[90s Action Movie Month] Ninja Scroll [1993] Review by Bea Harper

90sActionMovieMonth

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Dir.: Yoshiaki Kawajiri

Ohhhhh, how long I have waited to do this review!!!

I guess it goes without saying that I too am a fan of anime but I must also admit I am not an indiscriminate viewer of animated films from our friends in the East, not through some set of self-important standards, but simply due to the fact I don’t have as much access to resources as some of you do. However, Crunchyroll is steadily changing that. Glory be Crunchyroll.

To the best of my memory, Ninja Scroll was not the first full-length, adult-orientated anime film I saw (I cut my jaws on Akira as quite a lot of you probably did), but it was certainly the first one that gob-smacked me by how wildly violent and imaginative it was. I don’t think I had seen anything like it at that point of my life, and this was before I played Metal Gear Solid which I feel this film owes a lot of its distinctive features to- a shady set of villains with a series of unique, almost absurd powers, the badass hero who takes them on and the awesomely typical ‘take over the world’ plot. Oh, and mammaries.

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This ain’t a peep-show, folks. Nice try.

In the case of Ninja Scroll however, Snake is replaced by the mysterious ronin Jubei Kimagami. We know next to nothing about him save for the fact he has mad skillz and a daring sense of humor which easily makes him the main character anchor of this film. Despite being ruthless in combat, Jubei is incredibly easy-going and is willing to help the less fortunate, just as the ronin of myth were said to be.

The main plot of Ninja Scroll truly kicks off when a lone female villager blindly wanders into a neighboring village bearing frightening news that a mysterious plague has decimated her community.
The local government, fearing an epidemic, quarantines the village until an investigation can be completed. Mixed reports conflict with the official story of a plague, saying that men on horses were seen riding from the village the night before. The chamberlain sends a team of shinobi to the village to get to the bottom of what happened there. Along with them, the beautiful ninja warrior Kagero joins them, against the wishes of the team’s leader. Why? Not because she’s a woman, but she is the official food taster with a mysterious immunity to all toxins. Her greatest power is also her greatest curse because she is unable to enjoy the pleasures of intimacy because to do so would be to kill the one she loves.
The collective is ambushed and hideously annihilated by an unseen presence in the woods while on their way to the village, leaving Kagero as the only survivor and held captive by her attacker, a monstrous rock of a man. She is later rescued by Jubei, who takes down Kagero’s captor, who as it turns out is one of the Eight Devils of Kimon, a group of demonically-powered beings thought to be the cause of the mysterious epidemic sweeping the country. As it would turn out, Jubei and Kagero become unlikely allies, along with a wandering monk known as Dakuwan, and they each realize they’ve been swept up in a sinister covert plot to overthrow the Japanese government with a ghost of Jubei’s own past intertwined.

Ninja Scroll is a non-stop roller-coaster that barely gives the viewer any time to breathe. Packed with the brim with plots of sex, power, violence and purity and thanks to the breakneck directorial talents of Kawajiri (who is a reliable figure in anime thanks to his work in Demon City Shinjuku) and his team of talented animators, they establish this fictional alternative reality of 17th century Feudal Japan with grace. Although there is several instances of digital aid in shots and scenes of action, a lot of this film was hand-drawn with love and attention to artistic detail. Incredibly stylized and hyper-real it may be, there is nothing to suggest anybody who worked on this movie was short of imagination and technique. The utilization of colour, character design and movement are complimented by some truly gorgeous backgrounds, some of the most dazzling being abandoned settlements, a burning ship and a bamboo jungle where Jubei fights a blind swordsman who is another of the Eight Devils. That particular sequence could easily be placed on a Best Of show reel to display some of the best works of anime to ever grace the screen. Action-packed, gorgeous and so beautifully conceived.

ninja scroll

For animation made way back in 1993, it still holds up incredibly well. The same can be said for the scenes of downright carnage and how it relates to the personalities who create it. Jubei is an every-man type warrior who is still perfectly efficient in his style. He moves like the wind and cuts like a knife through butter. Every Devil of Kimon he encounters has their own method and means of attack, some ranging from forceful and bloody, perverse and sexual (a female Devil who can summon snakes from her vay-jay-jay; the MRA would go bonkers over this!) to others who take a more graceful approach, one such being an effeminate Devil who is able to conduct electricity through his body via a gossamer garotte. Trust me, you won’t have any problems remembering these villains because they are all incredibly distinct and delightfully twisted.

In addition to the visual splendor and simplicity of the story overall, the soundtrack and sound mix is amazing. The impressive work of composer Kaoru Wada and his team of engineers comes to the forefront in an unobtrusive yet essential way in order to further the impact of a sequence and the stakes of the characters involved. The unmistakable Ninja Scroll theme makes no secrets about the type of story this is and the final battle track is driving, powerful, urgent and fatal, the music you hear isn’t put in to pander, it is there to emphasize what is there and add a whole other dimension to the product.

I won’t say much on the voice acting in any version because they all have their ups and downs. I am not one of those people who condemn folks for choosing not to watching a dubbed anime, God knows I do it myself. To say somebody is not a ‘true anime fan’ is not only insulting but also incredibly pretentious. If you know somebody who does this, tell them to take a pair of sai and cut it the heck out. If you do it yourself, I’d say you should really watch your tongue- you kind of look like a jerk. So long as the characters on-screen are given their due, what does it matter, right? If the actors understand the nature of the characters they are helping to give life to, I don’t care if it’s in English, Japanese, Spanish or Atlantean. A good performance is a good performance and everybody has their preferences.

My only personal gripe I have with this movie is that some of the other Devils didn’t get nearly as much chance to shine as others, one of my personal favourites being the Devil who had influence over the shadows and had a nasty bladed claw to get up close and personal with his victims. I know, I know, I sound like a disgruntled fangirl, but it still would have been nice to see a little more of what these creatures could really do in combat.

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Just like Jubei loves his rice cakes.

It goes without saying this movie is not, I repeat, is NOT for everybody, because it does have some incredibly graphic violence with several distressing instances of Kagero being sexually assaulted by demonic shinobi (in other words, definitely not for incredibly sensitive tastes), but Ninja Scroll makes absolutely no pretense about what it is and what it is trying to achieve. It has no intention of handling it’s audience with kid-gloves because it wants to establish it’s own mythology, it’s own rules. It has garnered a following of countless folks over the years and rightly so. It pushed boundaries, broadened minds, revolutionised the Western view of Eastern cinema and helped anime as a genre become the legitimate work of art it always was, and to me, that is what makes a CLASSIC.

NS7 fireflies

StarRating-04

BT Dubs: The television series doesn’t not even quarter live up to the film, please don’t bother unless you’re genuinely curious.

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