You’re not supposed to root for ninjas. In most of the best Asian samurai flicks, the ninjas are little more than cannon fodder, probably wearing a Star Trek red shirt beneath their black unitards. Their proper role is to be cut to ribbons by a heroic samurai, for the simple reason that they cheat. They sneak around and hit you in the back with poison blow-darts. They have no honor. They have no regard for women and children. They borrow all of your garden tools and never return them. Nobody likes ninjas.
So of course we took them and made them into heroes in a series of 80s films that had a brief but memorable run that more or less began with ENTER THE NINJA and reached their legendary opus with PRAY FOR DEATH, a film that was so bloody, so sadistic, riddled with so many unimaginable scene of carnage, that the MPAA had no choice but to protect the sanctity of western civilization itself by censoring the hell out of it.
Or so the story goes…
The ratings board was running amok back then, with decisions that were breathtaking in their capriciousness. Sure, if your name rhymed with Shteven Shmeilberg you might get an entirely new rating just so you could rip a guy’s heart out in full view without the loss of the kiddie matinee show times an R rating would have entailed but for the average indie filmmaker it was more like “No, we won’t give this an R. No we won’t tell you how to fix it. No, we don’t care.” And if you managed to slip something by them you could rest assured that payback would come when the sequel was submitted. FRIDAY THE 13th begat the castrated FRIDAY THE 13th PART 2, etc etc.
By the time PRAY FOR DEATH came out in 1985 the board must have been chomping at the bit to make up for letting THE STREET FIGHTER and RETURN OF THE NINJA escape their tentacles because one can seldom find a better example of headscratchingly arbitrary edits. Luckily we now have Arrow Video’s Blu-ray with both the original unedited version and the R rated version for any Casper Milquetoasts out there to watch in their plaid onesies. The film stars Sho Kosugi and he is by far the main attraction. In the pantheon of great Asian action stars of my youth, Kosugi rates high. He has a natural charisma and reasonably good grasp of the English language as well as obvious acrobatic skills along with degrees in a baker’s dozen of different martial arts disciplines. He lacked Sonny Chiba’s brutal masculinity or Jackie Chan’s jaw dropping choreography but he had a genuine believability in roles like this one that showed off his strengths; a honest family man who wants to simply enjoy his life and raise his kids, only to be hassled by stupid greedy men, all of whom will, most assuredly, pray for death.
The other source of interest in the film is that it was directed by Gordon Hessler. Hessler is…an interesting case. He is either a journeyman hack who could be depended on to finish the job with no discernable flashes of genius or an underrated auteur who had the misfortune to work on last minute calls (THE OBLONG BOX), showcases for other talents (THE GOLDON VOYAGE OF SINBAD) movies cut to incomprehensibility (MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE , SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN) and the band Kiss (KISS MEETS THE PHANTOM OF THE PARK). You might be thinking “Anyone involved with KISS MEETS THE PHANTOM OF THE PARK should be prohibited from ever touching a movie camera again.” but consider; a genius could not have saved that production. If Stanley Kubrick and Akira Kurosawa had joined forces they could not have made anything watchable out of KISS MEETS THE PHANTOM OF THE PARK. It’s a movie whose awfulness has its own gravitational field. Hessler took one for the team on that mess.
By that point any star he may have had was in descent and this was probably true from the get go. His first horror films were supposed to be directed by 4 hit wonder Michael Reeves, a visionary artist known for his uncompromising films of whose brilliance was equal to their bleak view of humanity. Hessler could not put any of that on his resume but on the other hand he also lacked Reeves habit of dropping dead from drug overdoses right before filming. Which ought to count for something. Hessler did his job with perhaps more competence than genius but that’s more than many can lay claim to.
The film opens with a classic 80s cheesefest theme song, Sho swinging his sword with a special effect that makes it look like there are a bunch of Sho Kasogi’s, though there is but one.
He sees women being dragged into an isolated forest hut and he’s not taking that sitting down. Sho is in black so when an army of ninja’s all dressed in white pop out from behind the trees we know who is going to die. White Ninja’s? Way to go on that camouflage. He wipes them out with throwing stars and katana thrusts and it’s here that I wonder if I accidentally played the R Rated version. Where are the geysers of blood? If SHOGUN ASSASSIN’s Kenji Misumi had directed this the forest would still, 30 years later, bear the stains of all the fake gore that would have been spilled but no, Sho swings his mighty blade and the bad guys just keel over. The soundtrack so far consists of the following: “Hwah!” “YuuuAi!” and “Huhhhh!”
