PRAY FOR DEATH coming to Blu!

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Restoration label Arrow Films continues to put out Criterion-level releases of films that are decidedly not in the Criterion oeuvre — Spaghetti Westerns, Japanese delinquent gang flicks, gory Giallo and slasher fare, and yes — now they’re going FULL 80s NINJA!


From the official Arrow press release:

“NEW US ONLY TITLE: Pray for Death (Arrow Video) Blu-ray

Vigilante justice – ninja style!


In Pray for Death, martial arts legend Sho Kosugi (Enter the Ninja, Ninja 3: The Domination) stars as a family man driven to exact vigilante justice – ninja style!

Japanese Restauranteur Akira (Kosugi) has taken his wife and two boys to the United States in search of a better life. But their slice of the American Dream is quickly soured when they fall foul of a group of vicious jewellery thieves. Unfortunately for the bad guys, they didn’t count on Akira being a secret black ninja.

The samurai sword of vengeance falls swift and hard in this classic slice of ‘80s ninja action from director Gordon Hessler (Scream and Scream Again, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad), culminating in an action-packed showdown with a bodycount worthy of Commando.

•High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation from a transfer of original elements by MGM of the unrated version
•Optional English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
•Brand new interview with star Sho Kosugi
•Archive interview and Ninjutsu demonstration with Kosugi from the film’s New York premiere
•Original Theatrical Trailer
•Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin
•Collector’s booklet featuring an extract from Sho Kosugi’s upcoming biography”


PfD is probably Kosugi’s best film outside the Cannon trilogy, and arguably even better than one or two of those. One’s fandom-level for this film depends on how you feel about the armored helmet, the logic-defying / nigh-meta character background, and the juxtaposition of gory violence and brutality to women with happy-fun-ninja-kid-on-self-made-ninja-bike stuff. The “Back to the Shadows” theme song and Bond-like opening credits are the bomb.

There’s a nice full review over at Ninjas All the Way Down, and details the decades-old controversy of “uncut” versions and missing scenes. I for one have never needed to see a woman raped and killed in grisly fashion in order to enjoy a film, but I’ve also seen how piss-poor the hatchet job of gore-shaving censorship was in the UK releases of this film, so a complete version will be great to finally have out in the world.

I have several Arrow discs, and recent releases like the Lee Van Cleef Spaghetti Western Day of Anger go way above and way beyond what you normally find in exploitation genre titles. Packaging features a reversible insert with the original marketing on one side, and new illustrated images on the reverse.

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Not crazy about this art, seeing as the helmeted Kosugi is soooooo iconic for this film, plus depicting him with a 2000s style extreme shruiken and a samurai sword vs. the “ninja-to” that literally bore his name is just bad research.


In this era of the Alamo Drafthouse and Mondo defining abstract and minimalist retro movie art, labels like Arrow and Criterion are sometime too quick to place artistic accomplishment over effective marketing. It’s not so big a deal in a world where brick-and-mortar retail is disappearing, but if I as a fan of this movie was looking for it on a shelf this art would make the product unrecognizable to me. Other Euro-discs of this and Kosugi fare like Rage of Honor actually embrace both the iconic nature of the costuming and the boldness of 80s exploitation marketing.


Apart from busting balls as an armchair art director, the extras Arrow has lined up sound pretty damned great! I’m a sucker for vintage featurettes, and the inclusion of any ninja demo Kosugi did back in the day (see also the “Ninja Theater” VHS series and his Master Class tape) is reason enough to buy this disc.

Arrow’s Pray for Death has a street date of February 16.

Enter the Revenge of the Blurays

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We finally have the original Cannon Films Sho Kosugi ‘ninja trilogy’ on good home video formats! Sure, its a couple decades later than it should have happened, and at a time when the public is giving up physical media in droves, but hey, we the children of the 80s craze who love these movies enough to own them are still stocking our shelves of discs, aren’t we?

Kino Lorber have just released Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja on Bluray, joining the superb Ninja III: The Domination Blu put out by Scream Factory last year.


The Enter disc is, honestly, nothing special. The only extra is an already familiar trailer. There’s a marginal improvement via format, but its not a profound leap from the DVD-on-Demand disc MGM has had available, or the print streaming on Netflix and the like. It may even be cropped a little too much on top and bottom, but I’m not claiming to be an expert on aspect ratios and transfers.

Revenge has had a few different DVD releases where aspect was a serious issue though — some prints are a square “Open Matte” transfer that actually gives more image on top and bottom than the filmmakers intended. It’s neat for seeing some extra choreography here and there, but the image is small on widescreen TVs. Other widescreen prints have also been released on triple feature DVD packs that suffer somewhat from compression, so all in all the new Blu is worth buying just for the proper image alone.

