Now in the hands of… an American?

As a footnote to our American Ninja celebratory gripe-fest, here’s a mystifying trade ad from what has to be the early part of 1985, wherein Cannon heralded an upcoming project:

Right studio, right producers, right creative team, right title, right logo. BUT… what the hell?

Now trade ads are always talking shit. They run in industry-only newsrags promoting movies as if the deals are set in stone, sometimes implying they’re in the can, but the reality is these ads are often window dressing for the money hunt. Would-be producers work these things up to stir interest or tip on-the-fence investors over the edge. More often that not the movie promised never gets made or mutates into something way different.

So was “American Ninja” a Sho Kosugi lvehicle at one point, or were they just coyly suggesting that he might be involved in a pending deal. Or did they just see his image as their’s to use regardless of his involvement or lack thereof? Kosugi had left Cannon at this point for what turned out to be far less greener pastures, so maybe this was an attempt to lure him back?

The “American Ninja” title has a shadowy history of its own, too. I have an image stuck in my head of one of these trade ads I saw years ago wherein a Chuck Norris project carried the same name, and would kill to find it somewhere (if it even exists). Maybe it became The Octagon? Kosugi’s own 9 Deaths of the Ninja was called “American Ninja” in some European markets. And the American Ninja we know and love was actually called “American Warrior” during development and as late as the trailer, changing titles at the 11th hour (the ‘Warrior’ title remained in some foreign releases).

A mystery indeed. Too bad I’m the only guy in Hollywood who actually cares about this stuff…


Man thanks to VN reader Dan for the following clarifications:

“in regards to the whole Sho Kosugi / American Ninja thing, here’s how it went down from what I remember reading and subsequently pieced together. The trade ad you have of Cannon’s “American Ninja” project featuring Sho was likely done before he left Cannon (possibly during post-production on NINJA III), so they undoubtely planned to have their #1 ninja star in the film (possibly in the role that went to Tadashi Yamashita). After Sho left Cannon they planned to getChuck Norris to star as the “American Ninja” (as seen in the attached trade ad), but obviously that didn’t work out and they got Michael Dudikoff. Meanwhile, Sho filmed his first non-Cannon movie, a film with the working title “American Ninja”, which was written and directed by “Enter the Ninja” 2nd Unit Director Emmett Alston. The movie was released as “9 Deaths of the Ninja” and Cannon’s “American Warrior” was therefore able to reclaim the “American Ninja” title and did so (at least in most markets). By the way, you can’t really tell from the attached pic, but the ninja gi Chuck is wearing is the same one worn by David Chung, Lucinda Dickey, and Alan Amiel (their fight double) in NINJA III… The Black Ninja outfit which is really grayish-green. Pretty wild, huh?”

Happy Birthday SHO KOSUGI

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Man, where would we be without Sho Kosugi? Probably in JAIL… This is the man, after all, who taught us how to catch arrows in our teeth, wear ninja stars on our belt buckles, scale office buildings with climbing claws, and the proper techniques of powering up in front of an under-lit mist-spewing chest of weapons.

Happy birthday Kosugi-dono, you rocked our 80’s beyond measure!

Rehearsing ENTER THE NINJA's superb final duel. He stole this film from Franco Nero (who pretty much stole it from Mike Stone anyway).

Kosugi was the LEAD in only his second American film, something I’m thinking no other Asian actor or martial arts star (including Bruce Lee) had done. The leap of faith from Canon and Golan-Globus paid off in spades – Revenge of the Ninja cemented the craze more than any other film.

Canon wasn't shy about the release of REVENGE OF THE NINJA with these full-page trade ads in VARIETY. They knew they were going to make bank...
Kosugi's family crest-emblazoned ninja elevated shinobi to superhero.

Inset photo from a lobby card heralding NINJA III: THE DOMINATION - Kosugi's first 'unmasked' lead role.

Seriously, is there a single aspect of shinobi fandom not touched by this man? Movies, TV, magazines and merch in the 80’s. Martial arts and movie stunt training, performing arts troupes, motion capture for video games and a whole second career in Japan with his kids in the next two decades. And who was the villain in last year’s big budget return to American ninja movies?

Check out the bio and career coverage at his official S.K. Production site and the excellent fan site Sho Kosugi: The Ninja.

Fan club kit pieces via The Scandy Factory.

These may be decades old, but if they’re willing to take on big 41-year old geeks, then I’m ready to fill this out RIGHT f’n NOW!

Now, where the hell is that Criterion box set of all the Canon films and the Master Ninja eps???

Read some previous Kosugi-related VN posts:

The Illustrated Kosugi

Martial Arts Magazines

Canon Posters

KAGE – best ninja short ever!

