Sixth grade was a transitional year for me. At the beginning of the school year, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up – a professional breakdancer. What a life that would be! Pop-rocking and hip-hopping across the countryside, moonwalking and doing the centipede for money! As reality eventually sunk in, I realized that breakdancing was probably not going to pay my bills, and I set my sights on a new, more realistic profession.
Becomming a professional Ninja.
Sure! There was always work for Ninjas around town. Throats needed slit here, important documents needed stealing there … this was going to be the life for me! I quickly traded most of my breakdancing gear for some serious Ninja paraphernalia. Unfortunately for me, like most other sixth graders I had pretty limited income, and so my Ninja uniform was a black karate suit with some strategically placed shoe strings. Dad’s black socks over my tennis shoes became ninja “tabi”, and a black ski mask with the mouth sewn shut and the eye holes cut out to become one big round oval became my mask of death. Sure, to anyone else I probably looked like a cross between a well-fed tick and a fat, out of work terrorist, but to me, I was … a Ninja.
What brought about this change of vocational dreams? Three little movies. A trilogy of sorts, although the movies share little more in common than the name “Ninja” in the title and one amazing actor. One man, who single-handedly brought the true spirit and legend of the ninja to the American movie screen. That man is Shô Kosugi.
Sho’s biography could easily be a movie plot of it’s own. Born with a hole in his lungs, Sho began studying Karate to build up his strength. At the age of 7, Sho met Mr. Yamamoto, a 70 year old hermit who trained Sho in the ways of the Ninja for the next 5 years of his life. One day, Mr. Yamamoto mysteriously vanished, leaving Sho on his own.
Even though by the age of 18 Sho was All-Japan Karate Champion, he failed his college entrance exams. By the age of 20 Sho had over 600 karate trophies, and yet he was still not doing well in life. Sho made the decision to relocate to the United States and to attend college in California. In true Hollywood fashion, he was mugged his first day in the states. The muggers soon realized they had picked the wrong victim when Sho proceeded to give one of the muggers a free karate lesson.
Sho taught martial arts to make ends meet, worked as an extra and stunt man in various films before he got his big break in the first of three movies that would change his life (and mine) forever – Enter the Ninja.
Enter The Ninja (1981) is credited for starting the ninja craze of the 1980’s. I don’t think mainstream America was quite ready for an Asian ninja master hero yet, so Sho assumes the role of one of the baddies (as the legend goes, Sho was hired on as an extra, but as the director and other cast members took notice of his skills, his part kept getting bigger and bigger until finally he was co-star of the flick). Our hero, Cole (Franco Nero), is a military vet who has spent the last few years of his life in Ninja training. As he leaves for the Phillippines, he runs into some bad dudes. Guys wanting to take his land, guys wanting to kill him, etc. Now, let me tell you, a six-foot tall large-framed white guy makes for a pretty stupid looking Ninja. Fortunately, Sho doubled for Nero in many of the film’s action sequences.
Red ninjas. White ninjas. Green ninjas. Never before have I seen so many different colors of ninjas! And when I first got a glimpse inside that ninja training school … aw yeah, I was in heaven! It only took a week or so before my friends and I had developed our own training regiment; if you couldn’t do 10 pushups, you were out of our ninja club, by golly.
You don’t need a blow by blow review of this movie. What you need to know are the following things: Enter the Ninja (A) was Sho’s first major film, (B) started the Great Ninja craze, (C) contained lots of fighting and action, (D) was the worst of the ninja trilogy, and (E) paved the way for the two best ninja films of our times, Revenge of the Ninja and Ninja III – The Domination.
Two years later in 1983, the ninja craze had hit with full force. Revenge of the Ninja was a giant leap from Enter the Ninja. Among other new additions, it had a plot. Sho plays a guy named Cho Osaki, a businessman just TRYING to make an honest living. A theme emerges here, which is “if you know ninjitsu and are just trying to make an honest living, expect a lot of trouble from other ninjas.” This movie is no exception, and Sho, er, Cho, soon finds out that his American (damn those Americans!) business partner has been smuggling cocaine inside of the dolls Sho, er, Cho, has been buying for his gallery. Cho has denounced the way of the ninja and scolds his son for fighting (even when attacked by a group of schoolyard bullies), but when the baddies kidnap his son, Cho “has all he can stands, and he can’t stands no more.” Instead of eating spinach, Sho, er, Cho, straps on his old ninja gear and heads out for a 45 minute long ass kicking fest.