But with his disc Kino Lorber also gives us full-length commentary from director Sam Firstenberg and stunt coordinator Steve Lambert. They talk some nice shop about stunt work in the analog age, having freedom from studio pressure while shooting out in Salt Lake City, Utah, and how legit dangerous some of the gags were, especially in the hi-rise building sequences. They pay nice homage to the fact that this film is often overlooked for making history with a sole Japanese lead actor, hint at what a direct sequel-that-never-happened would have meant for intended bigger player Keith Vitali, and Firstenberg’s memory for how many days it took to film a scene is like a steel trap.

Alas, the disc is otherwise barebones. A behind-the-scenes gallery promised in press releases and package copy is either missing or hidden in menus I can’t find, so that’s a red herring. I or myriad other sites would have given them considerable stills and marketing materials for a gallery had they asked, and Lambert is a veritable font of still materials, so no excuses.

In fact, I’m miffed enough at this to compensate by presenting some rare alternate take and missing scene stills myself, courtesy of MGM’s electronic press kit from years back (see more over at IMDB):

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Here’s a couple from the cut scene (you see it briefly in the trailer) of National Guard snipers dispatched by Braden before the final duel:

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This is the same “da-fuq???” look I had when the stills gallery turned out to be absent from the disc:


There’s also a missed opportunity, and I can’t fault them too much as it’s probably a significant rights issue, to present the superb Rob Walsh synth score as an audio bonus. Again, were these films put out at the height of DVD when labels heavily invested in extras, this would have been a given. We take what we can get in 2015.

BUT… despite any geek-gripes, we’re wholeheartedly recommending this new disc. The Octagon and Enter may have come first, but Revenge is the movie that cemented the ninja craze. It’s running time is almost completely combat, chases or stunts plus it put weapons-play on screen no one had ever seen before, and that’s a real trick in the martial-exploitation realm. This is the best version of the movie available and it is mandatory viewing for any ninja nerd, so get to it!

Kino Lorber have also released the Michael Dudikoff/Steve James ‘Deadliest Game’-inspired Avenging Force on an extras-peppered Bluray, and are giving the same treatment to the duo’s first American Ninja flick, as hinted by Judie Aronson on her Facebook fan page. Dudikoff, Firstenberg, Lambert, Aronson and even Tadashi Yamashita reunited in the Philippines last year for a documentary shoot, joined by Steve James‘ daughter Debbi, who’s pursuing a doco of her own (read more at My Dad Steve James).


Bitter as many of us are that these films were largely ignored or under-serviced during the DVD boom, when profound extras and deluxe box sets were aplenty, it is great to finally have them all in peak condition, and legit, too. Kudos to Kino Lorber!


An open call for KOSUGI KICKS!

It is THE single most recognizable icon of the 80s ninja craze, practically a logo for the ninja boom in and of itself — and one that has endured for decades.



Shot in a Hollywood studio for the Enter the Ninja press kit, the double wakizashi-waving jumping kicking Sho Kosugi was painted over for the film’s movie poster, ad slicks and subsequent home video packaging. The only other official use of the shot was years later in movie industry trade papers during Canon’s interest-stirring efforts for American Ninja (both the recycled Kosugi Kick and a composited shot of Chuck Norris in the Ninja III: The Domination green ninja suit were used in such ads before the project was rebooted into the Michael Dudikoff vehicle).

Note the subtle differences between the various ‘takes’ of the famed pose. The retail poster had a more upright quality with the head turned more to the side, while the airbrush movie poster art had compositional corrections in the arms and swords.

But the image had serious legs outside official usage. If photographers could realistically collect royalties every time their image was duplicated or directly lifted, whoever shot Sho that fateful day would be a billionaire.


From the original press kit. Note the lack of photographer credit or studio copyright.

The Kosugi Kick wasn’t an original idea, rather a carefully calculated effort to evoke the familiar image of Bruce Lee’s famous jump kick, primarily from a press still of The Big Boss, but with their own new stamp. This would be OUR jump kick.


They took the all-too-familiar pose (an icon and virtual logo of 70s kung-fu grindhouse itself), added the soon-to-be-famous black suit and a couple of swords (and note they’re off-the-shelf samurai swords, not the “ninja-to” that would quickly follow as a merchandise juggernaut) and declared THIS IS THE 80s, LET THE NINJA DECADE BEGIN!

And so it did.

The Kosugi Kick was quickly cannibalized by video game companies for packaging and arcade marquees, cheapie toy manufacturers and myriad knock-off merch pirates, book and magazine cover illustrators, and so many more one can hardly keep track.


But we want to! Or at least try…

Thus, our open call for help from you, our fan base who love this stuff as much as we do, but hopefully with more free time on your hands.

