“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’sworld. 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…
Some sci-fi plots are staples of anime. The boy who pilots a fighting robot; humans who evolve into cyborgs; cute space girls who fall for the biggest doofus in Japan. Compared to these, time-travel has never been a big anime genre, though it’s been used on many occasions.
The story behind Hayao Miyazaki’s first and greatest heroine
“There has come the advent of the angel of light, the one who will lead you to the pure land. She who loves the forest and talks with the insects… She who calls down the wind, and rides upon it like a bird. And that one shall come to you, garbed in raiment of blue, descending upon a field of gold, to forge anew our ties with the lost land.”
Studio Ghibli, tattoo removal and the San Diego Comic Con in our 26th podcast
Jeremy Graves is joined by Jerome Mazandarani, Andrew Hewson and Jonathan Clements to discuss last week’s Studio Ghibli, the San Diego Comic Con, upcoming releases, and your questions from Twitter and Facebook. Includes an inadvisable impersonation of Meryl Streep, commentary track shenanigans, and Jerome’s skateboarding stunts.
The word hihokan is usually translated as ‘sex museum’, although most are best described as indoor sexual theme parks. Imagine that an anthropological collection has been bought by the London Dungeon and put on show there by the owner of a strip club with a degree in engineering and a penchant for voyeurism. The result would be the hihokan: a garish combination of serious museum and soft pornography in a bizarre and often haphazard blend.
The game Mysterious Cities of Gold: Secret Paths is rolling out as a digital download across multiple platforms. This month it becomes available on the Nintendo 3DS and Amazon, following launches on the Wii U, iPad, iPhone and Steam.
BFI announce a festival of Miyazaki, Takahata, et al...
The BFI South Bank cinema in London will be screening a Studio Ghibli season throughout April and May. Curator Justin Johnson will be giving an introduction to Ghibli on the 2nd April, followed by screenings of all the major Ghibli works and a number of relative obscurities
Tom Smith finds another band with an unspellable name
Meet Ling tosite sigure. Their name may be confusing to pronounce (for anyone interested, it’s more like ‘rin tosh-teh shi-goo-reh’), but that didn’t holdback Japan’s music-loving community from rushing to their local CD-shops and grabbing a copy of the band’s latest album i’mperfect, out now also in the UK thanks to JPU Records.