Filmed in the highly ninja populated town of Salt Lake City, Revenge of the Ninja has everything from schoolyard attacks to high rise combat. In Revenge of the Ninja, the roles have switched, and the American ninja is now the bad guy, with Sho (er, Cho) as the hero. How they got Utah to agree to shooting a movie about a bad white guy getting his ass kicked all over the place is beyond me.
Revenge of the Ninja solidified Sho’s name in the Ninja Hall of Fame. After seeing this movie, I just HAD to have a ninja star belt buckle (yes, this is the first place I ever saw one). I used to spend hours in the back yard trying to get that thing to stick in the doghouse. I soon found out that while ninja throwing stars usually had only 4 points, “Chinese” throwing stars had about a dozen and would stick into anything – doghouse, fence, wood siding, garage doors, etc.
Revenge of the Ninja also began to introduce that “supernatural” feeling to ninja movies. Before, yeah, they could probably dodge an arrow – Sho, however, with three arrows zipping towards him, catches one in each hand, and the third in his mouth. THAT, my friends, is a bad ass. Due to safety reasons, my mom forbid me to practice the “arrow catching” stunt like a true ninja, but she did buy me some foam rubber nunchucks.
By this time, we were hooked. My friends and I no longer wanted to be in a gang, we wanted to be in a CLAN. Midnight summer missions were planned – usually espionage or infiltration into a neighboring kid’s clubhouse. While nunchucks, swords, and bows and arrows looked cool in the movies, we found that those things tend to hinder the amateur ninja’s ability to run quietly or quickly. We also made our own version of caltops (those sharp things ninjas threw on the ground for their enemies to step on). We took pencil erasers off of pencils, and stuck 10-12 straight pins through them in random directions! These were SURE to cause some pain! And, of course they did, dad stepped on one while mowing and that was the end of our homemade weapons for a while. Those things stick great in curtains, but are a bitch to carry, and hurt like hell if you forget and leave on in your pocket.
Ninitsu had hit the mainstream. There were ninja books, ninja magazines, and my favorite, ninja video games. When not in training, my clan and I used to head to the local arcade for a little Shinobi action. In 1984, the third and final Ninja movie in the Cannon films Ninja Trilogy appeared in local theaters. We were only 12, but our parents decided it would be OK for us to see Ninja III – The Domination in theaters. Second only to Star Wars, it was one of the greatest cinematic moments of my life. Somehow, my parents talked us out of dressing up as ninjas to attend the movie’s opening. Thanks a lot, mom.
Ninja III – The Domination stars Lucinda Dickey as a telephone repair woman. Lucinda Dickey has had two main starring roles, btw – this one, and as Kelly (AKA Special K) in Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2. Boy can she end a fad in a hurry. Anyway, the movie opens with an assassination of a “famous” doctor who’s playing golf. Unfortunately I think the whole “ninja being larger than life” thing had gone to Sho’s head at this point, because right up front we are treated to an unbelievable 20 minute ninja fest. First, our ninja is blocks a golf club to the head, only to have the club wrap around his arm. Some cops show up to kill him, but our boy has other plans. A few guns shots to a ninja? Please.
Within the first 10-15 minutes of this movie, our ninja has been shot over a dozen times, has managed to board a moving helicopter and kill the pilots, hide in a lake, outrun guys on motorcycles, and kill at least 50 cops. The cops eventually surround the ninja, and in what would seem to be a pretty poor tactical plan, stand around in a circle shooting at the ninja. Finally, he falls over. He is dead.
BUT NO HE’S NOT HERE HE COMES AGAIN HE WAS JUST PLAYING POSSUM! HiYA! He stabs four more cops, and they keep shooting. I hope they don’t miss because about three feet on the other side of the ninja is another cop, shooting back at him! How all the cops don’t end up shooting each other is a miracle. Finally, the ninja is dead, after being shot about 50 times, now several times by a shotgun.
