Back in 2006-11 Phil’s Quick Review editor in chief Phil Hobden was the Film & TV editor and chief writer for the legendary martial arts focused Combat Magazine. The Combat Magazine Series takes look back at some of the best interviews, conversations and articles that Phil wrote or edited during that time.
Next up: Legendary martial artist and actor Sho Kosgui. Interview by Phil Hobden
Legend (Noun) – a person whose fame makes him or her seem exceptional: he is a living legend
“Legend” is a term bandied about far too often in this day and age. But a true legend is someone who has a longevity to his career. A true legend is someone that no matter how long they have been away from the limelight their star never fails to shine. An inspiration. An icon. Someone then, like Sho Kosugi.
Sho Kosugi was born in Minato, Tokyo in 1948. He began his Martial Arts training at age 5 and by the age of 18, held the prestigious title of All-Japan Karate Champion. Arriving in the US in 1968, Kosugi spent, in his own words, “Eight determined years of doing stunt and extra work in films” before finally getting his big break in the Menahem Golan produced & directed Enter The Ninja. Co-starring Franco Nero, Christopher George & Susan George, Enter The Ninja was the film that saw Kosugi step into the iconic ninja costume for the first time.
A legend was born. Not only was Enter The Ninja a massive hit for Cannon Films, making it a major player in the Independent market, but it also launched the sub-genre of the Ninja movie that would dominate the direct to video action market for most of the late eighties and early nineties. The films success also opened the door to a series of quickly produced Ninja sequels (Revenge Of The Ninja and Ninja III: The Domination) that would not only elevate Kosugi to the lead role, now as the films’ hero, but also to icon status. Sho Kosugi was now the hottest star in martial arts cinema! Pat Rod, of the Hollywood Reporter once said,” Movie enthusiasts [In Europe] never asked me about Stallone, Cruise, or Harrison Ford; it was always, ‘Have you ever met Sho Kosugi?'”
Roles alongside Lee Van Cleef (The Master) and Jean Claude Van Damme (Black Eagle) followed before Kosugi left the industry a few years later. Whilst it’s fair to say that Kosugi movies were often low of both budget and production values, nothing could take away from the stunning action and raw screen presence that Kosugi brought to these films.
And now after almost twenty years away from the role that made his name he is back in the Warner Brothers produced Ninja Assassin. Directed by V for Vendetta director James McTeigue and produced by Larry & Andy Wachowski, Kosugi takes the role of Lord Ozuna, leader of the deadly Ozuna clan, in a story about Raizo (played by Speed Racer star Rain) who, haunted by the merciless execution of his friend, turns his back on the orphanage that raised him only to find himself entangled in a deadly game of cat and mouse through the streets of Europe. The film also stars Rick Yune, Ben Miles & Naomi Harris from a script written by J. Michael Straczynski.
Earlier this year, I flew to the world famous Babelsberg Studios in Berlin to visit the set and to sit down with one of my own personal heroes, to discuss what led him to leave the industry in the first place, to chart a project that would see Kosugi back on the big screen for the first time since 1989 ‘s Blind Fury and to find out what Kosugi has been doing for the last twenty years.
Combat: So … where HAVE you been?
Sho Kosugi: I was in hiding, training in Japan up a Mountain… Ha!
It’s fair to say that his playful, jovial manor continues apace.
SK: Just kidding! Seriously… I wanted to do something else. I went to the US about 40 years ago, 1968. I went to school, college, University. By that time I was a defending Karate champion. At the time, being champion I was expecting Warner brothers to give me big job like Bruce Lee. But it didn’t happen. So I worked hard, went to 200 plus auditions and eventually got a part in Enter the Ninja with Cannon films. So I started there. I made 14 movies or so but after a little while I started getting tired. So many Ninja movies came around from China, Taiwan… so I though maybe it’s time to quit.”
