“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…
Ninja Scroll is crammed with memorable images, set-pieces and characters. Like many of the best international anime hits, the contents of Ninja Scroll are foreign yet familiar. Instead of the future megacities of Akira, we’re deep in the Japanese countryside. We’re weaving through fog and fireflies, springing through treetops, sneaking down rivers, hanging halfway down stone cliffs.
Boruto: Naruto The Movie is hitting select UK theaters November 10th, just one month after the immensely popular Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection 'F'. Has there ever been a better time to be an anime fan in the UK?
Warning against surprise attacks by alien galaxies from beyond space
The colourfully mad Gatchaman Crowds is one of those anime which isn’t happy unless it’s doing umpteen things at once, all seeming completely different. It’s a campy, lowbrow action show and a thinky piece of SF and an otaku series with a taste for the meta and it’s anxious to engage with the real world. You can watch it just for the tangerine colours and the shouty panda. But if you want more pointers, read on…
Jonathan Clements reviews a new account of Fu Manchu
The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu & The Rise of Chinaphobia (sic) is an enjoyably traditional work of gentlemanly erudition, with research in dusty archives accompanied by a slew of lunches with bigwigs and interviews with associates, as our polymath hero Sir Christopher Frayling examines the origins of the infamous mastermind from Sax Rohmer’s once-popular novels.
The Comic Artist and His Assistants follows the adventures of a very perverted comic artist, Aito Yuuki. To celebrate the show's UK release, we decided to take a look at our favourite perverts from the anime world.
Toei Animation has announced production on Dragon Ball Super, the first all-new Dragon Ball series to be released in 18 years. Following the recent events of the hit feature film Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection, Dragon Ball Super will debut in July 2015 in Japan.
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.
You know Tokyo; you know Neo-Tokyo. Now welcome to San Fransokyo, the mashup metropolis imagined by Disney’s CG cartoon Big Hero 6, released in British cinemas today. It’s a city where the Golden Gate Bridge sports Shinto gates, where ramen bars and lucky cats are as common as Victorian residences and hill-climbing trams. All this is the stage for a team-superhero adventure, which is itself window-dressing for the tale of a grieving boy and a gentle, huggable, cushion-soft robot.
This year's Tokyo Film Festival also included a festival within a festival, an awesomely thorough programme of screenings and live appearances by the maker of Evangelion. It covered Anno’s career from his early amateur films to his live-action, to his work as an animator and anime director.