Awesome resource for MA mags!

Check out this impressively thorough archive of martial arts magazine covers and topics going back 50 years:

Vintage Martial Arts Magazines

When the titles and decades are laid out like this, you can really see the trends and transitions of coverage. Ninjutsu features were a rare exotic thing in the 60’s and 70s, but man do they EXPLODE in the 80’s!

December 1966 - the first ninja cover on an American martial arts mag, heralding the feature by Andrew Adams that later morphed into the famed NINJA: THE INVISIBLE ASSASSINS book.
July 1977 - the first photo cover of a ninja on an American mag, a makeshift shinobi outfit that's pretty rough around the edges, literally. Note the shuriken, of the kung-fu variety and not the off-the-rack mail order stuff so common in the craze 80's.
11/79 - Sho kosugi's first US cover, as a Karate champion. 4/79 - OFFICIAL KARATE is ahead of the curve, as is INSIDE KUNG-FU in 4/80.
6/80 - Stephen Hayes' first cover, albeit without the celeb treatment he'd routinely get a few years later. 8/81 movie mag decries "Ninja: American's New Sinister Hero" and the movie boom is on. By 1983, "Warriors" NINJA hits the shelves, and every other major martial arts title throws black pajama'd assassins on their covers to increase sales. The craze is here.

The folks over at have done a tremendous job with this digital archive. Scans are organized by title, then by year, with some category cross-referencing (including “Ninja”). I’ve dug through there for hours, admiring old graphic design and layouts, wondering how I missed certain mags back in the day… its a real trip.

AND a lot of the pictured pulps are for sale! I’m a bit afraid of that right now, as I have tax refunds coming and am getting veeeeery tempted…

The Illustrated Sho Kosugi

In the 80’s, Sho Kosugi posed for over 73 billion photos in full night gear, laden with weapons, in magazines like Black Belt, Ninja, even Karate Illustrated and Inside Kung Fu. Yet when it comes to movie and video game ad campaigns, you often see painted and illustrated images of him instead – many leaving a lot to be desired. Sometimes it was agencies not wanting to pay royalties to photographers. Other times it was unscrupulous art departments not having any legal right to use a Kosugi image whatsoever, but wanting the box office rub. Either way, some very interesting artistic mutations occurred…

It started in 1981 of course, with Enter the Ninja. Golan-Globus scooped the big studio development of Eric Van Lustbader’s mega hit novel The Ninja with this exploitation gem (the American genre never recovered), for which Kosugi did some publicity photo posing. An air brushed version of what we’ll call THE KOSUGI KICK appeared on some of the posters (and VHS packaging), and soon after a retail poster we all had on our wall. The Kosugi Kick was henceforth knocked-off 15.3 trillion times, and you still see it today once in a while. The pose is one of THE lingering icons of the 80’s craze, perhaps the definitive image of the era.

The follow-up to Enter, and the movie that cemented “the ninja craze” as the big thing in martial arts (and martial arts cinema) for the decade, Revenge of the Ninja, had a pretty dynamite painted poster itself. What’s easy to forget about the superb Revenge is that in it, Kosugi made history – an Asian actor being the single male lead, and in only his second film in the U.S. In reality, Bruce Lee never did that, being co-top-billed with John Saxon in Enter the Dragon (although after his death, amidst the kung-fu boom, the campaigns changed to feature him much more).

Ironically the painted art has little-to-no resemblance to Kosugi, but damn what composition! Back in the day, though, we were tortured by the the ‘inauthentic’ details like the Western military knife tucked into his tunic, and the Chinese ‘kung-fu shoes’ in place of tabi. The fact that this supposed invisible assassin in concealing night gear has a red belt, chrome-finish weapons strapped all over him, and a huge family crest akin to a superhero’s chest emblem telling the world who he is didn’t bother us at all though… Such was the logic of 80’s ninja fans.

The fact that the American key art wasn’t Kosugi outright may have led to some of the mysterious variants overseas, like the below Franch-language market poster. Perhaps they really wanted to feature the star?

The above painting is based on the companion retail poster to the famous Kosugi Kick piece, seen below left. Why they didn’t use the original photo is anyone’s guess – couldn’t find the source, couldn’t meet on a price, didn;t even try…  Next to that is detail from the illustrated sleeve for the priced-to-sell VHS re-issue of Revenge, late 80’s-early 90’s. Even though there was a photo-based poster in the 80’s, used often in Europe, that same art didn’t make it to Spanish markets, evidenced by the painted version far right. All in all, there are remarkably few images used to promote this movie, but the versions of those few images are myriad.

