Looking back on the history of the Ninja in action movies, many names have taken up the mantle of the stealth assassin. Famous names include Lee Van Cleef (‘The Master’), Michael Dudikoff, David Bradley (“American Ninja 3, 4, and 5”) and Scott Adkins.
However, the world’s most famous movie ninja was none other than the legendary Sho Kosugi. His films, which almost always featured his two sons Kane and Shane Kosugi, put the ninja firmly on the map of American action films.
Kosugi’s films weren’t necessarily the first to feature Ninjas on the mainstream big screen. Sean Connery’s fourth outing as James Bond, “You Only Live Twice” saw the superspy train alongside an army of modern ninjas, whilst the late James Caan (himself a Kyokushin black belt) faced off against a squad of ninjas in Sam Peckinpah’s “The Killer Elite”.
Sho Kosugi, through nine films and one television series, did more to bring Japan’s notoriously secretive shadow warriors into the fickle light of pop culture.
Hailing from Tokyo, Shoichi ‘Sho’ Kosugi son of a Tokyo fisherman trained in martial arts from an early age and is now a master of Shindo Jinsen Ryu karate.
As a young man Sho studied multiple martial arts systems including, Iaido (art of drawing the sword) Kendo, Judo, Kobudo (Okinawan weapons system), and Ninjitsu.
On his 18th Birthday, whilst studying in college Sho was crowned the All-Japan Karate champion. The following year, initially seeking a career in finance, Sho moved to Los Angeles to study Economics and soon his Bachelor’s degree. He continued his martial arts training competing in numerous tournaments and demonstrations including winning the L.A. Open in 1972, 1973, and 1974.
Sho’s first foray in movies saw him feature in a Taiwanese production “The Killers” and a South Korean film “The Stranger from Korea”. It wasn’t until 1981 that Sho would get his big break in “Enter the Ninja” as the film’s villain ‘Hasegawa’.
Cannon Films producers Menahem Golan (who also directed the film), and Yoram Globus were so pleased with Sho’s work on the project that they signed him up for two more movies that made up the studio’s first Ninja saga. “Revenge of The Ninja” and “Ninja III: The Domination” followed, with Sho not only as the film’s star but also fight coordinator, bringing some real ninja techniques and traditions to the screen.
It seemed fans and studios only wanted to see Sho Kosugi as a ninja and so more roles followed including the television series “The Master” (opposite Lee Van Cleef), revenge thriller “Pray for Death” and the espionage thriller “9 Deaths of the Ninja”.
Attempts to break typecasting saw him play a DEA agent in “Rage of Honor”, a CIA agent in “Black Eagle”, and a sword-wielding character in “Blind Fury”. Sho would return to the ninja role in a US film the Wachowski’s produced called “Ninja Assassin“.
Though he has largely stepped aside from his most famous role, Kosugi’s name remains synonymous with the Ninja. So, without further ado, let’s bring the best of Sho Kosugi out of the shadows and into the spotlight with KFK’s Top 10 Sho Kosugi Movie Fight Scenes! (in descending order)
10. Enter The Ninja — Hasegawa vs Cole
The one that started it all, “Enter The Ninja” was a film fraught with production and casting issues. The finished film however, directed by Cannon Films head honcho Menahem Golan and starring Italian actor Franco Nero, was a box office smash. It doubled its $1.5 million budget on its opening weekend, and overall took in $15 million.
Over time it became a cult classic and is mainly revered for kickstarting the cinematic ninja craze, and giving the genre its most iconic ninja star – Sho Kosugi
The final fight features the original American Ninja, ‘Cole’ (Nero) facing his nemesis Hasegawa (Kosugi) in a fight to rescue his late friend’s wife Mary Ann (Susan George).
It is a little short in the running time leaving one wanting to see so much more. However what you see is sufficiently action-packed with plenty of ninja sword play, acrobatics and what has become the trademark of ninja films that followed.
The action is plentiful and swift with karate legend Mike Stone (who also choreographed the fight action) doubling for Nero against Kosugi. The scene doesn’t quite compare to what follows but there’s no ignoring the fact it set the trend and format for its successors.
