Let’s face it - anyone who remembers the 80s remembers ninja movies. While I could never be described as a huge fan of all things 80s, I did grow up in the thick of it, and therefore had little choice but to immerse myself in the excessively shameless films from the studios of Cannon and Golan-Globus. You had to, really. Particularly if you're from a small town and your older brother had already rented all the horror movies for you.
Us westerners weren't too familiar with screen ninjas until Sean Connery was introduced to their wily ways as James Bond in You Only Live Twice - you might remember their rather poxy light blue ninja suits which were thankfully left well alone in favour of a meaner-looking black suit come the mid 80s. But that was after Franco Nero was given a white ninja suit (along with his ninja certificate) in Enter the Ninja (1981) - the movie which heralded tonight's main man, Sho Kosugi. After the success of Enter, Kosugi was in hot demand by movie opportunistic producers, making a ninja movie for almost every year throughout the 1980s.
He was one busy ninja.
Tonight's selection starts off with Revenge of the Ninja - considered by many to be the best ninja movie of the period, and kicked Sho's career-in-black off good and proper. Pray for Death came two years later and although it has a completely different set of characters, they may as well be the same.
Tonight's Zombie Club was brought to you by Zomblee, in association with 'Ninja Eyes' eyeliner.
Revenge of the Ninja (1983)
Plot Shô gets revenge.
Zomblee Where better a place to start tonight's 80s ninja action than Revenge of the Ninja? This one opens in Japan where most of Sho Kosugi's family get violently slaughtered by a ninja army ("a lot of dead people already and only nine minutes in!" - Rawshark). Sho is then convinced by Braden, his shifty-looking American pal to move to the US with his surviving son to open up a traditional Japanese art boutique with a logo that looks like an arse. Little does he know that Braden is not only using the merchandise to traffic heroin, but is also a ninja himself. An American Ninja. How wonderfully 1980s. A bit like white heroin. And token blondes ("Cathy is hot!" - Jim). And revenge.
When Braden is screwed over drug money by mafia boss Chifano, he threatens to use his Japanese connections, which means getting his ninja case out from below the bed, putting the suit on, then running about killing mafia members. Unfortunately Sho's young son is caught up in this, while Sho himself is asked to help in police investigations because, you know, it's hard to track down ninja killers on American streets. Even if it is in a 1980s ninja film.
There is so much to enjoy in this perfect example of the Golum / Globus Cannon ninja fare. All the ingredients of the time are in place - most of the actual fighting has dated laughably badly and most of what takes place is all so ridiculously implausible that you have to love it. Set in a US city that doesn't want to be identified, there seems to be almost no police, except when they attempt to investigate the grisly mafia murders, standing about, scratching their heads and saying stuff like, "Are you trying to tell me there are ninjas running around killing people in the 20th Century?"
That said, I'm glad the cops didn't bother to interrupt during the final reel of Revenge, because if you want to see some quintessentially 80s ninja action then look no further. Rival ninjas Sho and Braden are tooled up to the max when they have their final ninja scrap full of deception and trickery on the roof atop a city centre building. Sho scales the building with ninja claws ("I like the way he's integrating 20th Century climbing technology" - Jim) while his admiring and wholly expendable sidekick (who we all decided looked like Seb Coe) uses his karate skills to kick the shit out of mafia goons at the main entrance before using a more western approach (stairs and elevators) to get to the upper floors. Before he gets killed.
I think we all learned a lot about black-clad warriors tonight, e.g. they don't have only two toes, as their boots might suggest. But given the option, will they choose to use the elevator?
"What the fuck is this, Halloween? Get the fuck outta here."
Jim You know what, I'm so glad Sho scaled that building with ninja claws. I was extremely disappointed when France Nero, at the end of Enter The Ninja, actually used the lift to get to the final confrontation. Sheesh, I think Sho was right in that film, Nero didn't have the right to be called ninja. God knows how he got that ninja licence.
Sho Kusogi, however, has every right to be officially known as a ninja. Despite being directed by the guy who made.... "…you're going to love this Jim - Breakdance 2: Electric Boogaloo and Delta Force 3" (thanks Zomblee), there's so much fun to be had with Revenge of the Ninja that it's extremely hard not to recommend this film wholeheartedly.
Sho is, of course, brilliant in an endearing chop-socky way, and his son Kane can wield a pair of nunchukas like the devil himself. Everyone else is a bit rubbish, but don’t let that worry you - Seb Coe is as wooden as a post but quite good at kung-fu (I bet he was in other Golum Globas stuff), Cathy is a bit crap although she does like fighting without her kung-fu outfit bottoms, which we liked (”Sexy time?” - Rawshark) and the Italian mobsters are rubbish (”I bet one of them is going to say ‘Mamma Mia!’” - Zomblee). But Granny’s alright, having a couple of standout scenes (“I think we’re going to see some Granny kung-fu now!” - Rawshark) and that Braden guy, despite being a bit lame as an actor, certainly knows his ninja art, and the inevitable final showdown between him and Sho is probably the best modern ninja film fight that I can think of right now, and I’m talking cool chop-socky kung-fu with lashings of ninja trickery, comedy smoke bombs and other surprises (”Where’d he get the flame thrower?” - Rawshark).