Pray For Death was, for many, the last ‘good’ Kosugi entry in the craze era – a genuine piece of ninja-sploitation, surrounded by legends of ‘uncut’ gorier versions screened in dark corners of Europe and everything. While many thought Kosugi’s weapons and armor were downright silly, but it seems many (especially foreign ad men) thought it was pretty righteous:

No, Kosugi was NOT in Shaolin Fighters vs. Ninja (or Ninja Against Shaolin, or Ninja vs. Shaolin Guards, or Shaolin Fights Ninja, or any of the dozens of other versions and re-titles of the concept that were out there), but you sure wouldn’t know it from the poster above. More painted art was done for the taxing 9 Deaths of the Ninja, and again the foreign markets were on their own page with the key art. I guess when your movie looks like this…

…you’re tempted to hide it behind more craze-palatable images of hooded ninja, even if it means evoking the competition – Michael Dudikoff!

Strange to think of foreign ad artists toiling over these painted Sho Kosugi images, when in some neglected drawer at the offices of Inside Kung Fu, hundreds of amazing photos were sitting there, untapped. Exploitation films, however, have promotional resources akin to their low budgets. Campaigns turn around fast. There are language barriers between markets. Logistical and financial hurdles everywhere. So it ends up easier just to wing it and barf out some weird illo.

Chances are, the same box office take would have been made either way.

Read more:

Sho Kosugi: The Ninja fansite, with tons of galleries, including mag covers and movie posters.

S.K. Productions – Kosugi’s official website.

Really fun write up and video of 9 Deaths of the Ninja.

If you think these paintings are a bit off, check out the stuff from Ghana!  And Thailand!

To hell with NA, go S-n-M!

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It goes wrong in the very title. “Assassin.” Can we get past this notion of the ninja cult of hired assassins? Some historians question if there ever was a documented assassination in Japan reliably credited to a shinobi agent. Why are we still leaning on that crutch? Are the more real and rich concepts of espionage, guerilla warfare and military intelligence so much harder to pull off than a cliche hooded hitman? Guess so…

Alright, so if we climb off the collective soapbox and take the assassin cult (yawn) at face value, does NA even hold up to it;s own rules and logic? Shit no. The cult itself for starters – orphans and kidnapped children raised in a remote fuedal-age compound (in what looks like Mordor) abused and beaten and scarred so badly in their training, it would hinder their martial skills as adults. The logic doesn’t stop breaking down from there in what has to be the most stupid and vacuous expenditure of martial arts movie dollars EVER IN ANY COUNTRY!

There’s much ado about NA‘s ninja being living shadows, with often lousy digital effects making their mastery of dark spaces an X-Men-like super power. But then all their weapons have CHROME FINISH.

This is an American studio production shot in Germany, starring a Korean, featuring Chinese martial arts, and one can rightfully make the complaint that it’s just not Japanese enough. The Chinese-based martial arts of NA have ZERO to do with ninjutsu or Japanese budo in general. It’s basically all twin darn-do broadsword techniques and wu-shu chain darts. Unarmed, it’s all high kicking Tae Kwon Do. And EVERYONE yells and screams before they attack, while they block and parry, basically at every opportunity they can to make the fights louder. Real masters of stealth.

The story… sorry, it’s been a few hours, and I can’t remember it. Or maybe there wasn’t one. NA instead leans on often humorous amounts of digitally generated gore to supposedly entertain. FAIL!

I guess if this thing wasn’t called “ninja” anything, I’d have no beef. Contending to the ninja genre gives it the high bar of 60’s Japanese cinema to live up to, but the results end up beneath even the 80’s American stuff. Sure, Enter the Ninja and The Octagon were dumb, but they were CHEAP and dumb, and thus were entertaining as hell pieces of exploitation that stand as cult classics. NA is EXPENSIVE AND DUMB, and in this economy, that just offends.

The pluses… Rain worked his ass off for this role, and misguided and non-ninja as it was, I give him props for effort. Sho Kosugi gets a beefy heel role (only his third by my count), and of course we’re all glad the father of western ninja flicks got a late-career payday.

Overall, Ninja Assassin is an empty, expensive jerk-off session that does nothing to add to the richness of the genre. It’s a wasted opportunity, and a discredit to it’s pedigree. Fuck this movie…

My recommendation is to take your $12 and instead put it toward THE BEST holiday rec I can possibly make this (or any other) year: Animeigo’s Shinobi-no-Mono box set! These films are the super-ego of the genre (see for yourself), and the term “must-own” isn’t just cliche here. If you don’t own S-n-M, you don’t know what a ninja movie is supposed to be (and are probably the exact market the NA folk were hoping to reach this weekend). So fight shinobi-ignorance and give the gift of this box set this holiday, even if it’s just to yourself.