Kosugi is right of course. There was a massive proliferation of Ninja movies about this time, from the good (American Ninja), the bad (American Ninja 5) and the very, very ugly (Ninja Squad anyone).
SK: At the same time [as making films] I was training some kids and giving them a chance to do something in Hollywood. Especially Asian children. But adults were asking me also. So I established one school called SKI (Sho Kosugi Institute) in 1998 and I started training adult people from Japan. But they had no patience. No guts. I got tired of teaching these 18 year olds so I decided why not just teach them from a young age. So I went back to Japan so and started opening up many different schools. I have 16 schools in Japan now, mainly teaching small kids to16 years old giving them more of a chance and more opportunity that I never had.”
Combat: What exactly do you teach at the Sho Kosugi Institute?
SK: It is about teaching people the skills to make a success in the film industry. We teach action with English, fighting with English and gymnastics with English. English is important as most of our students want to work in US and Hollywood. There are many young people who seek their dreams on the streets of Hollywood. Looking back on my 22 years as a Hollywood star, not all my time was as productive as it could have been. But as a result of my experience, I am able to help others find success in Hollywood.
Combat: You started studying yourself at a very young age…
SK: Yes since I was five years Old I had being doing martial arts. From Japanese Karate, to Kobuto (weapon fighting), sword fighting… I did Judo & Kendo. I have done 12 or 13 types of martial arts.
Combat: Growing up who were your inspirations?
SK: To he honest… Bruce Lee. When I was growing up in Japan I was watching The Green Hornet. He was the driver – Kato. I was very impressed because he was Asian and he made me think that even the Asian people could be on TV. That was my first dream… I thought if Bruce Lee could do it why not Sho Kosugi? He was great…
Combat: So did you ever meet Lee?
SK: Oh Yes. I was very lucky. I met him in 1968 in Long Beach. I used to fight. Not street fights you understand but In tournaments. more than 300 in 4 ½ years. I won 600 or so trophies. The first tournament I went to in 1968 Bruce Lee was there. He didn’t fight. He was performing Jeet Kune Do. , showing the audience. I watched him and then my friend introduced me to him. He said “Mr Lee this is Sho Kosugi.” He looked at me smiled and said ‘Hi’. Wow! That was it but I will never forget that.
As can often be the case with such an interesting interviewee, we got lost not for the first time deep in conversation about action movies. Kosugi’s knowledge of action movies is encyclopaedic and we discus at great length about Bruce Lee, about my conversations with other genre stars who also cite Lee as their influence (including Kosugi’s contemporary’s like Loren Avedon and Matthias Hues) and how without him the industry would have been a very different place. Aware that my time was running short I try to bring us back on track…
Combat: As it turned out Ninja Assassin will be your return to the big screen, but you were also working on a project called Return Of The Ninja…
SK: That is right. About three or four years ago I thought it was about time I came back to Hollywood to bring back my old Ninja! But this time a BIGGER, better Ninja. Bigger budgeted films. The Cannon films were low budget so this time I thought make a film $30-50 million USD. I raised some money and started to look for a scriptwriter. I came across Steven E deSouza who wrote Die Hard’s 1 & 2 as well as 48 Hours. He’s one of THE top notch script writers in Hollywood so he started writing Return Of The Ninja for me!
Top notch indeed. As Kosugi points out deSouza is considered to be one of the best script writers and, as well writing films such as Commando, The Running Man and Judge Dredd, is among the handful of screenwriters whose films have earned over two billion dollars at the box office.
Combat: How is Return Of The Ninja coming along?
SK: Good. We now have half of the money for Return Of The Ninja, matching funds from the US and are ready to go. But I didn’t like the script. Even this, the first draft. We needed to rework it. So all this takes a long time… I’m still working on the project. At the same time Larry & Andy [Wachowski] started looking for me in Japan & Hollywood! They didn’t know where to find me either! They were starting on Ninja Assassin and wanted to see me to ask me to play the lead bad guy role.