But it’s just a TV show! Watched by two cute little kids who were cast after an exhaustive search that ended up in Sho Kosugi’s house–he cast his own sons. Sho is actually Akira Saito, family man, whose children little suspect that their dad is descended from a long line of Ninjas, though how they missed the fact that their grandfather looks like every aged sifu in every kung fu movie ever made makes me wonder if Asia’s vaunted public school system is all it’s cracked up to be.
Cut to Sho at karate school, where a bully picks on kids literally half his size until Sho lets his son kick his ass, literally. Boy, Sho is just the BEST DAD EVER! Casts his kids in his movies and makes them look great.
We are then treated to scenes of domestic bliss with his lovely Amerasian wife Aiko who has always wanted to go to America. “American cities are so violent.” Sho protests. “You’ve been watching too many movies” she replies. This would be a great time to drop in a minor chord because you don’t have to be a storytelling whiz to know this will come back to bite someone in the buttocks.
Flashback–an evil ninja tries to steal from the temple. Sho takes him on in a display of acrobatic choreography. He unmasks the bad guy to reveal….Shogi! Who is nobody we know! But it must have been a friend since Sho is upset when he kills himself. Back to the present. He’s attacked by an old guy who gets the better of him but it’s his adopted father/karate master who just wanted to illustrate the point that “he must forget the past”. All righty then. We also learn that Shogi was Sho’s brother, which would have given that scene a bit more emotional impact if we had known it earlier but, regardless, the Master gives him a sword. “You will always be a ninja.” he tells him. He also gives him a helmet. We’ll get back to that.
We fly to America to music that sounds like it’s 2 seconds away from someone saying “Do the hustle.” There is graffiti, a wino, and black people with boomboxes. One of the brothers bumps into him and gets huffy. Sho mentally imagines going ninja on his ass but remembers this is just the first act, so he meekly lets it go. They inspect the site of their future business which includes a music box and wooden Indian. This is an Englishman’s idea of America. There are also spider webs that indicate tarantula’s the size of dinner plates. Kindly Mr. Green shows them around and might as well be wearing a red Star Trek shirt and a series of concentric circles on his back, so obvious is it that he will be lucky to survive the next 5 minutes.
That night a doughy guy hides a package in the floorboards–but not before stealing one of the priceless diamond necklaces in it. Sho and company are fixing the place up but a bigger group of bad guys show up. You know they’re bad because they wear suits and drive a black car. They see Mr. Green moving out and surmise that he found the jewels. They also see that Sho has a wife and two kids. “How fortuitous.” the lead bad guy muses. He probably would have griped about the cheesy dialogue but since he’s played by James Booth, who also served as the screenwriter “How fortuitous.” it remains.
Booth plays Limehouse Willie, a local goon who provides muscle for mob Boss Mr. Newman. Limehouse Willie sounds like a cereal mascot but he’s all business as he beats Mr. Green to death with a tire iron while demanding to know where the missing jewels are. This seems like a poor way to interrogate someone but I yield to his professional acumen. After caving in his skull they burn his body and even break his walking stick. Damn! His car explodes like it was rigged by a professional pyrotechniques advisor or was a Pinto.
Sho’s sons are harassed by one of those racially mixed gang of young toughs you only see in movies as they try to steal the younger brother’s bike. Older brother Tomoya delivers an butt whipping while Limehouse Willy snatches younger brother Tomoya. Sho gets a call where the bastards threaten to castrate his kid if he doesn’t give them the necklace. Of course he has no idea what they’re talking about but he quickly deduces that someone broke in and snatched something from the floorboards, leaving behind telltale fibers. and evidence of being left handed. Some serious Sherlock Holmes shit here. You’d think being told his kid would be singing soprano for life would be the last straw but Sho just walks into the obvious trap and is strung up by handcuffs. The goons are not impressed and cut him. This must be more of the violence that got it an x-rating and it’s all done with the old fake knife with tubing on the back and 99 cent vampire blood. They then threaten the kid with a blowtorch and Sho breaks loose and kicks out the only light. The bad guys shoot at the walls, floor and moon, all to no avail.
After the mob retaliates by running over Takeshi we are given a truly terrible car chase that ends with the bad guys hitting another car at maybe 20 mph. Nevertheless, they go up like the Hindenburg. The 80s were a dangerous time to be driving cars. No airbags and the cars themselves were apparently made of oil soaked rags held together with rubber cement.
