Though I've now seen a decent amount, and even have a few favourite directors within the form, anime is still a style of filmmaking that I feel a bit under-educated in. Ninja Scroll is one of the anime films I remember seeing around in shops (but not actually seeing) when I was growing up, along with other now well established classics of the form like Akira and Ghost in the Shell. Like other Asian films released here at that time, Ninja Scroll exerted something of a fascination for me that was less to do with the film itself than the dynamic and lurid cover art.
The film itself tells a story that is both simple and convoluted. Essentially, an itinerant ninja named Kibagami Jubei (voice of Koichi Yamadera) finds himself swept up in a battle against eight demonic ninjas after he interrupts one of their number while he is raping a female ninja named Kagero (Emi Shinohara). Ultimately, bribed by the mysterious Dakuan (Takeshi Aono), Jubei and Kagero team up to take on the leader of the eight demonic ninjas; Jubei's old enemy Gemma (Daisuke Gori).
The story is ultimately tangential to the main point of the film, which is really - certainly from a Western perspective where most audiences, myself included, won't know much about the series of ninja novels or the Japanese folk hero to which the film is apparently paying tribute - the frequently spectacular animated violence. The action sequences come thick and fast, and probably account for about half of the film's pacy 94 minutes. There's a decent variety of action too, with the different powers of each of the eight demons presenting different challenges to Jubei and Kagero, and a few leaning harder on horror than action.
Perhaps the best sustained sequence in the film is the one involving the fight against the first demon; the rock skinned Tessai, who slaughters Kagero's fellow ninjas in an extravagantly bloody and brilliantly dynamic action scene, before attempting to rape Kagero in a moment that is skin-crawlingly unpleasant. Few of the other monsters get as much screen time as Tessai, and so their deaths don't feel quite as impactful, but again, that's not really the point.
The animation style is interesting. The character design is less cartoony than some anime, giving the film a slightly grittier feel that matches its sometimes brutal violence, but beyond that there's a slightly odd stylistic mix. Much of the animation is slick and fluid, the action punchy and violent, but there are also times when the action moves in layers, like viewmaster pictures sliding over each other. It's a different kind of motion, and it certainly gives a sense of pace to some of the scenes it's used in, but sometimes it feels like a shortcut to me; a way to finish sequences without quite fully animating them, it does give the film a distinctive, but I'm not the biggest fan of the technique.
All of the best elements of the film are visual; the use of colour - blue in the rape scene, red in a key fight scene - is distinctive and lends an individual visual identity to the film and the action sequences are relentlessly entertaining, but sometimes what surrounds them is less impressive, even on occasion coming close to being offensive. The way the film depicts Kagero is almost schizophrenic; she's clearly a strong woman, but in one scene she's raped and there's a deeply uncomfortable moment in which she offers herself to Jubei. It's not the proudly hateful stuff of some hentai, but it does undermine the character by making her than little more a sexual object in a couple of her most important scenes. It doesn't entirely undermine the film though, because much of the rest of the time Kaegro is the strongest and most interesting character in the film; more complex than the rather inscrutable Jubei, and she is allowed to be seen as an asset as a fighter.
The script clunks whether you're listening to the dub or reading the subtitles, but the film moves at a fast pace, and never slows down long enough to be boring. It might be nice to have developed Jubei and Kaegro's relationship a little more fully, as it would give the final sequences more than just visceral punch, but this film is what it is, and as a series of stylised animated punch ups, some suspect sexual politics aside, it does the blood soaked job more than acceptably. I'm not sure, 20 years on, it's quite the classic that some of its near contemporaries stand as, but it's good fun.
The Picture and Sound
The HD picture (presented uncut in 4:3, which is the correct ratio) is probably as good as Ninja Scroll has ever looked, and likely as good as it will ever look. The detail is good, and the colours seem true to how it was intended to look, but it doesn't quite have that incredible 'pop' that much animation (and especially anime) usually has on Blu Ray - among anime of a similar vintage I thought Whisper of the Heart looked better in HD - but this may also be partly down to the film's overwhelming visual darkness, which is well represented with solid black levels.
There are two soundtrack choices here; a Japanese track and the English dub. Animation is the only form I'd ever consider watching a dub for, because the voices are somewhat removed from the characters by the technique anyway, but the Japanese track was my first choice because it's the original. The subtitles are functional, easy to read, not too intrusive, and pretty close to the English dub dialogue. All in all it probably doesn't much matter which soundtrack you choose, both sound good, the performances are at about the same pitch in both, and the subtitles don't improve the dialogue at all.
The steelbook edition, which contains both Blu Ray and DVD copies of the film, also comes with a 20 page booklet, unfortunately this was not supplied for review.
On disc extras are slim but satisfying. The original trailer and TV spot are present (in slightly faded SD, which makes the transfer of the film look more impressive), and there is a commentary with director Yoshiaki Kawajiri, character designer Yutaka Minowa and moderator Hiroyuki Ohnuma. It would have been a real bonus if the subtitles had, at least to begin with, identified who was speaking at any given time, because the speakers don't, and their voice sound quite similar to an ear untrained in Japanese. That said it's an interesting track, there's discussion of cel animation, of the film's visuals and some jokey acknowledgement of some of its more unnecessary (their word) nastier content. For fans of the film this will be a real treat.
On the whole this is a strong release of an entertaining movie, if not one that I'm as big a fan of as some anime lovers seem to be. Ninja Scroll is still a fun watch, and interesting because of its place in helping introduce anime to more Western audiences, if you like anime it's a key text, but it's perhaps not where I'd advise people to start.
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