Below is the tip of the iceberg, images we’ve casually collected over the years in various categories. We want more! Send us whatever you’ve got that has a knock-off Kosugi Kick at the below link, we’ll follow this post up at some point with a major collection.

Email your Kosugi Kicks to Vintage Ninja


Was the above book from the 1960s Japanese craze a prehistoric ancestor of our beloved Kosugi Kick? And just how many issues of the 80’s Ninja magazine featured a rip-off of the famed photo? Help us find out!


Kosugi Kicks come in all shapes and sizes, with varying degrees of chicanery. The pose is in Public Domain, so manufacturers re-render the pose in their own art style at will. But, you do also see some outright theft of the original Kosugi classic.


We love seeing it in posters for other movies. Again it’s typically a knock-off illustration or painting, but sometimes they’ll use the real deal, like the Mexican lobby card for a kung-fu flick seen above. The fact that the home video packaging for one of the Master Ninja tapes (below) had to knock it off is a real head scratcher…


Kosugi Kicks may date back to 1981, but they are still showing up in 2014.


They take the form of delicate porcelain…


…articulated action figures…


…and not-so-articulated figures.



Sometimes the pose varies, with a more upright stance and a bent leg here and there, but c’mon, we all know the inspiration for these images.


Shower us with your findings folks!

Once again, that email address is


VN REVISITED – The Illustrated Sho Kosugi

Originally published January, 2010.

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!

Awesome PRAY FOR DEATH custom figure


Renowned customizer of Star Wars and G.I.Joe 3.75″ figures Obi Shinobi created this great Sho Kosugi figure from the finale of Pray for Death.

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Love the dragon helmet’s articulation!

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Obi Shinobi also crafted this nifty  scale diorama of a classic ninja vs. samurai encounter.


I have a hard enough time making 12″ kit-bashed figures look half-decent, and am just blown away by the folks who can do this smaller toys in such detail.


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Last week a horror movie label called Scream Factory released Ninja III: The Domination on Bluray and DVD.

Just going to let that statement slow burn for a second…


Not a label with a large martial arts back catalog, not an Asian cinema-friendly label addressing the East’s influence on the West, but a horror label clinging to The Dom‘s kinship to The Exorcist and Poltergeist. Scream Factory was nearly apologetic on social media to its black t-shirt clad Fangoria/Chiller crowd for pushing the envelope of their mission at hand, but the fan base was surprisingly positive at the announcement. Horror blogs reviewed it with the requsite so-bad-its-good slant [groan], and younger audiences are for the first time finding this staggering time capsule of 80s trash culture — aerobics-sploitation, Chess King sweaters and Nagel prints galore. All is good in the world…


Scream’s release is a stunning transfer of from what I recall is a complete print. The picture is just gorgeous on Bluray (the stills here don’t do it justice), and the accompanying DVD copy is nothing to sneeze at either. I’d call it miles above any previous release, but that’s not saying much as the last time Ninja III was on home video it was a full-frame VHS.

The 80’s ninja boom was represented piss-poorly in the DVD era (which yes, I’m referring to in the past tense), but it seems no film was relegated to limbo longer than this third chapter in the Kosugi/Canon partnership. There were mostly full-frame and “open matte” releases of Revenge of the Ninja, Rage of Honor, the American Ninja flicks, dumped out with little effort and even less fanfare, but for who-knows-why The Dom never made even that cut.

The age of physical media will have now come and gone with no box sets, no deluxe extras, no mind-blowing deleted scenes or making-of docos (save for a business-oriented piece on how The Octagon came together), nor any nostalgic interviews with very alive-and-well stars like Sho Kosugi and sons. (Enter the Ninja and Pray For Death only recently became available either streaming or DVD-on-Demand sans deluxe treatment.)

Even with Ninja Assassin making some waves and the G.I. Joe films putting big-budget ninja action in theaters, no one before Scream Factory saw the audience potential for the now 30 year old material. Kudos to them.


The big extra on the new release is a commentary track with director Sam Firstenberg and stunt coordinator Steve Lambert, which at times is just superb, but at others suffers a bit (for our purposes) from being hosted by a horror guy and aimed at other horror guys. A discussion of Kosugi’s eyepatch never touches on the traditional portrayals of Jubei Yagyu nor Sho Kosugi’s connection to Sonny Chiba and the Japan Action Club. We’re ninja geeks, we want to hear that stuff, even if it’s solely prompted by the moderator.

Still, hearing both these guys gush like proud papas about their work is very endearing. They point out Lucinda Dickey‘s work ethic, the merits of practical stunts and real fights in this post-Matrix world, all sorts of goodness.

Another fantastic bonus is Firstenberg’s own photo collection, with some behind-the-scenes stuff none of us have ever seen before.