Ok, NOW will we see some x-rated ninja action? Nope, Sho is nothing if not slow to anger. He shows up at a dockside party where Limehouse Willy and assorted other oily goons are watching a belly dancer. Yeah, that’s right, a belly dancer. Not even a stripper. A belly dancer. This is the x-rated version. Wow. Sho easily overcomes their mere guns with his fists of fury and feet of vengeance. He holds a knife to Willy’s throat, promising him that if he doesn’t back off he will-wait for it…”Pray for death!”
“I’ll show HIM!” Willy screams and cuts himself in the arm. My wife thought he was trying to frame Sho but that would make sense. No, this was just to get admitted to the hospital, as opposed to just walking in. I realize that criminals are generally a stupid, cowardly and superstitious lot, but still.
Once in the hospital Lime house knocks out his doctor, puts on his clothes and kills the cops guarding Mrs. Sho. A lot easier to do that without an injured arm, I’m just saying. He rapes and kills her in a scene that was cut to avoid the x-rating but again, while unpleasant it is so nongraphic as to make one wonder who on the ratings board did not receive their bribe money. He tries to kill the kid but is stopped, escaping through the use of an aluminum tray. Seriously. He takes out 4 cops with an aluminum tray. By my count he kills or incapacitates 7 cops in one scene, This guy is the terminator. As well as, and I can’t emphasize this enough, the screenwriter. When actors ask me how to get good roles I always tell them “Write a screenplay. Make a role you can play. Give yourself the best lines.” Or write your character as a cop killing aluminum tray swinging force of nature. God bless you, James Booth.
Sho looks upon the face of his dead wife. He blames himself, despite the fact that pretty much everything played out exactly as he predicted. It’s a sad scene and Sho emotes passably well but we, the audience, are inwardly cheering because we know that, at long last…IT’S NINJA TIME!!!
I’d forgotten all about the crooked cops who stole the necklace but Limehouse, like Pepperidge Farms, remembers , and he takes them out at a diner. Meanwhile, Sho is working out with beads and buckets of cold water, which I guess is Ninja stuff. He also forges a blade while a terrible song plays. What, the one his master gave him wasn’t good enough? A trained swords smith takes about 6 months to make a Hatori Hanzo quality blade but Sho does it that evening DON’T MESS WITH SHO KOSUGI!
Last but not least, he puts on the helmet and swears that he will get those Teenaged Mutant Turtles! Well, no, but it sure looks like he ought to. It’s ridiculous looking but by this point we are just happy to finally see the promised x-rated carnage! Sho attacks the mob at his mansion. Lots of ninja stars to the eyes, cuts with the blade etc etc…bloodiest part of the movie so far but not equal to any 3 minutes of HANNIBAL. Sho kills everyone except Willie, who manages to drive away in a truck . We get to see Kosugi’s signature “leap over the moving truck” flip which has been attempted by dozens of youtube idiots, to the great pleasure of us all.
We finally get our showdown. In a manikin factory. Boy, what Mario Bava could have done with this scene. In one of the few extra features on the DVD, Sho takes credit for the idea and it’s a fine one. Hessler is no Bava but even so, he manages to get some good creepy shots of backlit manikins and broken body parts. Hell, the battle itself has much to offer, with more grappling and realistic hand to hand desperation fighting over the usual Romanian gymnast stuff. Willie even manages to stab Sho in the leg with a stick, although if you believe the effect for one second you are gullible beyond belief. The basic problem is that at no time have we been given any reason to think that Limehouse Willie has a snowball’s chance in hell, even if he were in an aluminum tray factory. His only advantage in this conflict is that he does not wear a stupid helmet and he wrote the script.
A buzz saw comes into play. And a chainsaw. At last! Now we will see the reason for the X-rating! It was a long time coming but…
What the hell? Limehouse dies off-screen! There is absolutely no reason for this movie to have gotten an X-rating!!! I’m amazed it got an R!
If one goes through the trouble to compare the cut and uncut versions you will see that the edits do indeed add up to a considerable amount of screen time but you’ll also see that the edits simply turn a violent R rated action film into a slightly less violent R rated action film. It’s as though the rating people were being paid by the edit. Ironically they only managed to make the film undeservably remembered as a lost classic of gore drenched violence.
Well the truth is out now and on its own merits the film is an above average example of 80s vengeance cinema, with a charismatic lead, hiss worthy villains, kids that are less annoying than is the norm in such films and plenty of action. The blu-ray shows it off to its best advantage and the picture and sound are probably better than it looked at the drive in.