Ninja Scroll – Review

by Miguel Douglas


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Jubei Kipagami, a ninja mercenary, wanders the countryside in search of work. On his travels, he encounters Kagero, a female ninja whose poisoned blood causes her pale skin to be lethal to the touch. Jubei rescues the woman from Tessai, a creature made of rock. They later find that Tessai is one of the Eight Devils of Kimon, who are involved in a plot to overthrow the Shogun.

Created as a cinematic homage to legendary Japanese swordsman Yagyū Jūbei Mitsuyoshi, Ninja Scroll offers all the dark, brutal and fantastic dramatization of 17th century feudal Japan. Heavily inspired by author Futaro Yamada’s popular Ninpōchō ninja novel series and like the fabled life of the folk hero Mitsuyoshi himself, the film presents an otherworldly quality where the supernatural is greatly integrated into the framework of the plot. Directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, known for his other works such as Wicked City (1987), Demon City Shinjuku (1988) and Goku: Midnight Eye (1989), the foundation of Ninja Scroll can be seen stemming from work of director Rintaro’s Dagger of Kamui (1985), a film made eight years prior to release of Ninja Scroll and where Kawajiri worked as an animator on. While both films retain similar elements to one another, Ninja Scroll is certainly more callous in its portrayal of feudal Japan and the mythologies that surround its more prominent figures and factions.

Perhaps the most striking element in Ninja Scroll is the character design. While the protagonists are rather general in their appearances, the film’s focus lies primarily with the look of its villains. With such a group being titled the Eight Devils of Kimon, the variety found within every villain is very detailed, distinctive and many times rather unnerving. From Bensiato, the seductive woman whose snake tattoos on her back come to life to attack her enemies, to Tessai, whose skin becomes hardened and rock-like when infuriated, to Mushizo, a small man whose hunchback is actually a wasp-infested hive—the villains are largely varied, exotic and share some highly creative battles sequences with our main heroes. Looking back to Kawajiri’s previous films—particularly Wicked City where the sexually bizarre coincided with tentacle erotica—here he doesn’t transform the exterior appearance of the characters too drastically. All the characters that showcase some form of supernatural ability still look distinctively human in appearance, a decision that I think reinforces the mystical elements of that time period without being too far removed from being moderately authentic. For example, hypothetically one could say a woman like Kagero—who poisons men by kissing them—may have actually existed, but throughout time such claims could’ve translated from being a metaphorical expression to that of exaggerated folklore.

This concept certainly extends to that of the protagonists of the film, Jubei and Kagero. Unlike most protagonists in such period pieces, Jubei and Kagero are accustomed to fighting and exhibit a sense of loyalty towards the greater good within a world that is obviously in disarray. These two individuals are not soft; hardened as they come, they both understand the world they live in and will fight to the death in order to accomplish whatever task they have before them. Perhaps an underutilized element of the plot is the relationship that eventually forms between the two. It’s appropriate to view Kagero as the tragic heroine, an individual who can’t ever truly fall in love in a physical sense without killing her partner, which adds an emotional layer to the film that is much needed given the abundance of violence. But while we understand that they are working together against a devious threat, one can begin to see that when their initial companionship turns to that of love, it just seems entirely too contrived within the space of the plot. The Shakespearean elements of forbidden love provide much depth to the relationship between the two characters but it’s simply not elaborated upon enough to have us sufficiently care as an audience. While certainly appealing as singular characters, their relationship doesn’t seem to affect the direction of the narrative and appears hollow in conjunction with the seriousness of the remainder of the plot.

Along the lines of narrative though, it too seems somewhat pushed to the background as the film continually offers up one action sequence after another. Considering the genre, this is may be deemed appropriate, but many of the instances where Jubei and Kagero become involved with the larger conflict at hand seems somewhat misconstrued considering the abundance of action over plot. They really have no impact on the outcome of events until Jubei inevtiably confronts the mastermind Genma, but prior to this we only see contrivances in the plot that bring Kagero and Jubei together. An example of this is the suggested overthrowing of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Someone familiar with history would know that this wasn’t accomplished until a little over a century later than when the film takes place, which somewhat diminishes the impact of urgency expressed by some of the film’s characters to rapidly defeat the Eight Devils of Kimon. But is this all but an excuse to showcase an assortment of spectacular sequences of combat and swordplay? Probably, but it also takes away from the impressive premise established in the beginning of the film of political intrigue and espionage. If both these elements were better balanced, the film would offer a more fitting correlation between the historical and the fantasized.

But as for the aforementioned element of action within the film, Ninja Scroll does an exceedingly fantastic job in providing sequence after sequence of compelling action. This is seen particularly in Jubei, who as mentioned before is based on the legendary Yagyū Jūbei Mitsuyoshi. We see his expert swordsmanship in action through each encounter with one of the Eight Devils. Each a formidable opponent with skill, prowess and a supernatural instinct, the battle sequences create a sense of unpredictability due to the sheer amount of quickness and chaos that ensue. This presents Jubei as just the kind of swordsman we would expect considering the figure he’s derived from—which again plays into the mythology that is imbued throughout the film. There are some fantastic natural landscapes in which many of these sequences take place in as well, from old an Buddhist temple to that of a bamboo forest, the film does a great job at establishing settings which curtail to the many confrontations that take place within the film. These set pieces are what perhaps make Ninja Scroll an impressive film pertaining to the action it offers, delivering a fury of violent and often time barbaric forms of combat. While such scenes are certainly extreme in their showcasing of physical abuse—Ninja Scroll is absolutely not a film for the faint of heart. The rather vicious actions conveyed by both the protagonists and antagonists in the film are sure to please viewers who enjoy or can handle some extreme violence, but it could easily turn off those who are not fond of such extremities. Such shocking scenes have been present in Kawajiri’s previous works as well, so those familiar with what he provides as a director should be happy to see him continue the tradition.

Overall, Ninja Scroll still remains a bizarrely brutal and entertaining film. Presenting an impressive and grisly spectacle on feudal Japan, the film also works on many levels for its ability to push through its showcasing of violence to allow its solid action to shine through. Like his previous works, director Yoshiaki Kawajiri once again provides a rather adult film that is both shocking but mesmerizing to watch—especially for its sheer creativity. The art direction is perhaps one of the film’s strongest attributes, not only for the aforementioned elements of creativity, but for creating set pieces that become quite memorable for viewers. As a fan of the film, I too mostly remember the action sequences as the most noticeable moments within Ninja Scroll, but the mythologies that surround the premise of the film remain just as memorable. While the film may have some rough spots—particularly within segments of the story and Jubei and Kagero’s relationship—it still is highly watchable due to its adrenaline pumping scenes of ruthless conflict that remain consistently in the forefront. Perhaps more could have been added to elaborate on the film’s characters but Ninja Scroll is still an incredibly ambitious film. Considering the time of its release, it’s one of the most memorable anime films that takes place within feudal Japan, and perhaps more importantly, it remains one of the principal anime films of the early 1990’s.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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