Sho Kosugi and his faithful double Steve Lambert on set.

It’s also just great to finally see this film in such a pristine, even enhanced state. The MGM cable channel print of Ninja III wasn’t nearly as detail-revealling as this new transfer, especially viewed on Blu. I noticed for the first time Lucinda Dickey is wearing a really bad wig in all the mountain location scenes, which were evidently shot after she started filming Breakin’ with a shorter, more Pat Benatar-inspired haircut. And yes, she did Ninja III first, a revelation from the commentary.


So you see completists, you need to erase that shitty compressed bit-torrented rip you probably have of this film (that’s what happens when a cult fave languishes out-of-print too long, studio geniuses) and pick up this new Blu. Don’t think of it as double dipping, it’s like a whole new experience now.

I just wish it had come 5-8 years ago and with interviews of Kosugi and Dickey, packaged with all of Canon’s other ninja movies in black box that lights up from within, spews smoke and plays dramatic theme music while you power-up.

I also want six-pack abs, a 10-inch wang and gas to be under $4.00 a gallon. So, yeah…

ORDER NINJA III on Amazon right now!

Seriously. Eight to ten thousand of you read this site every month, you’re all ninja freaks and you’ve all been a pissed off as I am that the 80s craze films never got the deluxe send-up. Now that one has, we need to mobilize, buy the hell out of it and show the other labels what they’ve been missing out on.

Or even just Scream Factory to consider corresponding releases of Enter and Revenge, or Pray for Death with the fabled extra gore?

Hmmm? Think about it guys…


Oh, so you want more ENTER?

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 Not a problem. Last post was specific to the Kosugi doubling images, but here’s the remainder of the French lobby pics from Enter the Ninja.


Don’t know about you cats, but I was totally in love with Susan ‘Dirty Mary’ George.What a career for her!


Not that Franco ‘Django’ Nero‘s prolific career has been anything to sneeze at. But let’s face it, he was no Mike Stone when it came to the action scenes here…





Israeli actor Zachi Noy was absolutely great as The Hook, too.


Enter the Kosugi!

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These French-language market lobby photos for the 1981 release of Enter the Ninja are a bit different than the American marketing and press photos, mainly in that they reveal close-ups of Sho Kosugi doubling for one of the red ninja from the initial training battle sequence.

Kosugi next to what is likely Mike Stone in in the red ninja suits that would inspire Marvel Comics’ The Hand and myriad 80s action figures.
This is a great look at the interesting construction of the hoods.

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Kosugi and Stone worked their asses off out in those Philippine woods, doubling in both star and soldier roles.


Euro lobby cards for 9 DEATHS

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European (and other French-language market) lobby cards for Sho Kosugi‘s 9 Deaths of the Ninja, known abroad as American Ninja (where American Ninja was known as American Warrior).

The 1984-85 span was a trying one for the ninja craze. Sho Kosugi and Cannon Films parted ways and The Master took a critical drubbing on TV (the full run of episodes didn’t even air in a lot of areas).

Then 9 Deaths hit theaters with Kosugi in a role that came dangerously close to sidekick, and clad in cammo spandex no less. The real torture was the one full-on ninja fight in the film was a nice piece of stripped-down swordplay, no weird costumes, no shiny gadget weapons. It let you know exactly what you were missing.


Luckily, Pray for Death was on the horizon.

For more, check out the excellent collection of 9 Deaths imagery over at the always recommended Sho Kosugi: The Ninja.


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Cannon’s 1981 press kit for Enter the Ninja featured newspaper-ready B&W ad mats and a 30-page document heralding, and I quote:

…the first Western film to deal solely with the mysterious and elusive art of Ninjutsu. It will set the trend in Martial Arts films for the 80’s, making them the decade of the Ninja…

Well, they weren’t wrong!

Another detail I found intriguing was this:

In the late Fall of 1980, the concept for “ENTER THE NINJA” was brought to producer/director Manahem Golan. Having never produced a Martial Arts film, Mr. Golan was a bit difficult to convince at first. He assumed that everything had been done before in Martial Arts films, but after he was told about the unique art of Ninjutsu, he immediately began preparations on “ENTER THE NINJA.”

Mike Stone is widely credited throughout the document, and other contemporary press, with originating this film, so that must have been one successful lunch meeting. Considering Eric Van Lustbader’s novel The Ninja had been tearing up bookshelves since April of the same year, and The Octagon had been released about six weeks earlier than the said “late Fall”  green light, Golan’s timing could not have been better. The decision to take ninja from villains and henchmen to centerpiece heroes was a damn good one.

I’ve scanned the entire press kit, read it at this link. The pre-release hype and bios of Kosugi and Stone are well worth the read.

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