Ninja Scroll

Andrew Osmond on one of anime’s holy trinity

Ninja Scroll

Two decades ago, when anime was becoming established in English-speaking territories, three feature films stood out from the crowd, as ambassadors for what anime meant. There was Akira; there was Ghost in the Shell; and then there was Ninja Scroll.

In some ways, Ninja Scroll is the odd one out. It’s fantasy rather than science-fiction, set in a mythic Japan of samurai, spellcasting ninja and monstrous supermen. Plotwise, the film’s far simpler than Akira or Ghost, as its hero Jubei slices and punches his way through fantastical adversaries towards a Big Bad Boss. You could compare the structure to a computer game, or to the Kill Bill films. But to say Ninja Scroll is just a violent action flick is like saying that Alien is just a slasher movie in space. The story may be simple, but the telling is rich.

For a fairly short film (barely 90 minutes), 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.

As the Blu-ray commentary points out, this isn’t meant to be a “realistic” medieval Japan, but a stylised dream. The visuals aren’t about the fussy details, but about atmosphere. In an early scene, Jubei bathes in a rock pool (yes, this film isn’t averse to beefcake!) amid soup-like, orangey mists which fire up our senses – and that’s before the naked lady shows up, covered in slithering snake tattoos. Other scenes are completely monochrome, rendered entirely in blue or red for even more surreal action.

Ninja Scroll

As Kawajiri happily admits on the Blu-ray, Ninja Scroll was made on a tight budget, clearly far lower than Akira. If you’re so inclined, you can count the animation “cheats” where the film finds ways to avoid showing action. Ninja Scroll’s beauty, though, is that it hardly matters; the action that is animated is superb. Many old-school fans favour the stylised swordfight in a bamboo forest, or the bloody battle in the trees that opens the film. The final conflict, though, is just as wondrous, with bombs, bone-crunching supermen and an ocean of molten gold. Eat your heart out, Michael Bay!

If you want, you could watch Ninja Scroll as a sword-and-sorcery film, an Eastern relative of Conan the Barbarian. Its hero, though, is no mere muscleman. Jubei comes with rock-hard biceps, but he’s lithe and slender, and speaks with the clear, youthful voice of Kouichi Yamadera – also the voice of Spike in Cowboy Bebop, Togusa in Ghost in the Shell and Brad Pitt in Hollywood dubs. One of Jubei’s finest moments is when he faces a slobbering man-mountain with a body-cleaving super-sword; he politely asks him the way to town, before getting down to business. He’s a hero with nothing to prove; he’s a super-fighter when we meet him, so there’s no time wasted getting him “levelled up.”

Jubei is introduced as a lone, wandering ronin, blown by the winds in the tradition of action heroes East and West. However, he soon finds a partner, the woman ninja Kagero, with her night-blue cloak and her oval face that’s masculine but still beautiful. (Like Jubei, she has a famed Japanese voice; Emi Shinohara, who was B-ko in Project A-Ko, Sailor Jupiter in Sailor Moon and the maniacal Ophelia in Claymore.) Their relationship is touching, and truly surprising to multiplex-conditioned viewers, as it doesn’t follow the rules and beats of popular Hollywood. Again, scenery and atmospherics tell much of the story. There’s one interlude which you might miss completely, where Kagero rests with Jubei and her face gives way to tranquil, wild flowers coloured gold.

Ninja Scroll, though, hasn’t a reputation for delicacy. It’s notoriously violent, far more than even Akira. The action includes lurid images of men cut in half in storms of gore. One luckless fellow has his arms ripped off, and Kagero is sexually assaulted by monstrous men. These scenes are uncomfortable, and some viewers will find them unwatchable. However, there’s a startling plot twist that puts the apparently helpless victim in a very different light. We won’t spoil it, but director Kawajiri has a thing for women using sex to bite back. That can be literal, as anyone who’s seen the snapping spider-woman in Kawajiri’s Wicked City (made six years before Ninja Scroll) can testify.

The same is true of Ninja Scroll’s sultry snake woman, who’s one of eight ninja adversaries that Kagero and Jubei must face. The others include a giant with rock-hard skin; a guy nuts enough to have a beehive on his back; and a mad woman bomber. In the Blu-ray commentary, Kawajiri says the conflict in the film owes little to history. “A parody of historical facts isn’t appropriate in animation. I thought it would also be difficult within the context of a global audience. So [I chose] a simple depiction, like a conflict between the CIA and terrorists, and someone just comes along [like the hero Jubei]…”

Ninja Scroll

In an essay included with the new edition, Jonathan Clements compares the film to Mission Impossible, with both the goodies and baddies pulling off outrageously impossible tricks. There are disguises, booby traps, even cool “gadgets.” One ninja is a fiendish puppet master who attaches himself to other people by means of magic threads, which he uses to communicate, control or kill.

A big Japanese influence is the cycle of “ninja” novels by author Futaro Yamada, mostly published in the 1960s. Jubei’s name is a reference to a semi-legendary seventeenth-century swordsman, Jubei Yagyu (though in the film, Jubei tells Kagero his name is Jubei Kibagami, to stop any historic complications). The hero’s name caused confusion a couple of years after Ninja Scroll, when another studio released its own ninja-themed video series. It was based on a Yamada novel, and featured Jubei Yagyu as the hero, so cheeky distributors called it Ninja Resurrection and sold it as a sequel to Ninja Scroll!

But what is Scroll’s true legacy? It was a vital calling card for the studio that made it, Madhouse, on its way to becoming one of Japan’s biggest anime outfits. When it made Ninja Scroll, Madhouse was already an old hand – it was founded in 1972 – but the film gave it priceless cachet in Britain and America. Kawajiri’s comments suggest Madhouse made Ninja Scroll with a careful eye on the West; and today, the film is far more likely to be recognised by fans in Britain and America than by their counterparts in Japan. In this light, you might argue that Ninja Scroll’s true successor is not a ninja anime at all. Rather, it’s a hardboiled crime show that Madhouse made a decade later, equally aimed at the world market: Black Lagoon.

Ninja Scroll

But what of Ninja Scroll’s director? In the years after he made the film, Kawajiri stayed with Madhouse, directing Vampire D: Bloodlust and Highlander: The Search for Vengeance (two more movies with an eye to foreign markets). He also directed a gorgeous ninja-themed segment for The Animatrix, the anime spinoff from The Matrix, which Ninja Scroll had done much to inspire. Just look at the ninja leaping through the trees at the start of Scroll; then look at the gravity-defying virtual warriors of The Matrix.

Ninja Scroll itself has been sequelled by Madhouse – the twelve-part Ninja Scroll: The Series in 2003. However, Kawajiri wasn’t in the director’s chair. What fans are still waiting for is a reunion between Kawajiri and Jubei, and Madhouse has teased us with that prospect since 2006, when a proper film sequel was announced. Kawajiri himself spoke of making a follow-up that would be better than the first film. “I am striving to make it a stronger entertainment piece than the original in both the story and visual image.”

Later, Madhouse released a teaser for an in-development three-part “short animation” called Ninja Scroll Burst, with Kawajiri billed as director. Has the film sequel been relegated to OAV status? Is Jubei’s return coming together, or has it fallen apart? We’ll have to see… but to be honest, Kawajiri will be very hard pressed to improve on the rugged, unpretentious original, which came to the West seemingly from nowhere and was better for it. Jubei still stands tall now, beside Akira’s Kaneda and Ghost’s Kusanagi – titans that the last decades have passed by untouched.

Ninja Scroll is out now on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.

Ninja Scroll Trailer

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