Pray For Death is a kaleidoscopically violent revenge film designed to toughen back up Sho Kosugi’s image after the comparatively lightweight Ninja III and Nine Deaths Of The Ninja, and it remains one of the more controversial ninja films of the 80s. As a kid, I was always attracted to its powerful artwork – Sho Kosugi’s raging eyes, staring from the hood of an insane metal ninja suit, and the promise that he “REDEFINES REVENGE!” – but my usually quite tolerant parents were wary of renting this one for me. I guess it just always looked kinda dangerous. I mean even the title. Pray For Death. Yow! Kosugi, not a man known for restraint, clearly meant business here:
Before I start, I have to point out that it’s still extremely difficult to source an uncut version of Pray For Death. The old UK VHS release was heavily censored and you’d be forgiven for thinking it’d been done by a blind monkey running with scissors. When it came to genre films back then, the BBFC held both content and audience in contempt and were happy to slice their merry way through all kinds of stuff in an obtrusive fashion. This didn’t just alter the tone of a film but also made perfectly good scenes look amateurish and weird. They never bothered to resync the music, so the soundtrack would jump around and you’d get confusing split-second shots of insignificant things then graceless, ill-timed edits as the significant part of the shot was removed. Although they only took a total of four minutes out of Pray For Death, this is spread widely across the runtime and it makes a substantial difference.
In the 80s, there were fan rumours of a strong uncut version of Pray For Death that featured more ultraviolence than was imaginable (exactly how much varied, depending on who was telling the story!) and a mysterious Greek VHS tape was often referenced. It sounded like a myth but I’m pleased to say that the Greek VHS version does actualy exist and, even now, is the only officially released uncut version. I had the misfortune to recently buy an Australian DVD release on a label called “Bonzai” that is just a poor quality rip of the cut UK VHS tape (I should’ve been suspicious when I noticed an image from Rage Of Honor, a completely different Kosugi film, on the cover) but some kind souls on YouTube have uploaded clips from the uncut Greek version so I could at least see how most of the censored scenes were meant to have played out. I realise this is no substitute for being able to watch the complete film as the makers intended but still… it’s more than we had in the 80s!
Anyway, on with the Sho (arf, arf)… Pray For Death opens with the now-typical Bond-esque credits sequence of Kosugi performing some moves against a plain backdrop while we’re teased with a clip from an amazing theme song (more on this later). It’s an enjoyably kitschy sequence, tonally apart from the rest of the film, that leads into Kosugi, as the Black Ninja, duffing up an endless procession of evil ninjas dressed in baby-blue suits and then a Devil-masked boss ninja; a pair of nods to his work in Revenge Of The Ninja. As if that wasn’t meta enough, we zoom out to see Kane and Shane Kosugi watching this sequence on TV and exclaiming, “Wow! The Black Ninja looks just like dad!”.
This kind of fake-out happens a couple of times in the first third of the movie, presumably to keep things moving while we’re introduced to the characters. Sho plays Akira Saito, a Japanese restauranteur with an American-born wife Aiko (Donna Benz) and two little kids Takeshi and Tomoya (Kane and Shane Kosugi). His family have no idea but Akira’s a secret ninja. His ninja dad runs some kind of ancient ninja temple and Akira goes there to ninja-pray, recalling in flashback how his brother once tried to ninja-steal some ninja jewels and Akira had to ninja-kill him (in an awesome fight involving flaming torches). The flashback snaps to the present day where Akira’s dad then fights him (the fight-within-a-fight effect is a little dizzying) to help him shed his guilt over his brother (!).
Just go with it. None of this is relevant to the bulk of the film except to give us foreshadowing and a deep meaningful chat about its themes. Akira tells his dad that he must leave for America because that’s where his wife wants to raise their kids but his dad warns him, “You cannot escape your shadows my son, you will always be a ninja”. Dad does, however, give him a magical metal helmet (so badass it has a throwing star built into it) as a parting gift.
After such lofty mystical beginnings, the film moves into far more conventional Death Wish territory once Akira and family hit Los Angeles. They wind up in a bad part, thick with the palpable atmosphere of entropy so common to 80s action films, and everyone they meet looks like a gang member or a lunatic. They visit Aiko’s parents’ graves and buy a ramshackle house from an old dude who breaks down crying while trying to sell the house because his wife is dead. You’re probably picking up that departed loved ones are a theme here and the feeling of grief actually becomes a little oppressive.
