Andrew Osmond on the Kawajiri classic
“Look’s like a storm’s brewing,” comments the wandering swordsman Jubei at the start of Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s action classic, Ninja Scroll. Its opening minutes are full of portents. In the first scene, Jubei moseys across a wooden bridge, like a gunslinger at high noon; pity the fools who mess with him. We see riders framed by a raging sea; crows peck at dead villagers. Soon the action is soaring, as ninja warriors leap through tree branches, fighting a giant with a skin of rock. Strap yourself in; any dangling limbs are liable to be lopped off.
Anime fashions come and go, but Ninja Scroll is an evergreen. It influenced the Wachowski brothers when they made The Matrix. It was a pillar of anime in Britain in the 1990s, back when the medium was sold on shock. Ninja Scroll has plenty of iconic “You can’t do that in a cartoon!” moments. The rock giant brandishes the severed arm of a victim, gulping the blood down like wine. A naked devil woman hides snakes in unmentionable places. More subtly haunting is the film’s casual use of creepy magic. One malign monk becomes a tree-branch, while villains command each other through endless silk threads, running from their mouths across the country.
But that’s all just flavouring. At its core, Ninja Scroll is an unpretentiously solid film, a sparse and rugged survival story in which the enemies just happen to be weird and wild, like stop-motion monsters in a Ray Harryhausen movie. The traditional plot has Jubei wandering into the middle of an uneven conflict, as did the warrior in Kurosawa’s live-action Yojimbo, though it later turns out that Jubei had past business with the chief bad guy, who bears a nasty scar on his neck. Evil’s minions include the rock-man and the snake-lady; there’s also a bee-man and a mad woman bomber. (Did we mention this is seventeenth-century Japan?).
One obvious word to describe Ninja Scroll is manly. Jubei is light-years away from any anime high-school students as he scales cliffs and head-butts heavies. He also gets plenty of beefcake fanservice. But he has female company; an ill-starred woman ninja called Kagero, whose team is obliterated in the first act. The sly monk character calls her, “A perfect woman for this hellish world.” While Jubei is the action star, Kagero is the more intriguing of the two, and more sympathetic. There’s an especially telling moment just after she’s survived an ordeal at the rock-monster’s pawing hands, only to see her clan-lord abusing a female chattel in turn. The point is obvious, but powerfully made.
We’ll leave the rest of the film for new viewers to discover, including a staggering, magnificently-staged, joyfully violent finale that any action film director would envy. It’s a bruising, bare-knuckle duel taken to extremes, without slomo or fancy framings to distract from the orgy of bone-crunching.
There’s already been a stab at a Ninja Scroll sequel, a 13-part TV series of the same name, but that was by other hands at the Madhouse studio (which made the film). Many fans are still awaiting Kawajiri’s own return to Ninja Scroll’s world. On the film’s tenth birthday, he spoke of the follow-up he wanted. ‘With the new feature, I want to make it better than the first one. I am striving to make it a stronger entertainment piece than the original in both the story and visual image.” There was more news this April, with the unveiling of a teaser for an in-development anime called Ninja Scroll Burst, described as a “3-episode short animation.” Feast your eyes below, Jubei fans…
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The original Ninja Scroll is available on UK Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment, featuring a director’s commentary from Yoshiaki Kawajiri.