Combat: You’re best known for your good guys roles, except of course the original Enter The Ninja. What appealed about playing the bad guy this time out?
SK: In the past I always played the good guy but this time they gave me the chance to play the bad guy! I am almost 60, but my body is still very strong. I read the script, liked it and so I thought why not? My character is the boss, a great role. The main bad guy, the strongest. Do you know what Ozuna the clan name means? Ozuna is the one who started the mountain priests in Japan. Mountain priests and the Ninjas are very related. That’s why the clan is called Ozuna.
Combat: Does it feel good to be back in front of the camera again after all these years?
SK: Yes it feels very good. James [McTeigue] is a very good director. Only problem with this movie is that my face is on show all the way through! From beginning to end. So I don’t wear my Ninja uniform! Ha! Whilst I am not choreographing the fights I will make sure the fight choreographer knows my style so as long as you can see the action that’s good. And we have BIG action fighting with Rain!
Hmm. BIG action. I wanted to know more.
SK: No I can’t! Warner brothers won’t let me! They say “Mr Kosugi… Don’t say too much!” But it will be a good fighting sequence… trust me!
Kosugi obviously noticed the disappointed look on my face, because it wasn’t long before he added…
SK: I liked the Matrix. Larry & Andy had some great ideas in that film. The bullet time… with bullets coming towards you. Wow, amazing! So maybe they’ll use this here with the Shuriken coming towards you in bullet time, maybe. But shhh! I didn’t say that!
It’s fair to say that Kosugi’s generation of action movie was very different from those we exist in currently. Back then it was wire work, real explosions and old hand drawn matte paintings, a lifetime away from the advent of CGI that proliferates today’s action films.
Combat: Your early films were, technologically speaking, a lot more basic than the action movie of today. What are your thoughts on the use of CGI in movies today, especially action films.
SK: I think CGI in films is good… to a point. But overdoing it is no good. I have trained since five years old, so I have skill. But CGI makes regular people look like they can do it. I think people are tired of watching CGI movies… People want to see real martial arts again so with Ninja Assassin we use SOME CGI but I have been watching the fighting and mostly they are doing it for real. Very little CGI. But it’s hard to find a good action film these days… even Kill Bill. I didn’t like it. It was okay for the action, but I didn’t like the sword fighting. I saw it and thought “No you wouldn’t do it like that”. For me it’s a different way of holding the sword. But the story itself was not bad at all…
Combat: So what is your favourite Martial arts film?
SK: Seven Samurai. The Concept is very, very good and the characters are very interesting. Besides that… Bruce Lee in Enter The Dragon. He was different. Jackie Chan and Jet Li are great but to me Bruce Lee has a different presence. He just stands there and his charisma is amazing.
Combat: With Ninja Assassin on the horizon and Return Of The Ninja going into production I wanted to know whether Kosugi had any other film plans?
SK: Well after Ninja Assassin I do have another project, which is even bigger, a $100 million dollar budget. But I can’t talk too much about that. I am still working on Return Of The Ninja as well so we will see…
In the background I can see the diligent Warners PR person tapping her watch (to say we have overrun our slot is a minor understatement) but just as Kosugi is being hurried out, no doubt to another room full of fact hungry journalists, I wanted to find out the answer to one last question…
Combat: What is the best Ninja Film ever made? The answer (said with a massive smile)…
SK: Of course… Ninja Assassin!!!!
Kosugi is a genuine 100% legend and it’s great to see him returning to the genre that he popularised all those years ago. With Ninja Assassin, Isaac Florentine’s Scott Adkins starring Ninja and Kosugi’s own Return Of The Ninja all due out in 2009 we could once again be seeing the start of the domination of the Ninja!
Ninja Assassin is available in all the usual places. For more on Sho Kosugi check out his official website at: www.shokosugi.net
Enter the Ninja (1981)
Revenge of the Ninja (1982)
Ninja 3: The Domination (1983)
Black Eagle (1987)
Ninja Assassin (2009)