Director: Gordon Hessler
Writer: James Booth
Cast: Sho Kosugi, James Booth, Donna Kei Benz, Norman Burton, Kane Kosugi, Shane Kosugi, Michael Constantine
PLOT THICKENERAuthor's Note: Most of the content of this review first appeared in a review on The Gentlemen's Blog to Midnite Cinema. It has been reformatted to fit your screen.
In the 1980s, there was one actor above all others who typified the on-screen ninja as an archetype, superhero, and icon. If you were thinking of anyone other than Sho Kosugi just now, please go lick a 9-volt battery as a reminder of your terrible fucking taste. The man is a cinematic legend and real-life bad-ass who also holds a degree in economics. For those who aren't in the know, this is a social science that studies the production, consumption, and distribution of goods and services. His 1985 film, Pray for Death actually depicts his beloved discipline in visual terms, where Kosugi produces a katana blade, consumes the fear of his enemies, and distributes ass-beatings to fools across the world.
Kosugi’s Akira Saito is a Japanese businessman enjoying a comfortable life in Yokohama with his American-born wife (Benz) and two sons (Kane and Shane Kosugi). However, he’s encountered a corporate glass ceiling that will delay his advancement, and his wife thinks this presents an opportunity to put his entrepreneurial spirit to better use elsewhere. More specifically, by owning and operating a Japanese restaurant in a dilapidated urban neighborhood in Houston, Texas. (Why do 1980s action movies always assume that our Asian friends have some inherent ability to cook restaurant-quality food from their home countries? This is, at worst, a racist stereotype, and at best, a five-star Yelp review.)
Akira is on the fence; he regards American as an uncertain and chaotic place. Though unbeknownst to his loved ones, Akira isn’t just a dedicated family man with an abhorrence for violence. He’s part of an elite and secretive sect of ninjas, and is bound by the order’s code to keep his identity hidden from the outside world. Inexorably linked to his association with the group is a terrible event for which he continues to carry guilt. After an action-packed flashback and a consultation with his ninja master, he makes the decision to leave for America; he and his wife will have a new business venture, and he’ll be able to leave his regretful ninja past behind him.
Not only is the Saitos’ new Houston residence surrounded by graffiti and boozehounds, but its back-room is the exchange spot for crooked cops and criminals peddling in expensive stolen goods. When a gang finds the latest product missing from the hiding spot, Akira’s family is suddenly in their crosshairs. The leading muscle in this group of thugs is the cruel and craggly-faced Limehouse Willy (Booth). Perhaps in an effort to dispel any unfortunate stereotypes the name might suggest -- obese hillbilly wrestler and train-hopping hobo among them -- Willy is a sick and sleazy bastard. His laundry list of despicable acts includes, but is not limited to: lighting someone on fire; anti-Asian racism; punching a kid in the face; impersonating a medical professional; spitting on the corpse of a vanquished enemy; and shooting various jars of pasta and sauce at an Italian eatery. The nerve!
All of this might just be a three-day weekend for Dick Cheney, but it’s more than enough malice to awaken the sleeping ninja beast inside Akira. Despite interference from the local police and firm warnings to Willy and his gang, the violence escalates on all sides. When Akira embraces his ninja past to exact revenge, his full range of superhuman traits are on display: skills in weaponry (shurikens and katana), stealth (sleeper holds and smoke bombs), and dogged persistence (he hangs from the underside of an enemy’s moving truck from day through the night). This stretch of the film also shows him making a sword from scratch, and finally donning the metallic mask to create one of the coolest sartorial choices in ninja cinema.
The action throughout the film is well-shot and Kosugi brings a physical ease to the fight scenes that lends itself to the notion of the ninja as borderline superhuman (it helps that the choreography is rather plain). The physical settings for the different action scenes are varied and well-integrated into the actual choreography, including fights in a forest and even the bed of a moving pick-up truck. There’s also a creepy scene set in a warehouse full of mannequins that does an excellent job of ratcheting up the pre-fight tension. The major flaw throughout the film is that few, if any, of Akira’s adversaries are presented as physical equals; there’s little investment by the audience because they know the outcome of these fights before they happen. Booth’s narrative remedy to this effect is to stack the emotional deck against Akira by laying waste to everything he holds dear. Certainly, vengeance stories require some sort of wrongdoing to work correctly, but Booth’s extreme approach felt heavy-handed and creatively lazy.
At its narrative core, the film is a story of how one’s internal struggle with identity can create unforeseen strife. Akira quite literally escapes from an alter-ego that has fomented guilt and personal turmoil. This is his cross to bear and because of the ninja code, he can’t even reach out to his loved ones for support. In the film’s opening, Akira’s sons are watching a television show which features a ninja protagonist (who they acknowledge) looks just like their boring, buttoned-up father. They tell their mother that “[the character] looks like Dad” and implore Akira to “learn karate some day [because] you might need it.” Not only is the ninja mythologized by the program within the film, but the Saito children project this hero archetype onto Akira, only to have him actually embody it later on. This manifestation of the archetype is exceptionally well-rounded too: ninja as detective, assassin, spy, and agent of stealth. I can’t deny that Pray for Death resembles other cheesy artifacts of 1980s action cinema; it certainly does. But in emphasizing themes of identity, the story has an added dramatic heft typically absent in these films.