Genre: Period Ninja Action (Action)
What’s in it?: Hacking and Slashing, Samurai, A Little Nudity, Demons.
Ninja Scroll, set in the days of Samurai, Shogun, and Ninja, follows Jubei Kibagami, a wandering rogue ninja, and Kagero, a cold and deadly female Ninja. Pulled unwillingly into a plot by the Shogun of the Dark and some very nasty demons to overthrow the Shogun and conquer Japan, the two are forced into an uneasy alliance against the forces of evil.
Ninja Scroll is everything you’d expect from a gory anime ninja action movie: slick animation, lots of ninjas, a corresponding volume of blood, a big group of super powered bad guys, a cool good guy to cut them into little pieces, a sufficient selection of strange erotic situations, and a convoluted plot. But Ninja Scroll is more than just a ninja hack and slash flick that’s got it all – by taking all the earmarks of a tried and true formula and nailing every one of them, it has distinguished itself an excellent entry in its genre. Although its quality, depending on your definition, is debatable, one thing is certain: for lovers of violent ninja anime, Ninja Scroll is about as good as it gets. A true instant classic.
To its credit, Ninja Scroll deserves its rank as an instant classic because it goes a bit farther than just rehashing the formula perfectly. The main characters aren’t entirely familiar and the interplay between Kagero and Jubei is both more creative and has more emotional complexity than you might expect. Some of the bad guys also have creative powers, though that’s not to say that you won’t recognize a lot of things: the bug guy is straight out of Vampire Hunter D, with the spiders replaced by wasps, the big guy with rock skin is probably an ancestor of the metal giant in Fist of the North Star, and the blind swordsman feels like an old friend.
The plot (not that most people will care) deserves a nod for some originality, though it seems a little weird to have a bunch of demons involved in a scheme that boils down to stealing gold. No dark manipulations or demon armies from hell, just a bunch of money. Huh. Still, it’s got a sufficient volume of semi-random political intrigue for a proper samurai-era story.
The story may not be the primary reason to see Ninja Scroll, but even if you’re not the biggest fan of gore and too-cool-for-their-own-good ninjas, the visuals may be enough to make it worth checking out. Starting with the obvious (and most important), the action is top notch: smoothly animated, well choreographed, and there are even some really nice little artistic touches (mostly with the supernatural powers of the bad folks – a guy who can literally slip into shadows, for example). In the non-action scenes, the character animation is also pretty good, although some of the dialogue scenes are a little static. Backing the animation is a combination of slick art and rather original character designs. Hard-edged but attractive and relatively realistic. The backgrounds are somewhat less memorable, but even those are quite well drawn, from detailed bamboo forests to rooms at sunset crisscrossed with hard shadows.
The acting in Japanese is well cast and features several big-name voice actors. I didn’t notice any particular standout performances, but from Jubei’s aloof, slightly bemused tone to Kagero’s appropriately harsh (and dramatically well acted) voice to a whole collection of classically creepy sounding demons this is an all-around solidly acted production. The translation in the subtitles, however, was occasionally a little… strange. I really like it how every power is referred to as a “technique”. We have techniques for turning your skin into rock, techniques for turning yourself green and sprouting leaves (I’m not joking), and I couldn’t help but laugh when they called reassembling dismembered limbs (and reattaching your own head) a “technique”. As for the dub, the dialogue is awkward and much too modern sounding, more or less what you’d expect from your average kung fu movie dub (ok, not quite that bad).
In all, though it’s hard to call original and it occasionally pushes the limits of good taste, Ninja Scroll has all the antisocial relationships, dismembered bodies, magical powers, building-jumping ninjas, and blood any fan of the ultra violent ninja genre could wish for, and the production values are high enough that even people who don’t usually go for that sort of thing might find it worth watching. It is, for all intents and purposes, the quintessential animated gory ninja movie.