Monday, 12 July 2010

Elwood's Essentials #2: Ninja Scroll

Back when I first started getting into Anime, it was a completely different scene than it is today, were both Anime and Manga are readily pretty much everywhere, as the popularity has in recent years has literally exploded, which in turn has only helped to increase the variety and quality of anime available. This wasn’t always the case, as the anime which was available, when I first started getting interested mainly consisted of extreme horror with titles like Gô Nagai’s “Devilman” (1990) and the infamous Hentai “Legend of the Overfiend” (1989), which unbeknown to most viewers had originally been made for Japanese Sex cinemas, mainly thanks to censorship laws which meant that you could show more with a tentacle than a penis. Still there were occasional exceptions to this orgy of school girls, demons and tentacles, as occasionally something more arty like the legendary “Akira” (1988) or "Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise" (1987) would slip though and blow my mind, with the ideas being explored and how animation could be used for something, a lot less saturnine sweet than what Disney was churning out. Then of course there were those films which fell between these two worlds of anime that had been created, by the titles released here in the UK and “Ninja Scroll” was well and truly one of those kinds of anime.

The plot of "Ninja Scroll" follows Jubei, a Ninja for hire and general badass who travels through the Feudal Japanese landscape, following his own code of honour and working for those who can afford his services. Meanwhile a strange plague grips the land, leading to a team of Ninja’s being dispatched to investigate, only to quickly get slaughtered by an evil team of ninjas “The Devils of Kimon”, the sole remaining survivor of the ninja team, being female ninja Kagero whose body is poison to anyone she comes into contact with, is luckily rescued by Jubei who in turn soon finds himself hired by the spy Dakuan, forcing him to investigate how the Devils of Kimon are linked to the mysterious plague and despite initially refusing Dakuan’s request, soon has little choice but to take the job, after Dakuan infects Jubei with a slow working poison. Faced with little choice, he teams up with Kagero to investigate, as he takes on the mission, which will force him to confront an old foe from his past the evil and recently resurrected Gemma.

“Ninja Scroll” is a real old school anime especially with its visual styling and frequent disregard for any sign of restraint, which is more frequently shown by more modern anime which have in recent years have largely moved further away from the grime of the old school, which almost prided itself on the high levels of animated sex and violence it was bringing to western audiences, who having grown up believing that cartoons were mainly for kids, outside of a couple of notable exceptions such as “Fritz the Cat” (1972), had truly never seen anything like it and which would lead to predictable upset from the press, all issuing thier call to “ban this sick filth” as they lumped all anime under the same banner, while typically not bothering to actually research the genre.

This film was one of two sole anime that director Yoshiaki Kawajiri created with the other being the equally classic “Wicked City” (1987), before disappearing from the anime scene, only to return to the anime scene, to work on “The Animatrix” for which he directed the short “Program” which continued his interest in feudal Japan by being set in a battle simulation set during this period.
Kawajiri ensure that it hits the ground running with Jubei being ambushed by his disgruntled former collegues and keeps up a blistering pace throughout, in a true tribute to the pop samurai movies such as the “Babycart in Peril” series, as limbs are hacked off and the screen fills frequently with hosepipe arterial sprays of blood, as realism is set aside for sheer spectacle, which despite what it might seem isn’t just about gratuitous violence, with each sword fight and battle only serving to push the plot further forward, as Jubei battles his way through each of the Devils of Kimon, who all process their own talent, often involving some supernatural talent from the stone golem Tessai and the explosives expert Sakuro, in the lead up to the final confrontation with the evil Gemma.

The character design is so fantastic, that it’s hard to find any single character who isn’t interesting to watch or essential to the plot, let alone pick a particular favourite character, with the Devils of Kimon being especially true of this, seeing how every time Jubei is faced into a conflict with one of them, it is always exciting to see exactly what special ability that particular devil will be bringing to the fight, with these confrontations making up a large part of the appeal of the film, especially as no two fights are the same from the graceful samurai sword fight in the bamboo forest against the blind swordsman Utsutsu, to the blood and snot final confrontation between Jubei and Gemma aboard the ablaze ship of the shogun of the dark, which is less about subtly and more about pure vengeance and despite the fact that this Anime was made back in 1993, these fights are still just as exciting and fresh as they were, back when the film was first released, even compared to more modern anime and the more modern animating styles, it still can hold it’s own as still containing some of the most exciting fight scenes seen in anime, even when it’s clearly pushing the boundaries of plausibility seen when Jubei single handily carves up an entire ninja army and an explosion of arterial sprays and amputations, which Kawajiri chooses to show in such rapid cuts is almost impossible to keep up with, as your bombarded with an unrelenting slew of violence.

Since its release it’s been quite surprising that more ninja anime didn’t follow in its wake, with the only noticeable release being “Ninja Resurrection” (1998) which despite being marketed as a sequel, was in fact unrelated and only based on the same source material. Sadly due to production costs it remained uncompleted with only two of the intended four episodes getting made leaving it something of a curiosity as to if it could have been a more noteworthy title had it been completed, especially with it’s slant more towards actual demons and increased sex and violence, garnered it a cult following over time. However lately there would appear to be an increase in the popularity of Ninja anime, even if its leaning more towards contemporary styling than anything resembling historical accuracy, with the hip hop infused Samurai Champloo (2004) and Afro Samurai (2007), as well as “Samurai 7” (2004) the steam punk reimagining of Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” (1954) all of which despite being noteworthy, never have quite lived up to this films legacy, which even includes the series it spawned in 2003, while the promise of Ninja Scroll 2 continues to become all the more exciting, with Kawajiri from current reports still attempting to find a suitable script to turn into the sequel, but until then I guess I will have to just contend myself with the original, which after all these years is still carving a blood soaked path into the conscious of a whole new generation of anime fans.


  1. Ninja Scroll is one of my favourites and I count it among the few films anyone getting into anime must see. Not only is it wonderfully bloody and violent, its possesses a level of sophistication rarely seen in contemporary genre film.

  2. Great write up. I'm planning on revisiting this one myself. You've made me look forward to it.

    Man the good ole days, when they used to charge 25 Clinton era dollars for a dubbed VHS...

    You know what on second thought fuck the good ole days.

  3. This film makes me want to watch the "Lone Wolf & Cub" movies again, as the marks of that movie are all over this film, especially when it comes to how the violence is stylised, but you gotta love those arterial sprays!

    I remember when Manga entertainment used to release series like comic books, with series like "Dominion Tank Police" and "The Guyver" especially being like this, which was a pain in the ass storing all those VHS tapes.


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