangerous stunts and gunplay. I was constantly weary that his martial arts skills were going to be wasted on typical cop movie action, but there are plenty of excuses for him to flaunt his jump-kicking, shuriken-throwing abilities. The violence is a bit less brutal this time around (I don’t believe there were any cuts made upon the film’s initial release, outside of the UK version trimming the use of nunchuck), though the tone is a bit too “adult” to appeal to the children that grew up loving Pray for Death.
MGM originally released Rage of Honor on 1.33:1 pan & scan DVD in 2003, then rectified the issue with a M.O.D. limited edition 1.85:1 anamorphic version. Weirdly, there seems to have been a budget release triple-feature (including American Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja) from TGG Direct, LLC that included an anamorphic transfer. In addition, 1.78:1 DVDs appeared in Germany via MGM and the UK via 101 Films. Arrow’s Blu-ray is the first official HD home video option, though there was an MGMHD broadcast at some point. Like Pray for Death, this new 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer was made using original vault interpositive materials. Hessler and cinematographer Julio Bragado utilize quite a lot of daylight and shoot on a number of natural locations – both of which make Rage of Honor a significantly brighter and more colourful movie than Pray For Death. As mentioned above, the whole movie has a sort of cartoony/comic book quality that is expressed in the vivid acrylic hues and stylish neon lighting. This transfer is a bit rawer than the previous disc, including more grain and other film-based artifacts, but exhibits a more natural and consistent grain structure. My only complaint – that a few random shots appear optically zoomed/misframed – is likely a problem with the original material, not an authoring/mastering issue.
The original two-track stereo soundtrack is presented in uncompressed LPCM 2.0 sound. The quality here is more homogenous than the Pray for Death disc, but there are still odd inconsistencies peppered through the mix. These usually pertain to either minor echo/reverb effects in the incidental effects or stereo phasing problems, specifically that some of the music and dialogue alternates between the ghost center channel and out-of-phase stereo spread. Composer Stelvio Cipriani worked on a wide array of Italian horror movies and westerns, from Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood (1971) and Ferdinando Baldi’s Blindman (1971) to Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City (1980) and Joe D’Amato’s Orgasmo Nero (1980). His themes here are delightfully cheesy, infectious, and they sound great, assuming the stereo enhancement is working (which it usually is).
Sho and Tell Part 2: The Domination (17:50, HD) – The second part of the exclusive Kosugi interview covers the making of Rage of Honor, which was intended to endear him to a wider action audience. He also discusses his return to more pure martial arts work, usually in a guest star/choreographer capacity, and his minor comeback in the Wachowski-produced, James McTeigue-directed Ninja Assassin (2009).
Stelvio Cipriani interview (2:50, HD) – The underrated, Italian-based composer briefly discusses his work on the film.
American Ninjas (7:30, HD) – Writer/critic Chris Poggiali traces the roots of ninjasploitation’s unlikely rise during the 1980s.
Sho Kosugi trailer gallery