9. The Master — McAllister vs Okasa
Television writer Michael Sloan brought the Ninja trend onto the smaller screen in 1984 with his action packed series “The Master” and brought in Sho Kosugi to instill his brand of Ninja-Fu.
“The Master” ran for 13 episodes and starred veteran Hollywood actor Lee Van Cleef as World War II veteran ‘John Peter McAllister’ who after the war, stayed in Japan training as a Ninja. Now a fully-fledged master, John gets word from the daughter he never knew he had, and returns to the US to find her.
This angers the Ninja clan, especially his student Okasa (Kosugi back in the villain role) who goes off in pursuit of his old teacher to kill him.
Episodes follow the same pattern with McAllister and his companion ‘Max’ (Timothy Van Patten) battling drug dealers and crooked businessmen ending in a climactic Ninja battle with Okasa.
The final fights routinely saw the two warriors unsheathe and clash swords, and also wield a different weapon each week. Throw in a handful of Shuriken (throwing stars) and smoke bombs and you have a veritable clash of the ninja titans.
What better way to start the show then to bring in “Enter the Dragon” director Robert Clouse to helm the pilot episode!
Here McAllister and Okasa have their first fight of the season with the outcome always seeing the student face the pointy end of his former Sensei’s ninjatō (sword).
Kosugi gets every chance however to shine with his blend of skilled weapon handling, agility and technically-rich, hand-to-hand skills. For a television series with a menial budget, the action quality remains first rate.
8. Blind Fury — Parker vs The Assassin
As the 80’s came to a close, Kosugi moved away from being cast as ninja.
One of his roles saw him feature in his first main major studio production cameoing as a deadly sword wielding assassin to battle Rutger Hauer’s blind warrior in the Zatoichi tribute “Blind Fury“.
Kosugi’s appearance in the film was not publicised (and remember there was no internet or IMDB back in the day) so when he entered the scene, Ninja fans in the audience were itching to leap out of their seats with glee.
The battle is sadly shorter than expected and serves to favour its star Hauer, yet Kosugi fills the scene with his charisma and skill.
Injected into the proceedings is a side to Kosugi we don’t always see – his sense of humour which, given his past films’ intense stories is not surprising. Here we see Kosugi’s agile swordsmanship proving to be a genuine threat to Hauer’s hero, blended with a bit of cheeky fun.
Though it might be shorter than ardent fans would like, it’s still action-packed enough to entertain, and let’s not forget the man in black made it into a big Hollywood project.
7. Rage of Honor — Tanaka vs Havlock
This was Kosugi’s first foray into a non-Ninja role, playing DEA agent Shiro Tanaka on the hunt for evil drug lord Havlock (the late Lewis Van Bergen).
Though not a Ninja movie “Rage of Honor” – helmed by “Pray for Death” director Gordon Hessler – still features all of Kosugi’s Ninja tropes. The only thing missing is his full black and chain mail ensemble.
As usual Kosugi choreographed the action and never missed an opportunity to showcase his weapons and hand-to-hand skills.
“Rage of Honor” tends to be overlooked, largely overshadowed by his Ninja trilogy titles with Cannon Films, and “Black Eagle”. It’s a shame as the film’s production values are higher than usual for an 80’s low-budget, VHS shelf dweller.
The action is first rate as always and it has a vicious, and sneering villain in Havlock as seen in the final fight.
Kosugi and action co-ordinator Alan Amiel who worked together previously, made effective use of the gritty dockside setting, and sky-high platforms to choreograph an exciting finale packed with tension and skilful swordplay.
6. Ninja III: The Domination — Yamada vs Black Ninja
Having made his bones in the action genre with “Revenge of the Ninja” for Cannon Films, Sam Firstenberg – more on this later – teams up again with Kosugi for the third in the studio’s Ninja trilogy “Ninja III: The Domination”.
Though once again he attends to fight choreography duties, Kosugi this time takes a back seat as star, making way for Lucinda Dickey to take the lead in her breakout role.
“Ninja III” combines “Flashdance” with “The Exorcist” and Ninja action with Dickey’s dance instructor/engineer Christie finding herself possessed by the spirit of a dying, black ninja (David Chung) who uses her to get revenge on the policeman who gunned him down.