Additionally, Harold ‘Odd Job’ Sakata makes an appearance in a non-speaking role, which we all agreed was a good thing, and the blood shower ending got such a cheer, although admittedly with mixed emotions from Zomblee ”The could have done with that throughout the rest of the film, I was thinking, but it’s actually really cool that they saved it to the end.”.
And last but not least I should also quickly mention the rooftop ninja foot close-up, which was amazing.
”That’s the best close-up of a ninja foot I’ve ever seen.”
Rawshark Yep, I love the ninja boot, or tabi boot as it’s officially known. It only has two toes see, and although it’s quite fun to imagine that ninjas are so cool they’ve evolved into two-toe humans throughout the course of their ninja training, the reality is that the split-toe design improves gripping and wall / rope climbing. And yes, I have just looked that up on wikipedia.
If you love ninjas, and let’s be honest, who doesn’t, then you’ll get a lot of enjoyment from this cult classic. This film has ninja written all over it, and in a special large red ninja font to boot. Opening with the now stereotypical shot of ”ninjas parting through reeds” (Zomblee), Sho soon gets to work on the wimpy ninja dudes (”two-hit ninjas” - Jim) who are attacking his family home, but is only quick enough to save the baby. Luckily, Sho’s mate Braden is on hand to offer our favourite ninja and his son a new chance in the US – just as long as Sho agrees to help out with his business of importing oriental figurines into the States. Which aren’t secretly filled with heroin of course. Oh no.
Six years later and Sho’s son has grown up into a mean little kid street fighter called Kane, and Sho is attracting the attentions of a blonde girl, Cathy, who likes to fight without any pants on. Add in some crap Italian gangsters, a friend of Sho’s called David Hatcher who actually is Lord Sebastian Coe, an Indian fighter who has ”tomahawks and shit” (Jim) and some random idiotic police, and the scene is set for Sho to don his ninja garb and exact his ‘Revenge’ before the end titles.
Ok, so it may not be quite as good today as it was back in the 80s when it was all fresh and new, but there are some terrific stunts (Sho jumping through a van’s front windscreen before being dragged along behind it for instance), lots of ninja action and all the cool ninja tricks that were on the market at the time, including smoke bombs and caltrops (thanks Jim for the technical information). And if you don’t know what they are, feel free to look them up on wikipedia yourself and become as ninja-nuts as us.
“Well, if you want to work out, you forgot your pants”.
Director Sam Firstenberg
Cast Shô Kosugi
Runtime 90 mins
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Pray for Death (1985)
Plot Shô gets revenge.
Rawshark Obviously, the success of Revenge of the Ninja paved the way for a whole slew of Sho Kosugi films including this one which again features his real son in a minor (geddit?) role as a teeny tot ninja terror. It’s a very similar opening too, although this time the attacking ninjas are in blue suits and are even wimpier than the ones in the first film (”one-hit ninjas” - Jim). But then we got some red ninjas who looked like ”Panto versions of Darth Maul” (Jim) who were much tougher, and Jim was not so sure on how many hits they needed.
After the opening tussle, Sho and family, including son, leave their home ‘shadows’ of Japan to go and live in the glorious crime-filled paradise that is the US, where they soon get tangled up with Limehouse Willie (the brilliant James Booth) and his mob of Mafia men. They’re on the search for a missing necklace they believe is hidden somewhere in Sho’s building, so they promptly harass and kill granddad (”Jesus, they’ve burnt the old man!” – Jim), rape Sho’s wife and kidnap his kid. Now, that’s not very nice is it?
This of course makes Sho mad, just like the Incredible Hulk, so he’s dons his black ninja garb for the second time tonight and heads out for ‘REVENGE’. Cue Sho attacking a boat, invading a mansion and generally killing all sorts of mobsters with swords (”smelting sword montage! Rubbish song though” - Jim), arrows and those cool throwing star things, all the way to the ‘finale level’ where he faces off with Booth in a mannequin warehouse / saw mill.
Whilst Sho versus James Booth looks on paper to be a bit one-sided, you should realise that James Booth actually wrote the film’s script, so he could write on that paper whatever he wanted. Thankfully, this means we then have a pretty good end fight sequence that not only involves lots of punching and kicking, but also a buzzsaw, chainsaws and huge metal spikes. Oh yes! All hail Kosugi! Right, I’m off to order my ninja suit and two-toed boots…
“Don’t get cute with me you slanty-eyed son-of-a-bitch”.
