Disc Space: A Sho Kosugi Double Feature

Disc Space: A Sho Kosugi Double Feature

Hi guys and welcome to Disc Space, my new column for DVD and Blu-ray reviews past and present. This is where I'll look at new discs as well as some favorites that are perhaps out of print or simply just mean a lot to me. Today I've got a pair of awesome Sho Kosugi titles from Arrow Video, so as always...

It's Clobberin' Time!


Pray for Death (1985) / Rage of Honor (1987)

Starring: Sho Kosugi

Directed by Gordon Hessler

Distributor: Arrow Video 

Of all the big martial arts action stars of the 1980s, Sho Kosugi is unfortunately the one I'm the least farmiliar with. While Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, and Jean Claude Van Damme were all mainstays in my house growing up, I didn't get exposed to Kosugi's work until much later when I went through my HUGE kung fu cinema indoctrination in the late 90s and early 00s. It's also unfortunate that while I did watch some of his films at that time, they tended to seem tame next to the kung fu classics of Jet Li and Jackie Chan. While I consider myself a connoisseur of the genre, Kosugi's career has long been a bit of a blind spot for me. 

Thankfully, with the recent releases Kosugi's Ninja Trilogy on blu-ray, I was able to re-familiarize myself with the action star's work, and re-evaluate the movies a bit. I liked them, but still wasn't in love with them in the way that American martial arts flicks from the 80s such as Lone Wolf McQuade, Above the Law, or even American Ninja got my blood pumping. Don't get me wrong, the three Ninja flicks produced by Cannon Films are fun, but compared to other similar movies from the U.S. or Hong Kong that were coming out at the time, they kind of feel low rent. 

With the release of Arrow Video's new blu-rays for Pray for Death and Rage of Honor though, I finally get it. I get why Kosugi was a bit of a phenomenon for a few years and became the face of the whole wave of 80s Ninja films, and I get why he's such a beloved icon. Away from Cannon, he made these two films that cemented his place in martial arts cinema and brought his quality of movie up to those of many of his peers.

In the first of the two, Pray for Death, you get a very basic, but effective premise. Sho Kosgu IS Akira Saito, a businessman and former ninja who moves to America in order to find more opportunities for he and his young family. Unfortunately, all he ends up finding are mafiosos looking for a dimaond necklace that went missing in the old building Saito just purchased for his new restaraunt. When the mobsters come down hard on his wife and children looking for their missing property, Saito the businessman has to give way to Saito the ninja and all hell breaks loose. 

Stylishly directed by Gordon Hessler, Pray for Death greatly improves on Kosugi's formula by keeping the story fairly grounded. There are no ghosts in this movie and the only one that seems to have any supernatural powers is Kosugi himself. This is just a rough and tumble crime and revenge actioner with tons of fights and a nasty streak a mile wide. Make no mistake, this is a mean movie. People you like get hurt or killed in awful ways and when Saito is out for revenge, he holds nothing back. If nothing else, this film has one of the most gruesome villain deaths I've ever seen in an action movie, and I've seen a lot of them. 

It also really helps that Hessler really knows how to shoot an action sequence, and makes Kosugi really look like a star. These fights are brutal and bloody and this extended unrated cut is even more visceral. When Saito finally dons his ninja gear, the director gets across that it's huge deal, like a superhero coming out of retirement. The closing fight in a warehouse full of mannequins also brings a nightmarish quality to the proceedings. 

Lastly, the movie simply looks better than his offerings of the past. Production values seemed to have been increased this time from his Cannon days, and the movie benefits from legitimate looking locations instead of relying on what felt like backlots and sets. This adds a note of realism to the film that eluded much of the previous trilogy. 

Pray for Death is the best movie that Sho Kosugi has ever headlined. This is a hard hitting action movie that cuts down on the campy antics of his previous films in favor of gore and brutality, but in a good way. While it's still far from perfect, this is the closest Kosugi gets to really putting together an action classic. If you're looking for ninja action, but don't need all the bells and whistles of exorcisms or supernatural adversaries, Pray for Death is the movie you've been looking for. 

Now if you've ever wondered what it would be like if the actor starred in something closer to an 80s version of a Bourne or Bond film, then Rage of Honor is the movie you've been looking for. In it, Sho Kosugi IS Shiro Tanaka, a government drug agent on the trail of cartel leaders in South America. After a successful bust, the bad guys strike back by killing Tanaka's partner and kidnapping his wife, but Tanaka isn't going to take this lying down. 

Now, some may be disappointed to find out that Sho Kosugi does not actually play a ninja in this movie. On the other hand, he does play a spy that usually dresses in all black, knows karate, and is very handy with throwing stars, katanas, and crossbows. Gordon Hessler is back again in the director's chair, staging even more outageous action for Kosugi, from fights with natives in the jungles of Argentina to boat chases and sword battles with armies of (you guessed it) ninjas. 

Rage of Honor is a terrific follow-up to Pray for Death, and the two make for a nice double feature of Kosugi's best work. Pray for Death is by far Kosugi's meanest and most grounded picture, and Rage of Honor is his most epic, taking him to different countries, fighting an unending string of adversaries along the way. This is the action star in his prime and stands as a testament as to why he became the face of the ninja phenomenon. 

The Discs:

Thanks to Arrow Video, there is no way that Pray for Death or Rage of Honor have looked and sounded this good since they were in theaters. Presented in their original aspect ratios of 2.39:1 for Pray for Death and 1.85:1 for Rage of Honor, both prints are prisitine and artifact free. Audio is presented in LPCM 2.0, which is perfectly fine for this release. 

The Extras:

Pray for Death

Sho and Tell Part 1: Birth of a Ninja (19:05 in HD) - This is a personal and terrific interview with Kosugi, where he reveals his journey going from a child who wasn't even interested in martial arts to an international action star. There's some fun tidbits in here and fans should get a kick out of it, no pun intended. 

Sho Kosugi and Martial Arts Forms (18:56 in SD) - This is an archival interview and demonstration with Kosugi that appears to have been on local access cable. A cheesy little time capsule. 

Sho Kosugi Trailer Gallery

Enter the Ninja (2:53 in HD)
Revenge of the Ninja (1:41 in HD)
Pray for Death (02:11 in SD)
Rage of Honor (1:35 in SD)

 

Rage of Honor

Sho and Tell Part 2 (17:48 in HD) – This is the second half of the interview that begins on the Pray for Death Blu-ray. Kosugi is quite charming and goes into detail abou the production of this movie as well as Black Eagle with Jean-Claude Van Damme. 

Stelvio Cipriani Interview (02:47 in HD) - Short interview with the film's composer. 

American Ninjas (07:34 in HD) – This amusing interview goes over the history of the entire Ninja movie craze, beginning with You Only Live Twice in the late 60s. 

Sho Kosugi Trailer Gallery –

Enter the Ninja (2:53 in HD)
Revenge of the Ninja (1:41 in HD)
Pray for Death (02:11 in SD)
Rage of Honor (1:35 in SD)

Overall:

If you love fight flicks and what Arrow Video is going with their U.S. releases, these are a great addition to you collection. Sho Kosugi is terrific in both movies, which are packed with bone-crunching, head-lopping action! Extras are decent as well. Buy It!

 

 

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