When I was in Japan in October, I had lunch with American-born actor and action star Kane Kosugi. We got caught up on each other’s lives and doings. He told me that he’s been busy shooting action pictures in Asia beyond the borders of Japan, his home base of recent years. In 2013, he said he had finished “Ninja 2,” also known as “Ninja: Shadow of a Tear.”
I was actually interested in seeing “Ninja 2” just so I could see something recent in which Kosugi had appeared. I’ve been a fan of his big-screen and crossover potential since meeting him more than 10 years ago. The San Gabriel Valley native is still a pretty well-known name in Japan — where he’s lived and worked since 18 — thanks to TV commercials, TV series and movies, and kids show appearances.
For instance, in the 1990s, he competed in Japanese obstacle contest shows “Kinniku Banzuke” and “Sasuke,” which years laer would spawn copycats “Ninja Warrior” and “American Ninja Warrior” on these shores.
The “ninja” connection is appropriate, I suppose, since Kane is the elder son of Sho Kosugi, who back in the 1980s starred in nearly every movie from that period with that word in its title. Younger brother Shane Kosugi and Kane appeared in some of those movies with their dad as young boys. Kane, it turns out, has a movie history that’s just a few years younger than he is.
Now that ninja movie pedigree has come full circle with the Dec. 31, 2013 release on Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and iTunes of “Ninja 2.”
Some readers may remember that in my June 13, 2013 column (“Unleash Your Inner Kechinbo and Cut Your Cable,” http://tinyurl.com/otn45ad), I wrote about alternatives to paying for cable TV and instead opting for just getting broadband and using a streaming service like Netflix or Amazon Prime in conjunction with just getting the free over-the-air digital TV signal by using an antenna like the one made by Mohu.
As a Netflix subscriber, seeing that “Ninja 2” was available was quite a surprise for me, so I made time to watch it.
In “Ninja 2,” Kosugi sports a goatee and wears a black gi (these are generally giveaways of “badness” in movies and TV shows) as Nakabara, the martial arts senpai to Casey, played by lead actor Scott Adkins, an Englishman who also starred in predecessor “Ninja” from 2009. Both pics were directed by Isaac Florentine, with whom I had the pleasure of chatting briefly about the making of this movie.
When I told him I hadn’t yet seen “Ninja,” Florida-based Florentine assured me it wasn’t worth watching. That sort of candor from a director was quite refreshing! Its IMDb (that’s Internet Movie Database, in case you’re unfamiliar) summary reads: “A Westerner named Casey, studying ninjutsu in Japan, is asked by the sensei to return to New York to protect the legendary Yoroi Bitsu, an armored chest that contains the weapons of the last Koga Ninja.”
The summary for “Ninja 2,” meantime, reads: “Ninjutsu master Casey is back and out for revenge when his pregnant wife is murdered.”
I do have to admit that I was predisposed to not like “Ninja 2” for several reasons, mainly because it was the latest in a movie meme that goes back decades, namely the one where a Westerner, usually of the Caucasian male variety, goes to (fill in the blank — Japan, China, Thailand, the inner city, an Indian tribe, etc.), masters the culture and ways of the natives (usually martial arts or religion but it could be dancing, too), and becomes better than everyone else, based on hard work, innate talent and, well, just by virtue of being a white man in a movie written and directed by white men.
Incidentally, it works for white women, too; just revisit “Kill Bill” and Uma Thurman. The black variation also exists, where a black person goes into a traditionally white-dominated area and becomes the best person in that field. See “42” or “Men of Honor.”
Now I should say that I’m not against those movies, because they’re basically “underdog makes good”/”fish out of water” tales. But in the case of “Ninja 2,” I just felt that I’d seen this before, whether it was “Shogun” or “The Challenge.”
“Ninja 2,” however, won me over. Florentine not only shows directing flourish and flair, it turns out he’s also an avid martial artist going back some 40 years. His karate background goes back to when he was a young teenager in Israel. He started in judo but changed to karate (Shito Ryu), which he fell in love with. His directing resume is quite extensive and it’s a shame that he hasn’t been given the nod to make bigger-budgeted movies with a major Hollywood studio.
Florentine’s martial arts savvy comes to the fore in the action scenes. “Ninja 2” makes no pretensions of being anything more than a B-pic martial arts revenge movie that strings together a plot designed to do nothing more than tie together a bunch of over the top fight scenes. Not a problem for me. But it’s those fight scenes that gives it an edge over similar fare. (Not to indict Keanu Reeves’ “47 Ronin” here, since I haven’t yet seen it, but reviews I’ve read complain about bad computer-generated images, among other problems.)
“Ninja 2” is kind of old school in that there’s no unnecessary CGI enhancement or wire work, yet it’s edited and presented in a contemporary fashion. Leads Adkins and Kosugi, with their own martial arts backgrounds, along with all the other players in the movie, combined with Florentine’s direction, make “Ninja 2” worth watching. (Spoiler alert: The movie culminates with a fight scene to the death between the two. You get to guess who loses.)
Adkins is a solid screen presence, although someone should tell him to buy a razor because the four-day beard look makes him look more like Humphrey Bogart in “The African Queen” than a handsome leading man. (OK — I guess I just told him, not that he’s going to care!)
The casting, by Yumi Takada, was another element that helped make “Ninja 2” a solid movie, especially for the parts played by Japanese talent.
Also, I found it ironic that an American (Kosugi) uses a Japanese accent and an Englishman (Adkins) uses an American accent. But that’s our world these days, I suppose. And, for what it’s worth, Japanese culture is treated respectfully, and Adkins doesn’t embarrass himself with his accent when he speaks Nihongo.
Chatting with Florentine, meantime, proved to be quite enjoyable. He was knowledgeable and straightforward in his well-reasoned opinions. When I asked him when he might do something with Kane Kosugi in a starring role, he said, “I would very much like to do something with Kane if possible. I enjoyed working with him. He’s genuine, a gentleman. He’s a hard worker, a very good actor.
“He’s an amazing screen fighter, because you can be a very good martial artist but clueless for the screen. Kane happens to be an excellent martial artist but also an excellent screen fighter.”
When I asked Florentine why, then, Kosugi had yet to make the leap into bigger Hollywood fare, he simply answered: “Hollywood is a very strange place.”
Elaborating on that, Florentine said, “Hollywood is all about perception, Hollywood is noncreative. If somebody does one thing, everybody copies it. All the CGI looks the same.”
Well, I certainly hope that Florentine’s desire to work with Kane again happens. Kane certainly has everything one could ask for as a lead in a movie: looks, skills, desire. Kane and Florentine both need their Jeremy Lin moment to get the notice they need to take their careers into the next stage. “Ninja 2” is a good showcase for that. It’s long overdue.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2014 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.