The plot finally starts for real about half an hour in. A priceless stolen necklace (the Van Atta Necklace, named after producer Don Van Atta – ha!) has been stashed in the house and when the criminals return to collect it, it’s missing. They blame Akira and begin a campaign of terror against his family that continues even after they realise he’s got nothing to do with it (“Now he knows too much!”). These are horrible bad guys, led by a mad sadist called Limehouse Willie (veteran British actor James Booth who – inexplicably – also wrote the screenplay). He has no problem mowing down his colleagues with a machine gun, beating an old man to death and setting him on fire, threatening little Shane Kosugi with a blowtorch (“I’ll make you go up like a Roman candle, kid!”), viciously slamming car doors into children’s faces, running people over indiscriminately and, as if that wasn’t enough, Willie ultimately, rapes and murders Aiko in her own hospital bed. Ugh.
This escalation of increasingly disturbing violence takes up the second act of the film and isn’t in the least bit fun to watch. What’s strange is how the level of sadism in the uncut scenes actually detracted from my enjoyment of the film, yet cutting it out clumsily like the BBFC did made it even worse. For example, Aiko’s rape and murder is cut entirely (we just see Willie enter her room, then an awkward jump-cut to him washing his hands later) which meant it was confusing to understand what happened to her. This somehow made her fridging feel even harsher and more flippant, like she’s just discarded with no fanfare at all; she’s not even important enough to worry about.
So after all this focus on why Akira must take revenge, it takes 65 minutes before we finally get what we came for. He takes his dad’s magical helmet off the shelf and, in a genuinely magnificent sequence, forges a sword and prepares for action. The film’s theme song Back To The Shadows, plays throughout this and sounds like Giorgio Moroder doing a Bond theme with Pat Benatar on vocals. It’s credited to a singer named Peggy Abernathy but, try as I might, I can’t find information about her anywhere so feel free to leave some in the comments below if you know! It’s a seriously great song and one of the best montage scenes of the Montage Era, leading to the film’s big pay-off; a sustained 15 minutes of ninja ultraviolence.
The body count in the uncut version of Pray For Death is no fewer than 48 and you feel every one of ’em. While, if I’m honest, the stunts and choreography aren’t quite as flamboyant and well-shot here as they are in Revenge Of The Ninja, you can’t ever not love seeing a master like Sho Kosugi in action. Here, he wears the iconic new armoured ninja suit and duels with a whole host of elaborate custom-made weapons. Kane Kosugi – young ninja in training – gets some fun fight time too, bashing his way through bad dudes with his blowpipe and nun-chaku and looking pretty badass for a little kid. The final fight, in an eerie store room of mannequins (a obfuscating effect similar to the hall of mirrors in Enter The Dragon), is a classic. It includes chainsaw-fu (YES!) and culminates with a suitably unpleasant end for Limehouse Willie although does flinch away – for the first time in the whole film – right at the very end, leaving the viewer slightly unsatisfied, itching for splattery closure…
Hilariously, the very last scene shows Akira and family at Aiko’s grave and the police questioning him on what he knows about ninjas. Akira deadpans that they don’t exist and Takeshi quips “Yeah, you’ve been watching too many ninja movies!” bringing us full circle to that meta opening sequence. We finish on a beautiful skyline image (ninjas and skylines again! My favourite combination!) while Back To The Shadows plays gloriously for a third and final time.
Overall, Pray For Death is quite a well-constructed ride and the Kosugi action, when it happens, is essential viewing for any fan. It’s a shame the more mean-spirited violence in the middle is so problematic. In the uncut version, the grimness feels draining and, in the cut one, its absence takes chunks out of the story and makes things seem clumsy. There’s a fine line of brutality in a ninja film as far as I’m concerned – too soft and it’s boring, too hard and it stops being fun – and this section of Pray For Death falls on the wrong side of it. The idea of a straight-faced brutal thriller for Kosugi was definitely needed to move away from the Flashdance ghost-fu of Ninja III but Pray For Death, while it still carries an admirable air of danger, goes both too far and not far enough. Less torture and more ninjing is needed to capitalise on its epic costumes, music and cast. As it stands, it’s an interesting and unique entry in the cycle but not quite one of its true classics.