The History of The NINJA Films, From Cannon Film Guide Author Austin Trunick
We're thrilled to bring the Cannon Films insanity of NINJA III: THE DOMINATION back to the big screen on Monday, May 23rd in 35mm (tickets are still available here.) To celebrate the festivities, we asked Cannon Film Guide author Austin Trunick if he could help us give our readers a historical overview of Cannon's NINJA trilogy. Austin's second volume of The Cannon Film Guide has just been released, and if you like what you read today, you should definitely pick up a copy right here.
Guest Post by Austin Trunick: Ninja III: The Domination - Sho Kosugi's Cannon Swan Song
Let’s stop for a moment to appreciate the infinite badassery of cinema’s Ninja of Ninjas, Mr. Sho Kosugi, who starred in Cannon’s original ninja “trilogy” between 1981 and 1983, and is arguably the actor who brought on the ninja’s explosion in popularity in ‘80s pop culture.
Born just outside of Tokyo in 1948, Kosugi began studying martial arts at the tender age of five. As a young child he befriended an elderly hermit who lived near his town. Defying his parents’ advice, Kosugi visited the old man several times a week, where he would be taught the techniques of Ninjutsu—the martial art practiced by ninjas. After years of teaching, Kosugi found his mysterious master had strangely vanished without warning. Nevertheless, the student continued his studies of more mainstream martial arts, attaining black belts in three different styles by the time he was eighteen and becoming an All-Japan karate champion.
Entering adulthood, Kosugi decided he’d attend college in the United States. On his first day in Los Angeles he was the target of an attempted mugging—two of his assailants fled after Kosugi left the third bleeding on the sidewalk with a single kick. (Generously, Kosugi waited with the man until an ambulance arrived.) Stateside, Kosugi continued his martial arts studies while working as a karate instructor, and eventually opened his own dojo. Thanks to his being local to the Los Angeles area, Kosugi was recruited regularly throughout the 1970s for small roles in movies when casting directors needed someone to perform martial arts moves, but not necessarily speak. By 1980 Kosugi had befriended fellow karate star Mike Stone, who had just sold a script entitled “Dance of Death” to a newly-restructured studio known as The Cannon Group. Stone tapped his friend to appear in the movie—now re-titled Enter the Ninja—as the movie’s villainous ninja and the rest, as they say, is history.
Kosugi would not only co-star in Enter the Ninja (1981), but double for many of the masked bad guys and act as the film’s uncredited ninja consultant thanks to his lifelong dedication to Ninjutsu. Although the movie’s producer-director had little interest in portraying realistic ninjas on the screen, Kosugi brought to the film a degree of authenticity that had yet to be seen on screen in the West. Quite a few of the film’s weapons were either designed by Kosugi, or came from his personal collection.
With Enter the Ninja’s widespread popularity, Kosugi became the face of the Hollywood ninja. As their popularity boomed, comic book and VHS cover artists would base their characters’ poses on Kosugi’s press photos. The stars of knock-off films, having never practiced this obscure martial art, would copy techniques from Kosugi’s filmography. As for the martial artist-turned-actor himself, he suddenly found his services in high demand.
Cannon were wise to snap up Kosugi for two unrelated sequels: Revenge of the Ninja (1983), and Ninja III: The Domination (1984). (The only significant link between the three films, aside from Kosugi’s presence, is the oft-repeated rule: “Only a ninja can kill a ninja.”) The latter film, with its truly insane blend of martial arts, horror, wild stunt work and even wilder ‘80s fashion, has earned the most prominent place in the cult movie canon.
Ninjas. Aerobics. An exorcism. A V8 juice bath. A demonically-possessed arcade cabinet. Sho Kosugi wearing an eyepatch made out of the handguard of a katana. Death by head-stab. Death by exploding handgun. A hot-tub-triple-homicide. Dancercise! And to open the movie: an epic, ten minute martial arts massacre set, for no discernable reason, on a picturesque golf course. All of these elements and more come together to make Ninja III: The Domination one of the craziest films Cannon ever made, which says a lot considering this is the same studio that gave us The Apple, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, and Lifeforce. (Plus America 3000, and Bolero, and Tough Guys Don’t Dance, and Treasure of the Four Crowns, and Hercules II: The Adventures of Hercules, and . . . I could go on and on.)
I won’t spoil the plot of Ninja III for anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of experiencing its lunacy for themselves. The movie centers on a young woman, Christie, who unwittingly becomes possessed by an evil demon ninja. By day, she works as both a telephone line repairman and an aerobics instructor. At night, though, she goes into a trance, pulls on a shozoku, and sneaks out to murder the cops who gunned down the nefarious shinobi that’s taken over her body. Among those trying to help her through her awkward demonic possession issues are Christie’s cop boyfriend, an exorcist played by James Hong, and a one-eyed ninja played by Sho Kosugi, who has his own beef to settle with the demon ninja inhabiting Christie.
While Ninja III: The Domination doesn’t quite match the nonstop ninja action of Revenge of the Ninja, but certainly deserves the cult audience it has earned over the years. If it somehow wasn’t clear from the preceding paragraphs, Ninja III is super weird. It’s a combination of martial arts and Exorcist-inspired supernatural antics that somehow works, against all odds. It’s also very much a product of the 1980s, from the fashion, to the ninjas, to the gratuitous aerobics, to the knock-off Patrick Nagel painting so prominently displayed in the heroine’s apartment. (Our female ninja is played by Lucinda Dickey, star of Cannon’s equally of-their-time Breakin’ movies.)
It may seem strange that Kosugi—the movie’s top-billed actor, the premier movie ninja of the era, and the clear-cut star of Cannon’s first ninja franchise—doesn’t appear until more than half an hour into the film. The film’s premise—the idea that it would portray a female ninja—was handed down from Cannon head Menahem Golan, and was reportedly a major sticking point for Kosugi, who hated the idea and thought it wasn’t believable. The idea that the girl would be possessed by a ninja (and thus, not an actual ninja herself) was reputedly worked into the script so that Kosugi could buy into the premise.
At the time Ninja III was in production, Kosugi was also filming the short-lived TV series The Master (1984) with Lee Van Cleef and Timothy Van Patten, which is another reason for his limited screen time in this film. It was followed by a dispute over Kosugi’s contract, which put the final nail in the coffin for the Cannon-Kosugi collaborations. The star bid the studio farewell, going on to star in a handful of ninja-related films for other companies. Highlights from his post-Cannon credits include 9 Deaths of the Ninja (1985) from New Year’s Evil director Emmett Alston; the immensely awesome Pray for Death (1985), and Black Eagle (1988), in which Sho Kosugi would star as an American hero pitted against a villainous KGB agent played by a young Jean-Claude Van Damme. By the end of the 1980s, the ninja action subgenre was gravitating towards kiddie fare featuring school-aged ninjas or gymnasts in rubber suits. Meanwhile, adult martial arts fans had moved on to new stars, like the aforementioned Van Damme and Steven Seagal. With the changing of the guard, Kosugi’s time in the spotlight was over. Join us on Monday, May 23rd for NINJA III: THE DOMINATION in 35mm!
*The above includes excerpts taken from The Cannon Film Guide: Vol. I (1980-1984). Its 1,000-page sequel, The Cannon Film Guide: Vol. II (1985-1987), was released in May 2022. Austin can be followed at @CannonFilmGuide or facebook.com/CannonFilmGuide.