It’s up to Ninja Master Yamada – Kosugi dressed in black and sporting a decorative eye patch – to stop him.
The film is entertaining enough and packed with plenty of brutal kills, but we don’t get to see Kosugi fully in action until the finale and once you do, it doesn’t disappoint!
Yamada’s battle with the Ninja spirit proves tricky and everything is thrown in our hero’s path including spear-wielding assassin monks. Once the spirit flies back into his body, the film gets down to the gritty Ninja action.
Kosugi certainly ramped up the action for this film from the fights in the temple to a stunning mountainside setting in a fight reminiscent of the “Duel to the Death” finale. There’s plenty of high-flying, acrobatic wire-fu, and technical Ninja-Fu packed in for an exciting finale!
5. Revenge of the Ninja — Osaki vs Ninja Invaders
“Enter The Ninja” may have started the trend but our number 5 entry set the bar so high that it defined Kosugi’s career giving us his most well known and revered work to date.
“Revenge of the Ninja” was never really surpassed and is of such high quality in the action stakes that it gets more than one entry here and could probably fill this list.
The nail biting stunts come courtesy of Steve Lambert with Kosugi on fight choreography duties. The film also marked the action film debut of the now-legendary Cannon Films go to director Sam Firstenberg who would go on to revamp the Ninja story and launch Michael Dudikoff’s career with the American Ninja saga.
This opening scene – which was reportedly added on at the last minute by producer Menahem Golan – is a battle of epic proportions.
Ninja master Cho Osaki’s home is invaded by Ninjas who slaughter most of his family. With a little help from his friend Braden (Arthur Roberts), Osaki stops the Ninja army in its tracks and saves his mother and baby son – later played by real life son Kane.
Packed with grief and raw emotion, and an exciting mix of weapons and acrobatics, it kick-starts the film’s fatalistic plot. The scene also sets the bar for the high quality bloody action to follow with a ‘you ain’t seen nothin’ yet’ wink and a nod.
4. Black Eagle — Tani vs Andrei (First Fight)
In the second of his non-Ninja roles, and perhaps his most famous, Kosugi is teamed with Eric Karson who directed Chuck Norris in “The Octagon” and would launch Olivier Gruner’s career in “Angel Town“.
Here Kosugi plays CIA agent Ken Tani – code name ‘Black Eagle’ racing against Russian intelligence led by KGB agent Andrei (Jean-Claude Van Damme) to recover a super weapon lost in the Mediterranean off the coast of Malta – a plot borrowed from the James Bond classic “Thunderball”.
Bringing the ‘Muscles from Brussels’ onboard as another Russian adversary hot off the success of “No Retreat No Surrender” was a wise move. For fans of both the stars, the anticipation of this match up contributed to the film’s success and when the two meet it doesn’t disappoint.
Of all of Kosugi’s on-screen adversaries Van Damme is the most imposing, and seeing them face off provides one of the few moments Kosugi looks outmatched.
The action here is slickly choreographed and fun to watch. However what is needed to truly enjoy the scene is that initial sense of anticipation in seeing these two legends – one at the height of his career, the other a rising star – battle it out on screen.
You really had to be there at the beginning to appreciate this meeting of superstars. It remains a watchable and exciting fight that doesn’t dampen on repeat viewing which gives “Black Eagle” its legacy value and shows that Kosugi’s best work doesn’t have to be only as a Ninja.
3. Revenge of the Ninja — Playground Fight
We’re back to the one that really set the bar to immeasurable heights with Kosugi as Ninja Master Osaki trying really hard to escape his destiny for a peaceful life.
Osaki goes on the hunt for the gangsters terrorising his surviving family leading to a gang of informants with the help of his policeman friend, Dave Hatcher (Keith Vitali).
For the playground fight, Kosugi gets to have a little fun when the informants prove uncooperative and Osaki interrogates them, Ninja style.
Double teaming with his partner in crime fighting, Osaki unleashes his full skill set using his environment, including a tricky Jungle Gym, and a discreetly hidden fan that proves to be an effective weapon.
