Ninja Scroll was one of the last generation of fully hand-drawn anime, and represents one of the very slickest, and most badass of all old school animated films.
Jubei (Dean Elliott – Trigun), an unusually tanned wandering ronin whom favours those pointy straw hats, is roped into the employ of a government spy to help uncover and stop a possible insurrection. Joined by the mysterious Kagero (Wendee Lee – Cowboy Bebop), a poisonous ninja girl from the local clan, the trio must battle the Shogun of the Dark, and their Devils of Kimon – Eight Super Bosses each with their own crazy ability.
From start to finish this film is balls-to-the-wall action. It’s supremely violent, with people being sliced, stabbed, torn-apart, exploded, head-butted, infected, electrocuted, decapitated and disembowelled in equal measure. The very first scene sets the tone, as Jubei easily repels the attack of a group of muggers on a bridge, all the while eating a rice cake. Imagine old school Dirty Harry, only with swords and ninjas and shit.
The plot, while being pretty simplistic, does feature some backstory: Jubei once worked for a local lord, and was betrayed over a vast sum of gold by the leader of his ninja team, Gemma (pronounced with a hard G, not a J. Calling this guy a girl’s name is a one way ticket to oblivion).
In revenge, Jubei decapitates his traitorous captain, and subsequently settles into the life of a wandering ninja for hire. Most likely I imagine this would be doing odd jobs such as scaring cats out of trees with a precisely thrown ninja star, drinking sake alone in the back of a bar, killing bandits – that sort of thing.
Years later there’s still gold to be had, and the former ruling clan, now the Shogun of the Dark, want to depose the current government. They hire the Devils of Kimon to retrieve the gold once claimed by Jubei’s former master. Of course Gemma is the leader of the Devils, though how he survived his beheading is only revealed at the climax.
In order to steal it from a village, they poison their wells and watch as the surrounding areas flee in fear of a possible epidemic. It is here that the small Mochizuki clan becomes involved. The suspicious Chamberlain (Bon Papenbrook – Tenchi Muyo), the ultimate hardass, who likes to conduct business whilst boning concubines, reluctantly commands his own ninja team to go and investigate.
Led by Hanza (Kirk Thornton – Naruto), this group of ninjas is joined by Kagero, the chief food taster of her master. She is beautiful, but cursed; she is immune to poison, but she is herself so venomous, that any man that kisses or sleeps with her will die. Sort of like Poison Ivy, but with more self-worth issues.
Together they set out to see what the hell is going on in the countryside. While nimbly jumping through the trees (just one of the many awesome ninja-moments in this film, see more below), they are jumped by the mighty Tessai (Beau Billingslea – The Blob), the first Devil of Kimon. A stupidly huge man (he seriously must eat like 8000 calories a day) who can turn his skin to stone, Tessai uses a giant double-bladed sword-boomerang-thing that Darth Maul would be envious of. Hanza is literally disarmed, and Kagero is captured.
As the monstrous rockman is about to rape the unconscious Kagero, Jubei happens upon them, and rescues her. He mutters “your body can’t be hard as stone all over, can it?!” clearly insinuating Tessai can’t maintain an erection, only to fling a tiny ninja dart into his eye.
Escaping, the pair are slowly drawn into the conspiracy. Jubei is tricked and poisoned by Dakuan (Rudy Luzion), the government spy recruited to stop the devils. The cure is to fight fire with fire, or poison with poison in this case – Jubei has to sleep with Kagero. However Tessai catches up with Jubei first, and roughs him up real good. Thanks to more sneaky ninja tricks, Jubei manages to kill him with his own weapon, and off he wanders. See below:
As they march closer to the truth, they come across the remaining devils, and each provides a unique opportunity to showcase the amazing animation, and more classic ninja moments. Second up is Benisato, a seductive master of snakes. Her tattoos can literally come alive and attack her foes.
Here Kagero comes into her own, as immune to the snake’s venom, she manages to protect Jubei from certain death. Having failed to kill her targets, Benisato is then executed remotely by Yurimaru – a prim and proper bastard who can generate electrical current in his body. He has a habit of wrapping dental floss around unsuspecting necks and electrocuting them from a great distance. He can also use this to communicate with Gemma.
More Devils come and go, including a man with a bee-hive on his back, a blind samurai whom is an obvious nod to Zatoichi, and a ninja who can literally move in the shadows. Fighting and defeating each Demon brings the pair closer together, and a bond is made. “We’re comrades” Jubei states flatly. Yeah, I’m sure it doesn’t have anything to do with the fact you’ve seen her naked, Jubei.
While I won’t spoil the rest, Ninja Scroll shares a lot in common with the seminal Shogun Assassin films: they’re full of incredible action, introspection and beautiful set pieces. It is violent as hell, but that’s how we like it. The setting and the music may be traditional, but the action is certainly befitting the modern age. It’s so slick and clean and just plain cool, that it could only have been done in animation. No one in reality can pull this shit off. Not even Tony Jaa.
It also has all the standards and tropes of a typical ninja film, without being corny or stupid, and then throws in a whole host of other badass stuff to make it even more spectacular: ninja blades, shuriken, zombies, knives being spat out of people’s mouths, ninja birds(!), people disappearing into shadows, the cool wire-tricks, shape-shifting tattoos, duels in bamboo forests and lots of leaping about as things in the background fall down.
There is so much to this film, and it’s impressive to note it was made in the early 90’s, well before CGI started to find its’ way into everyday anime production (like in Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust or Blood the Last Vampire – hmmm the Japanese sure do love CGI vampires. And blood, evidently). While I’ll admit some of the older anime of this period feature some shocking, one-frame-per-second Master of the Universe level animation, thankfully, Ninja Scroll is not one of them.
Despite being hand-drawn, the clarity in some of the imagery of Ninja Scroll is very high. Even in high definition, the swords (for example) don’t look like they were drawn with the line tool in Paint. Instead they are crisp and clear and look like sharp fucking swords. There’s no excess at all in any of the scenes. As they’ve had to manage their time carefully, every moment is evocative, carefully framed, and perfectly lit.
The story, while by no means complex, is fulfilling, and you do genuinely get drawn into Jubei and Kagero’s dilemma. The end is magnificently set up, and the foot is never taken off the accelerator after Tessai make’s his initial appearance.
The 2014 re-release saw the addition of some removed scenes, namely some shots of shuriken being thrown, and Kagero being raped. I guess some idiot must have been caught throwing them around at the time, and the BBFC must have lost its shit and removed it from the film. Regardless, they’re in it now, and while the extended rape scene doesn’t add much, it’s great to see the film be restored to its’ full glory.
If I was to criticise one thing, is that the dubbed version is a little hammy. The voice acting is great, but some of the dialogue doesn’t translate too well, but this is par for the course with any anime. Even so, I highly recommend it, even to a non-fan of the genre or Japanese animated films.