In their sprawling, hilarious Demon City Shinjuku review (which is more like a scene-by-scene synopsis) on an old episode of the excellent podcast Anime World Order, reviewers Daryl, Clarissa, and Gerald refer to director Yoshiaki Kawajiri, with tongues mostly in cheek, as being the man mainly responsible for the overall poor reputation anime suffered from in mid-90s. Works like the aforementioned Shinjuku along with the far more violent Wicked City and the futuristic Cyber City Oedo cemented Kawajiri’s status as a schlock legend domestically, but I would argue that none of his films were as important to the anime industry as 1993’s Ninja Scroll.
Released domestically in 1995 by Manga Entertainment (seriously, who else?), Ninja Scroll was a massive hit. It became the best-selling title for Manga Entertainment, and its reputation quickly spread amongst not only anime fans, but also fans of cult cinema and martial arts/samurai films. I first watched Ninja Scroll around 1996, and I remember being enthralled and horrified by what I watched. I was finally able to buy a copy around 1998, and I remember showing the film to everyone who would let me. I probably shared Ninja Scroll with around 30 friends and family members (of course, I could only show it to the most hardcore of friends and family members) and of everyone I shared it with, to this day I can only recall one person disliking it (a friend who had been raised in a very conservative Christian home).
I have been watching a lot of anime recently, and I started thinking about Ninja Scroll in particular a few weeks ago. I owned a copy on VHS, but never purchased it on DVD. Sentai Filmworks, who acquired the license in 2012, re-released the film on Blu Ray disc in December of 2012, but I never bothered to pick up that release either. I kind of wanted to keep the film as a part of my increasingly forgotten childhood. How well would it hold up, anyway? It was a hyper-violent, misogynistic fantasy with ridiculous characters, typical Kawajiri character design, and a horribly hacky dub, typical of Manga Entertainment (though it does feature Kirk Thornton and Richard Epcar, two of the more talented voice-over artists in anime).
But I ended up seeking out Ninja Scroll anyway. I first checked Netflix, but no luck there. Then, I checked Amazon Prime, but the film is unavailable there as well. I was beginning to get a bit disheartened, because I definitely didn’t want to pay more than necessary to re-watch this film. My salvation lay with Hulu Plus for the most part, however. Checking the service’s anime collection, I was pleasantly surprised to come across Ninja Scroll. I was mildly disappointed when I discovered, however, that the film was in its subtitled version (I was kind of looking forward to hearing that cheesy dub to be honest) and that it was not in wide-screen format, meaning it wouldn’t fit nicely on my massive TV. But I was still happy to see it there in front of me with such little effort.
On my re-watch, it totally wasn’t hard to see what was so disgusting about Ninja Scroll that parent groups and politicians might look negatively on it back in the day. There are several elements of the film that are absolutely reprehensible, of course. Rampant and unrepentant misogyny overwhelms the film, as it does most of Kawajiri’s works. The grotesque rape scenes (there are two) are obviously distasteful. The film, though animated beautifully, is also mostly ugly in terms of color palette, with earth browns dominating the daylight scenes. Character designs are also a bit off-putting. Characters who are supposed to be handsome or beautiful just look lanky and weird to me. The film is also hyper-violent and ripe with death and dismemberment. This isn’t for the feint of heart.
So what is Ninja Scroll about, anyway? It is essentially a wandering samurai tale, as lead character Jubei (a cynical yet charismatic swordsman) is tasked with tracking down Himuro Genma and his Eight Devils of Kimon by government agent/monk Dakuan. Did I mention that Dakuan has poisoned Jubei, making his success all the more important? Jubei must track down a treasure pilfered by the Eight Devils of Kimon in order to restore peace to the shogun and keep Japan from falling into a civil war, or something like that. The plot mainly serves as multiple excuses for violent swordfights, erotic visits to hot springs, and forbidden love affairs. Jubei is joined in his task by Kagero (who is literally poisonous – sleeping with her or even so much as kissing her is enough to kill a man), who joins him after her own clan is wiped out by the Eight Devils of Kimon.
I’ve mentioned a few times that Ninja Scroll’s character design is ugly, and it is. It is also very unique in that each of the various devils of Kimon is wholly unique and interesting despite being very ugly. The first devil Jubei and Kagero face, Tessai, is kind of like a cross between the Hulk and Thing from Fantastic Four, only more interested in rape. Other characters include the mountainous and sleek Genma, who is the main antagonist of the film, and Benisato, a seductive snake-woman who attacks Jubei in a hot springs. My favorite devil is Zakuro, who uses explosive traps and has a wicked scar on her cheek. Yes, I find these characters to be really, really ugly (even main characters Jubei and Kagero are kind of hideous really), but the fact that they are so distinctive makes them pretty cool actually.
Ninja Scroll is also well paced, which doesn’t give it an opportunity to wear out its welcome. The film, which clocks in at a swift 94 minutes with credits, rarely finds time to rest. Kawajiri’s film jumps from place to place, moment-to-moment, boss fight to boss fight in a manner that at least feels mostly logical as you watch it. The plot, as noted earlier, doesn’t matter as it is pretty much just a vehicle for cool shit and violence. The overall quality of the animation (Madhouse does very nice work, including here) is very high and the plentiful fight scenes are mostly great, making the violence and cool shit all the more glorious. Some of the highlights include Tessai’s assault on Kagero’s clans, who are mercilessly eviscerated and the climactic battle between Jubei and Genma, which is probably the overall highlight of the film.
By 1996, Ninja Scroll had sold 70,000 copies, almost unheard of for anime. Along with Akira and Ghost in the Shell (another Manga Entertainment release), it became known as one of the coolest, most infamous animated films commercially available in America. These three films arguably helped create the anime boom of the late 90s on their own. Of course, Ninja Scroll became mostly well known for its ultra-violence, nudity, and bat-shit insane aesthetics. Re-watching the film last week for this feature, I have to say that I was engaged and enthralled overall by the film, even if I found it far more juvenile at 31 than I did at 16. I can’t help but like some aspects of this film, even if it is fairly reprehensible and partially responsible for the poor reputation of anime in the mid-90s. Some of the fights are still pretty awesome to watch, with Madhouse’s animation being really great. Ninja Scroll is kind of a dinosaur these days, but I can see why it would draw in so many people when it came out here roughly twenty years ago.