This is one of the few fun moments of what is an intense plot, and features plenty of skill on display, and some comedy without losing that edgy sense of danger.
Fighting multiple opponents gives Kosugi plenty of showing off time. It certainly ticks all the right boxes for all round thrilling entertainment and impressive physicality – Kosugi’s low and wide box, or horse stance (Shiko Dachi) is impressive as is his ability to move so swiftly in it.
2. Pray for Death — Saito vs Limehouse Willie
They say only a ninja can stop a ninja but the “Pray for Death” jewel thief and thug for hire, Limehouse Willie comes close.
Directed by Gordon Hessler, the film stars Kosugi in a plot borrowed in part from “Revenge of the Ninja”. At the behest of his wife, Akiro Saito renounces his Ninja ways and moves his wife and two children (Kane and Shane Kosugi) to the US to open a restaurant.
However unknown to him, his building is used as a hiding spot for some stolen diamonds which go missing. This angers jewel thief Limehouse Willie (the late James Booth who also wrote the script) who when he doesn’t get what he wants, attacks Akiro’s family.
When Aiko is killed in the attack, Akiro suits up and, armed to the hilt, unleashes his furious and bloody vengeance against the criminal empire responsible.
The finale brings Akiro face to face with Limehouse Willie in a standout showdown of nail-biting proportions.
It’s the first time we see Kosugi’s Ninja almost bested by a villain who is not a ninja and also not even a trained martial artist. Throughout the film Willie has been brutal and relentless, with no apparent fear making him a genuine threat.
As he goes up against the trained ninja, Willie calls on his street smart instincts and relentlessly battles his stalker matching Akiro’s skills and intense focus with his own psychotic vicious streak and tenacious resourcefulness.
It remains a refreshing piece of martial arts cinema, packed full of thrilling fight choreography, as it was not afraid to show a trained martial artist almost bested by someone relying mainly on tenacity and instinct.
This pitting of resolve versus skill continued into future films like “Out for Justice“.
…And stealthily slicing, and dicing its way to the no.1 spot is…
Revenge of the Ninja — Osaki vs Braden (Ghostface Ninja)
No scene captured the mystique and deadly skills of the Ninja like the finale of Kosugi’s most revered film.
When Cho Osaki realises that his friend ‘Braden’ used him for his own criminal operation, and was behind the death of mother, and friend Dave Hatcher, he calls on his Ninja skills for an epic showdown.
The two meet on a hi-rise rooftop dressed to kill in Ninja attire, with Braden sporting a silver ghostface mask. It really is epic in every sense right down to its 10-minute run time.
Kosugi, stunt coordinator Steven Lambert, and first time action film director, Sam Firstenberg pulled out all the stops, and an arsenal of ninja weapons for a tense battle.
When the two adversaries meet the tension builds and doesn’t let up from the stoic recitation of the ninja hand signs – the Kuji-kiri to the penetrating and blood-spattered finish. In between you have an onslaught of weapon fights and hand to hand combat with some dizzying acrobatics.
The film excels not only in the quality of fight action but the technically rich choreography that avoids repetition of movement, with plenty of intricate blocks, parries, and strikes.
Interspersed with the hand combat comes an array of weapons ranging from the traditional – sickle or kama and the ninjatō – to the more modern such as hidden retractable blades and even a pocket flamethrower hidden up the sleeve!
Tossing in the quintessential smoke bombs, and deadly shuriken and you have techniques and choreography blending the authentic with the far-fetched for pure entertainment purposes.
The finale excels in adding dramatic spice in the conflict between two focused warriors. Whereas Osaki is driven by emotion, Braden confidently dominates the fight, often being the hunter rather than the prey. His penchant for intermittently laughing, taunting Osaki exudes a cocky confidence, and with his ability to seemingly vanish and misdirect using an array of props makes for a genuine threat.
The cat and mouse game continues throughout and much effective use is made of the sky-rise roof setting to add even more danger to the proceedings, as if Osaki wasn’t challenged enough.
With so much going on, it never lets up until the end when you can finally take a breath, and all this is why after 40 years it remains Sho Kosugi’s finest on-screen battle.