Like a firework that didn’t go off, it’s someone’s job to go touch him and make sure he’s dead. OH NO HE’S NOT REALLY DEAD HE WAS JUST PLAYING POSSUM AGAIN HARHAR! The ninja throws a smoke bomb, and when the smoke clears, he is gone. All the cops quickly leave the scene to go find the ninja. Throughout this movie, it appears that the directors consulted small retarded children for their police procedures. Had the fuzz stuck around for 30 seconds, they would have seen this.
Aha! The ninja quickly DUG A HOLE DEEP ENOUGH FOR HIM TO GET IN. This movie’s cheese factor is pretty high, be prepared.
The wounded ninja stumbles upon Christie (Dickey) and uses ninja magic to transplant his soul into hers. Christie isn’t fully aware of what happened, until she begins feeling the urge to seek out the policemen that shot our ninja, lure them with sex, and then kill them.
As you should have learned by now, there is only man who can stop this madness – a one Mr. Sho Kosugi, who in this movie plays Yamada, a one eyed ninja who must now right what is wrong. “Only a ninja, can stop a ninja,” he says with a straight face – except for the fact that when he says it it’s like “neenJAH” which cracks me up.
Some of the special effects in Ninja III are way over the top. For example, when a cop is about to shoot our ninja with a 45, he quickly whips out his blowgun and shoots a dart up the barrel of the gun, causing it to misfire into the cop’s face. Wishful thinking, I’m guessing here. Also, when the ninja is riding on top of the cop car and punches down through the roof to attack the cops, you have to suspend belief a bit. Of course, this is a ninja, and only a neenJAH (and not a police car’s roof) can stop a neenJAH.
Sho eventually exorcises the evil spirit out of Christie, but you won’t care – you’ll be saying, “hey, I’ll bet there’ll be some more ass kicking here!” And YOU’LL BE RIGHT! Dickey is about as believable as a ninja as she was a breakdancer in Breakin’. Still, the action is great, the plot is crazy, and the movie is a a great example of the climax of an era.
And soon, it would all be gone. The market became flooded with hundreds of knock-off ninja movies (many of which I own). Ninja Terminator, Ninja the Protector, Ninja Clan, 9 Deaths of the Ninja … the list goes on and on. The whole American Ninja series came along and ruined everything, along with Bloodsport, and Karate Kid. Karate Kid? Screw that kid, Sho could cut off Ralph Macchio’s head and shove it up Miyagi’s ass before either of those two twits knew what hit em. And Bloodsport, yeah, I’m sure Sho’s real afraid of Ogre from those Revenge of the Nerd movies, and Jean Claude-Van Puss. Please. And as far as American ninjas are concerned, didn’t we already learn that the white man is the DEVIL? Besides, go rent any of these three movies and tell me that Sho couldn’t kill them in a second. The worst part about the fighting in the Ninja trilogy is that they have to make Sho do all these stupid things, because otherwise he would just kill people instantly.
All kidding aside, the “Great Ninja Trilogy,” as they’ve been labeled around my house, are a concise guide to that which was the great ninja invasion of the 80’s. Enter the Ninja is the one that started the craze, and while it’s the weakest of the three movies, it really gives you some history to the whole scene. Revenge of the Ninja is probably the best when it comes to a balance between action and plot (still WAY heavy on the action), and you’ll certainly walk away knowing that Sho could whoop Jackie Chan in any alley in Chinatown. Ninja III – The Domination is a combination of everything that was popular in 1984 – MTV, the supernatural, and of course, ninjas. Ninja III is probably my favorite just because it’s SO far over the top. The first 15 minutes alone justify a rental.
None of these movies are particularly hard to find – any decent sized rental shop will probably have all three. And, since the movies aren’t related at all, you can watch them in any order and still enjoy them.
The next time on of your friends starts going on about how crazy Jackie Chan is, and how he hung from a helicopter with no safety net, let ’em know that Sho Kosugi did it almost 20 years ago. When they say that part of Jackie Chan’s popularity is because of his smile, let them know that Sho’s smile looks good too, after he had all his teeth knocked out from a spear-throwing stunt gone awry.
And if that ain’t enough to convince them to rent one of these classic flicks, give em a little message from ol’ Sho Kosugi himself. HI-YA!