How long has it been since I did an anime review? -Checks all posts page on the dashboard- 4 months! That’s how long. Well that’s entirely too long. Guess I should correct that with one of the anime films that helped maintain the popularity of anime during it’s early to mid 90s heyday. Yes I said that was the heyday. A lot of what’s about now stinks. There, I said it. Shame Satoshi Kon died. He was really keeping the quality level high. Annnnyway, today I review Ninja Scroll. You know, that anime where the big rock dude rapes the poisoned girl. Why do so many of the films I cover seem to feature rape? What’s wrong with me? Click the link to find out!!!
Ninja Scroll is a Feudal Japan era set anime about a ninja for hire named Kibagami Jubei (Koichi Yamadera) who finds himself pulled into the murderous shenanigans of a clan of ninjas known as the 8 Devils of Kimon. This happens after he kills one of the 8 Devils, a ninja called Tessai that can turn his skin to rock. Jubei is recruited by a agent called Dakuan (Takeshi Aono) who poisons him in order to force Jubei to defeat the 8 Devils and stop whatever evil they have planned. This requires teaming with a female ninja named Kagero (Emi Shinohara), who Jubei saved from Tessai earlier. She is immune to poisons herself, but will poison anyone that she sleeps with or even kisses as a result of all the various poisons she has ingested as a taste tester for the leader of her ninja clan. She may also be the key to curing Jubei’s poison. Well, she is… no point pretending there’s a mystery. You can see that plot point coming a mile off. So this trio of mismatched mystical ninjas head off to stop the 8 Devils, their leader Gemma (Daisuke Gori), stop their evil plans and find out just what is the deal with this Renwick customeeeerrrr.
That last part isn’t anything to do with the film. It’s a random reference for about 5 people to get. Like and comment if you got it!!!
Ninja Scroll is one of those animes I loved during my teenage years. Like a lot of the anime I’d watch back then it wasn’t afraid to splash a bit of the claret about the screen. The version we had in the UK was an edited one back then, although oddly it wasn’t for the bloody violence. Instead Tessai’s rape of Kagero, which is actually a fairly tame scene compared to pretty much anything in Urotsukidoji was cut almost completely and a few shots of throwing stars hitting trees was also removed. Yup, that’s the BBFC of the 90s for ya. Same guys cut Mikey’s nunchuck swinging out of the Ninja Turtles movie too. A few years back an uncut version was finally released in the UK but looking back it is rather odd that anything would have been cut from the film. Ninja Scroll is nowhere near as graphic as many other animes that were doing the rounds back then. Even Akira had a few gorier moments. Hell, Barefoot Gen is a PG here and that has one of the most horrific opening scenes in anime, or even film, history. The version of Ninja Scroll I watched for this review was the newly restored Blu-Ray print which hasn’t long been released in the UK and should be out in the US about now. The restoration is very solid with the film’s distinct style looking better than it ever has. Colours pop when needed, shadows look suitably dark and the smaller details in the animations appear better than ever before. Well worth buying if you’re a fan for the image quality alone.
An element of the film that has really stood up to the test of time is the film’s story. The villains are all have their own nuance and tone which allows them to not fall into the trap of merely being a series of faceless figures for Jubei to kill. To add to that Ninja Scroll even manages to pull off a pretty decent love story sub plot which manages to not only make some amount of sense but even manages to resonate at the right moments of the film’s story towards the final act. This is quite rare for a lot of anime as many usually rely on a goofy/horny lad somehow convinces the shy girl to love him trope. Instead we have Jubei not wanting to be part of Kagero’s debt she believes she owes him out of honour whilst he also gradually comes to care enough to come to her rescue when she gets in beyond her depth. At the same time she is a strong and independent enough woman to not feel like her sole purpose is to be a target of the enemies. She’s actually responsible for saving Jubei’s neck on a number of occasions.
Jubei and Kagero are also written to be quite well rounded figures. Not the usual one dimensional avatars of chaotic and heroic good that many anime hero’s fall into. The pair are both strong willed but while Kagero is outwardly very bound by honour Jubei keeps his feelings of duty and honour tucked away usually giving off a persona of being rather uncaring. Not much is known of his past beyond the events that link him to the leader of the 8 Devils but it’s enough to understand why he might shirk being outwardly courageous. Conversely Kagero uses her bravery and honour as a shield to her fragile state of mind as a woman who is all too aware that she cannot fall in love. Basically the two characters share traits that are compatible with each other but they have reasons for not revealing their true selves. It’s not Shakespeare, sure, but it’s more than enough to make sure that their interactions work and are conducive of a believable romance sub plot.
The 8 Devils Jubei must dispose of all have their own sets of tricks, almost giving them the feel of being a series of trials Jubei must overcome. The fight sequences are short and to the point, not wasting a second, giving them a true samurai/ninja movie feel. Instead of long series of clashing swords you get a few moves with each character making their moves until before too long one outsmarts the other. It means the action serves the plot and not the other way around as could have easily been the case. It also means that the one drawn out fight sequence in the film between Jubei and 8 Devils leader Gemma gains a more epic and emotional feel to it. The fight is more personal than any of the others. Jubei is the more skilled fighter but Gemma’s special ninja skill is that of resurrection. Naturally this leads to things getting fairly brutal as Jubei desperately tries to find a way to keep Gemma down. The whole sequence is set inside a burning ship full of stolen gold that begins melting. On the blu-ray edition this is where the restoration possibly shines the best.
The art and animation of Ninja Scroll is, at first glance, fairly normal stuff. Upon closer inspection you’ll begin to see some very unique traits. At least for the time they were. Many actions happen over a single frame to emphasize the speed at which the characters fight. This isn’t Dragon Ball Z style fists flying speed. More like the speed at which a snake attacks, which is allegedly how director Yoshiaki Kawajiri got the idea from. He saw a snake attack a camera that was filming it so fast that it moved from neutral to hitting the camera within a single frame. Another unique touch is the way that the ninja characters are often hiding elements of the image. For example, when Kagero first appears she is wearing a hood, she removes the hood revealing a hairstyle that couldn’t have existed underneath. This isn’t an animation error. This is on purpose. In another scene a character is suddenly shocked to death, at which point we then see that she has a wire around her neck left there by another character in an earlier scene without her knowing. Ninjas use deception to fool their adversaries and that is worked into the animation at multiple points. It’s a nice touch that shows a little more thought went into Ninja Scroll’s style than you’d usually get in a lot of 90s anime.
Ninja Scroll is a fine example of what good 90s anime can be, unlike the Urotsukidoji films that I have previously reviewed. It manages to tell a decent story and delivers some memorable action sequences without either element betraying the other. Kawajiri clearly understood how to balance a story as he hit his stride as a director. If you’re only used to the modern anime depictions of the mystical brand of ninjas and samurai as seen in say Naruto or Bleach then you should give Ninja Scroll a try. And make sure it’s the film you see, not the series. The series was a little weak. Rumour is Kawajiri is working on a true sequel to Ninja Scroll. Hopefully this is true as he’s been on a bit of a sabbatical from directing in recent years. If you haven’t seen Ninjas Scroll for a few years then the blu-ray is certainly worth picking up if you can forgive its slightly weak selection of extra features.