Jim "It must have been great being Sho Kosugi in the 80s!" commented Zomblee, as ninja movie number 2 kicks off. And it starts in pretty much the same way as the first, with the fully ninja suited, eye-liner wearing Kosugi dispatching loads of lesser ninjas (in pale blue, obviously very low down the ninja rankings). But is it? Hang on - a quick pan back reveals that it's actually on TV and it's Kosugi 's kids watching 'The Black Ninja' show. Is it a swizz?
Well no, obviously not. Of course Sho's a real ninja (like in the first movie) who's about to move to America (just like the first movie) with his son (like in the first movie) and his wife (like in the... oh hold on, she dies in the intro to the first movie but lasts two-thirds of the way through this one). But before he can go he has to see his long white bearded Dad, who gives him his sword ("I love it when they give swords!" - Zomblee) and some useful advice ("Don't reveal our sex?" - Rawshark, "No, sect!" - Zomblee) before it's USA here we come!
So they buy this house off a nice old man ("He can act better than anyone in all of tonight's movies." - Zomblee) that has a disused shop next door. But unbeknownst to them some goons... sorry, hoods ("They're hoods more than goons..." - Rawshark) have hidden some diamond loot under the floorboards of the shop. Or rather, that's what they told the boss. In fact they decided to double cross their boss and sell the loot while the boss mistakenly pursues first the old man, and then inevitably Kosugi himself.
Despite being ultimately slower than Revenge of the Ninja, and with much less fighting in it, there are enough seriously 80s ninja movie cliches to keep everybody happy. I even offered to help Rawshark, who's went first, help with the plot if he needed it, much to Zomblee's amusement "...coz Jim's always really good on the second movie.". Although when Zomblee's ladyfriend Sam turned up near the end, and I felt compelled to explain the plot in great detail to prove Zomblee wrong, she summed it up so much better. "So, it's about ninjas and diamonds?" Yes, it is I suppose.
And I'm still not sure whether that smelting montage was officially a montage after all, you know. We did argue about the pacing quite a bit. Doesn’t a montage have to represent a considerable amount of time for it to count, and show some serious progression with the subject action?
”Neckrace? I don’t anything about neckrace.”
Zomblee I think that, through years of watching movies that feature some sort of musical-accompanied montage to show something happening over a period of time, we have formulated our own theory on what constitutes a 'montage'. With that in mind, I suggest that the sword smelting montage was not a montage at all, but a sword smelting sequence, and a very cheesy one at that, accompanied by the full version of the song 'Back to the Shadows' from the opening credits. Yuk. That's the 80s for you, right there - this is as cheesy as it gets. Almost unbearably so, in fact - even we were flinching from this unbearable cheesness of cheesing. And we've seen a lot of cheese in our time.
Pray for Death is the essence of 80s mediocrity manifested as a ninja movie. I’m not going to explain what that means in any depth – I just like the way it sounds, and I hope you agree. Suffice to say, this viewing was a very disappointing reprise of my first ninja movie experience. Sho's very dodgy spoken Engrish aside, his final assault on the hoods' pad doesn't give him an ample platform to show his stuff, and I think we were all agreed that the final scrap between him and James Booth (basically an old style gangster with handy fists) is both overlong and ridiculous. But hey, at least Sho gets to use that shuriken from the front of his special ninja helmet - it wasn't just there for decoration. That ninja helmet made quite an impression tonight, even on Rawshark - "It's the ear covers i'm particularly pleased with!"
Another thing I think we all agreed on tonight was the superiority of the acting on display in tonight's second movie - perhaps the only aspect of it to improve on Revenge. James Booth (who also wrote) plays his "dock rat" thug to perfection - he's every bit the 80s villain - cold, cruel, malicious and he excels at getting really angry. But it's not enough to save what is just another 80s ninja flick where we should be getting great ninja action instead of talking.
"You cannot escape the shadows, my son. You will always be a ninja."
Director Gordon Hessler
Cast Shô Kosugi
Donna Kei Benz
Runtime 90 mins
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Fast-forwarding ourselves back into 2007, we decided it was best to change back into our civvies and leave our ninja suits at the door of Zombie Club. We took all our weapons with us though, because it's dangerous out in them there streets and also because, well, they're pretty cool.
And what of tonight's man of silent 80s revenge? Well, I'm please to tell you that we haven't seen the last of Mr Kosugi - he's lined up to make a big fat ninja comeback in the appropriately titled Return of the Ninja, announced for 2008. I'll bet his son Kane is in that, too.
See you again next time for more 1980s hokum with Jim's Campus Killer Night extravaganza where our special guest at Zombie Club will be none other than acting legend George Kennedy.