There’s no actor more associated with the on-screen ninja than Sho Kosugi.
A product of sheer chance and the Cannon Films cheese machine, Kosugi was in the right place at the right time to become the face of the ninja movie craze of the 1980s. Humanity benefits as a result.
With a huge smile, a distinctly large quaff of hair, piercing eyes that look perpetually mascara’d, a thick accent, and true-life martial arts skills, Kosugi makes a fascinating leading man. He’s neither a great actor nor a particularly attractive star. But he was a dogged and relentless entrepreneur, immigrating to the US and opening martial arts studios and trying out for auditions left and right. Being a world class martial artist is the only qualification Cannon Films needed, as is apparent by Chuck Norris’ entire career. But… and this is a big “but” for 1980s cinema… Kosugi is troublingly non-white. You see… we Americans want our ninjas, but we can’t wrap our brains around rooting for non-whites, so we cast Michael Dudikoff (American Ninja) or Franco Nero (Enter The Ninja) as our white guy ninjas.
All of which leads me to the most exciting and refreshing element of Pray For Death: It’s a movie about a strong, loving, Asian family making their way in the US. Kosugi’s Akira Saito is a successful business man, husband and father, who also happens to be a secret modern day ninja. It’s marvelous. Kosugi apparently leveraged his own sons, who were themselves talented young martial artists, when pitching himself as a front man… and it worked! Sons Kane and Shane Kosugi are featured prominently in Pray For Death as well as a number of other films Kosugi starred in. The effect is a wonderfully tonally imbalanced film featuring a young Kane beating up grown adults with nunchucks right alongside hard-R gore and murders taking place in an otherwise wholly adult action film. But aside from the tonal shifts, Pray For Death offers something fresh to 2016 audiences starved for strong leads and happy families who aren’t white. Like The Cosby Show in the 80s or Fresh Off The Boat today, sometimes a similar formula with the twist of diversity can go a long way. Pray For Death doesn’t need to spend a ton of time explaining how or why Saito is a secret modern day ninja… or it at least has to spend less time explaining it than, say, American Ninja did.
Pray For Death is pretty standard fare storywise. Well, apart from the modern day ninja part. The Saito family immigrates to the US and instantly run afoul of some American gangsters who’ve been using the store they’ve purchased as a drop spot. A maguffin-esque necklace is missing, gangsters are looking for it, and the Saitos are mixed up in the middle. Not all of the Saitos will survive, and vengeance will be Akira’s. Chief among this film’s villains is Cannon regular James Booth (who also wrote the film) as wonderfully named Limehouse Willie. He’s a murderous bastard. Like unnecessarily so. This particular cut of Pray For Death is an uncut version restoring a lot of gore effects and they’re almost all related to ole Limehouse and his senseless murderings.
So while the story is a basic vengeance / wrong man/wrong place narrative, it’s filled with all kinds of gloriously 1980s details. There’s a power ballad called “Back To The Shadows” by Peggy Abernathy that is remarkably catchy and melodramatic for a ninja movie. The whole thread of Akira’s ninja status being a secret from his family gives Pray For Death a superhero movie vibe, and the fact that Saito’s kids obsessively watch ninja movies within the movie offers a meta throughline that’s almost ahead of its time.
There’s just no question that a 1980s ninja movie is a cinematic happy place for me. Pray For Death isn’t the best of the era as the action itself is ultimately fairly weak. But the quirks mentioned in the above paragraph enhance the entertainment value here significantly, as does the endearing nature of the Saitos as a loving, modern Japanese-American family. Sho Kosugi is a fascinating leading man due in part to the ways in which he is lacking. There’s an enormous amount of entertainment value to be found in Pray For Death, and it comes highly recommended for fans of ninja cinema.
Arrow Video continues to impress not only with their selection of titles, but also in their presentation of said titles. Pray For Death is offered here with an Unrated cut which I believe is being presented for the first time with some restored violence and gore elements. The elements are visually apparent as they aren’t quite as high quality as the rest of the film. This is something I don’t mind at all, although it’s aesthetically jarring. The jarring visuals make the “bonus gore” stand out all the more, which actually felt fun. The theatrical R-rated cut is also available. The digital scan of the film offers a classic grainy look while simultaneously making a 1980s ninja movie look better than it ever needed to.
There’s a brand new interview with Sho Kosugi that provided much of the biographical information I’ve scattered into this review. Kosugi is more charming and endearing today in his old age than he ever seemed able to display in his films. The interview is all about his life and how he came to be the face of ninja cinema in the United States. It’s a complete blast, more fun than most any talking head interview piece I’ve seen in ages. That bonus feature alone makes this disc a pleasure. There’s also some interview content and live martial arts demonstration featuring Kosugi during the release of the film which is charming as well. And a trailer gallery of other ninja films from Kosugi’s repertoire is included as well.
As an 80s action movie junkie and ninja cinema connoisseur, this Arrow release is a pure joy and would make an excellent addition to any collector’s shelf.
And I’m Out.
Pray For Death is available on Blu-ray Feb. 16, 2016 from Arrow Video USA.