And while we’re discussing American flicks…

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…and it being horror-themed Halloween month, we’d be remiss in not throwing a shout out to what was the most ambitious of the 80’s Canon flicks, Ninja III: The Domination.

Japanese posters for an American ninja... Gotta wonder what the home crowd thought of these weird Yank flicks.


The delicious desert that was Domination was part Kosugi ninja vehicle, part Exorcist, with a little Flashdance thrown in and a thick, sugary frosting of 80’s cop revenge cliches topping it all. Sho Kosugi wore the Jubei eyepatch, Lucinda Dickey avoided another Breakin‘ sequel and got to do some kooky effects scenes, and there were possibly the best staged ninja battle scenes we saw before getting ahold of the real stuff from Japan later on.




Ninja III wasn’t actually a sequel to Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja, but it certainly tied-up the triumvirate of movies that really cemented ninja films as the dominant martial arts exploitation sub-genre of the decade. Sadly, it was never topped in budget, artistic ambition or general fimmaking effort during the craze. The films got cheaper and cheesier until the genre was all but surrendered to turtles and kicking kiddies.

And can anyone explain to me why Domination and Enter aren’t in print on DVD??? Seriously…

Read great blog reviews at Internal Bleeding and  Where the Long Tail Ends, and see and read all sorts of keen Kosugi-ness at the excellent fan site Sho Kosugi: the Ninja.

The chrome demon!

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How many times did I watch Revenge of the Ninja on HBO during the ascension of the ninja craze? Sixteen? A million? Seemed like a week didn’t pass without it being on the TV…

Sho Kosugi made a smart call in giving Virgil Frye Arthur Roberts‘s character a silver oni mask – it allowed him to double Frye for all his solo fight scenes, and a stunt man to easily stand in for the others (plus this pyro bit at film’s end). Alas, such hi-tech trickery did the villain little good, as Kosugi’s definitive ninja-in-the-USA hero hits the sweet spot with a knife and causes one of the most memorable gratuitous gore scenes in 80’s exploitation history!




Before “The Master”…

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…there was The Last Ninja. Michael Beck, perhaps known best as Swan from The Warriors, was hot on the heels of action masterpieces Warlords of the 21st Century and Megaforce when he made the ahead-of-its-time TV pilot about a lone honkey ninja adventuring about the USA.

Last Ninja pic

Now, I haven’t seen this movie, as it’s not in print and not even that common with the yo-ho-ho set, but this press sheet has me thinking I didn’t miss much back in the day.

I think Beck looks great in full night mission gear, but I cringe at the cammo suit.

Note the conspicuous lack of WEAPONS here, sort of a major component of our love of ninja… His Dr. Doolittle act with zoo animals is hardly a replacement for an enemy’s eyeball dangling from the end of a kasurigama, or a the light of a bright full moon eclipsed by an ominous cloud of blowfish poison-soaked shuriken, is it?

Here’s the promo copy on the back of the press pic:

Last Ninja note

The descriptive on the back of this publicity 8×10 is remarkably light on flourish that would actually engage an audience. I myself would have certainly mentioned “exotic ninja assassins, as seen in Shogun” maybe, and the phrase “at which point our hero draws his sword and becomes a gore-soaked windmill of death” would have appeared at least twice in the TV Guide listing.

Six months later, the decidedly goofier series The Master would drive yet another nail in the coffin of the American ninja craze.

If only The Last Ninja property had taken off, we might have had some kick-ass crossover action. Beck beheads Timothy Van Hamster and steals his boss van, Mako fights Sho Kosugi and Lee Van Cleef at once… Oh what could have been.

Ninja Blowing Gun???

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Don’t know if this is old stock, a warehouse find, or new print runs, but has all sorts of old 80’s ninja posters for sale, and CHEAP!



I got these two CLASSICS for Christmas, 1983 I think… I still have them, too! I absolutely love that these Kosugi posters are still available somewhere. That jump kick pose was bitten by movie posters, VHS clamshells, toy packages and more, endlessly, and you still see it once in a while…


But I never had this one… Man, if I had ANY wall space, I’d be on this like a bad smell.


And where has this Henry Sanada poster from Ninja in the Dragon’s Den been all my life???

Most of these are 24×36″, probably on cheap gloss – like they should be – and retail for less than FIVE BUCKS!

I’ve never ordered from, and the site seems a bit dodgy (parts of it possibly not updated since 2004) so who knows… I may place a test order to see what comes through. Will keep y’all posted.

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