DIRECTED BY: Yoshiaki Kawajiri
FEATURING: Voice actors
PLOT: Masterless samurai Jubei joins with an ancient spy and a cursed female
ninja to thwart a plot by an old enemy to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate with the assistance of the eight Devils of Kimon.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not truly weird, though the Devils of Kimon are novel and bizarre to Western eyes. Ninja Scroll is, rather, a well-made fantasy adventure set in a magical feudal Japan, with gratuitous sex and violence that make it inappropriate for the age group most likely to be entranced by it.
COMMENTS: There’s no scroll, and the main character, Jubei, is a ronin (former samurai now for hire as a mercenary) rather than a ninja; but, accuracy of title aside, Ninja Scroll is an average fantasy adventure with some shocking scenes and startling artwork. Jubei is an archetypal wandering folk hero, helping out the less fortunate out of a sense of duty to mankind rather than avarice. His eventual companions are a more interesting lot: a withered, gnomelike spy from the court of Tokugawa who’s willing to go to any lengths to trap others into working for him, and a virginal ninja woman under a sexual curse who’s even more of a loner than the ronin. The story, often the red-headed stepchild of anime, is a strong point here. The intrigues between the various feudal factions and the character’s backstories are richly detailed, yet free of plot holes and surprisingly easy to follow (although Jubei’s code of honor can be difficult to penetrate at times). Even if you don’t catch all the intricacies of the plot on a single viewing, the basic strands—a quest for vengeance on a wicked old enemy, a succession of monstrous antagonists to defeat, reluctant companions with crossed agendas, dilemmas of honor and loyalty—create a familiar heroic context for the tale that makes it easy to pick up the gist of things. The animation style is naturalistic rather than stylized (that is to say, the characters don’t have huge round eyes and bizarre hair hues). As is frequently the case in amime, which tends to be cheaply produced, the animation is not fluid— most of the time, it’s almost a series of stills, with characters standing stock-still, moving only their lips. But the frame rate picks up dramatically for fight sequences, and excellent editing creates a sense of movement that makes the fight scenes thrilling. There are points where the animation overcomes its budgetary limits and becomes magical, as when Kagero stands in the eye of a swirling cyclone of bees and rose petals. The Devils, partly drawn from Japanese mythology, are as grotesque a gallery of rogues as you could hope to find outside of the Mos Eisley cantina, and a good deal nastier. There’s a giant with stone skin and a taste for rape, a snake-woman who stashes a spare serpent in an unusual hiding place, a dwarf who births wasps from the hump hive on his back, and one Devil is even a homosexual with the hots for the archvillian. The frequent sexual content is sometimes erotic—the nude tattooed snake woman—but mostly gratuitous, as when one clan master delivers his directives while delighting himself inside a village geisha. The violence is also extreme; monster rape, daggers in eyeballs, showers of blood, limbs torn off, and a man whose head is repeatedly bashed into a bloody pulp. The strong (falling just short of ‘extreme’) content adds some cachet to the fantasy film for a certain age group (evidence that this ninjas vs. monster tale isn’t just “kid’s stuff”), but it serves little other purpose. The truth is that the younger, and more male, you are, the more likely you are to groove to Ninja Scroll’s beat. It starts out as a five-star spectacle of awesomeness in your teens and early twenties, but you can expect to subtract a full star for every decade of life that passes until it flattens out and reveals itself as nothing more special than a darn good adventure yarn. And the world could certainly use a few more of those.
Animator/director Yoshiaki Kawajiri was also responsible for the anime standout Wicked City (1987) among others. The British censors understandably cut some of the rape scene for the original UK DVD release, but unexpectedly also removed two scenes with shurikens (throwing stars), apparently believing they constituted “imitable weaponry.” The cuts were restored for the 2004 release and the movie is now uncensored.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“For those more accustomed to Anime or Japanese cinema in general you really won’t find anything new or ground breaking here… Yet it remains a solid entry essentially on all counts.”–Nakadai, Infin-tropolis