Welcome to a new feature here on the Mask where I, your humble author, will watch and summarize (and comment on) bad movies. Why put myself through this? Well honestly, it’s funny.
We’re going to start this little experiment with 1985’s ninja flick, Pray for Death. Now first of all, I’m about 99.9% sure I saw this movie as a kid, and I’m also about 99.9% sure I blocked it from my memory because it was so bad.
First, though, let’s talk about the plot. There is one, which is surprising for an 80s American martial arts film, but it’s about as paper thin as the shoji screens used to “ninja” up the sets. Basically the Saito family moves from Japan to the US (San Francisco) and renovate an old restaurant that some thugs have been using to hide stolen goods. One of the thugs, a cop on the take, steals a necklace and the mob guys think that the Saitos had something do with it.
After killing the former owner of the restaurant and nearly running down Mrs Saito and her youngest child, Akira (yes, his name is Akira…this was before the anime and actually that’s not that uncommon of a name in Japan, so we’ll let this slide) returns to his ninja roots and delivers his message: mess with my family again and you will pray for death. Of course, the mob guys don’t listen and the main hit-man cuts himself to get taken to the hospital. He waits til night time, disables a doctor, and goes to Mrs. Saito’s room, where he gets creative (off screen) with a scalpel. Despite being a ninja movie, this film has very, very little blood in it, so all we see is her nose bleeding later on, but the mob guy does have to wash some red splatters from his face and neck before moving on to the kid’s room. There, the two worst cops in history let him in, and only the timely intervention of the police lieutenant saves the little boy.
His wife dead and the mob still out to get him (note that by now they know he had nothing to do with taking the stolen necklace, but he “knows too much”, so he and his family have to die), Akira carries his still mostly catatonic son from the hospital, berating the police lieutenant about America being the “land of the free…to die!” He takes his injured son and his older son to a warehouse, and then goes through a truly awful “ninja” montage to get his mojo back, which includes forging a sword…apparently this warehouse just happened to have a forge, anvil, and a convenient lump of sword grade steel. His oldest son builds some “ninja” gear onto his Huffy Thunder and proceeds to defend the warehouse from goons in a terrible scene which includes firing a slingshot point blank into a dude’s junk.
Finally ready to go, Akira dons his ninja helmet…no, really, he has a ninja helmet…
…and he goes off to kill off the mob. And mostly he succeeds. The big boss and his thugs are no match for the ninja, who flips, slashes and ninja stars his way through the mansion (that he had no way of knowing where was…except, perhaps, through ninja-sense). The hitman who killed his wife drives off and the ninja gives chase, eventually hanging underneath the thug’s pickup for what must have been an hour or so.
In a final climactic fight, the two who are apparently evenly matched even though the thug is, you know, just a guy who breaks kneecaps and doesn’t have any actual apparent training, fight their way through several warehouses, including one full of mannequins, and another which is apparently set up for logging…I don’t really get why there’s a warehouse with a giant saw blade, but the second I saw it, I knew it would play into the ending. Indeed it does. Akira and the thug fight tensely for what seems like a million hours, and finally Akira deploys his secret weapon: not sucking at fighting. He does also take that ridiculous ninja star off his hat to stop the saw blade, but seriously, he wins by basically remembering he knows how to fight and his opponent basically doesn’t. A couple of good hits later and the bad guy is pinned to the log on its way into the huge saw blade. In his last moments he does, indeed, pray for death.
The movie ends with Akira and his sons standing at his wife’s grave. The end.
The ninja in this movie is played by…well…the ninja, Sho Kosugi. He’s most famous for Revenge of the Ninja (which I’ll watch for you soon), and in the 80s he was pretty much the definition of a ninja. His sons in this film, and pretty much any other film where he has kids, are played by his real sons, Kane and Shane. Kane is an actor himself, but the interesting thing is he and his father are no longer on speaking terms, so much so that Sho once said his son was a “coward” for going off to be an actor on Japanese television.
O.k., so lets go over some of the awful parts of this film. First, the bad guys are a mishmash of every 80s bad guy, literally. There are so many, “oh, that guy!” moments that you’ll think you’re watching a Magnum P.I. marathon. Scratch that, a Magnum marathon would be good. Then you have the ninja outfit, complete with shiny armor and…that helmet. Seriously, tell me he wasn’t the inspiration for TMNT’s Shredder. But the worst, the absolute worst, was the kid’s ninja bicycle. It has a smoke screen, slingshot, and nunchuk holder, all of which he uses to kick the ass of about a dozen guys.
I mentioned that this movie has very little blood. Compared to other ninja movies of the 80s, this thing is nearly PG rated. No blood, little to no swearing, and absolutely no nudity. The closest you get is some belly dancers who are wearing more than you’ll see on most modest women at the beach. I’m pretty sure this was one of the movies that began the trend of trying to package ninjas for kids. After all, what’s more wholesome family fun than an ancient sect of assassins?
The movie goes light on the ninja magic angle. While Akira can leap about inhumanly high, for a ninja movie his moves are pretty tame. He uses flash and smoke grenades, but never vanishes. It’s almost a more realistic film because he uses the smoke bombs to distract, not escape. He does fling shuriken with deadly accuracy, including using the one from his hat to stop the saw controls, but generally he takes a pretty bad beating from the bad guys and none of the martial arts looks more advanced than something you could see at your local karate studio. Other than the flips over people, and the throwing weapons, the movie is pretty accurate in the hand to hand department.
There’s so much about this movie that’s just awful, from the acting to the recycled sets, the flashback to Akira being forced to kill his brother who was about to steal from the family ninja shrine, and the old master who warns Akira never to reveal that he is a ninja, but honestly it was mostly par for the course for 80s ninja flicks, which often served as a B-reel at drive-ins. It’s simply amazing to me that just a year later, we got Big Trouble in Little China.