The reason we loved anime
Ninja Scroll (Jûbê ninpûchô) (1993): 9 out of 10: One of a bevy of anime films to come stateside in the early to mid-nineties Ninja Scroll along with Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Urotsukidoji. Ninja Scroll helped set the agenda of anime as a serious art form with very adult themes. Or if you prefer the agenda of cartoons with lots of nudity and violence and tentacle sex.
I have seen Akira about half a dozen times and could not describe the plot to you at gunpoint. There is a motorcycle and a nuclear explosion and then it gets a bit fuzzy. Ninja Scroll does not suffer from this.
Taking place during the era of the Tokugawa Shogunate local villages are apparently dying from a plague. The local Mochizuki Chancellor Hyobu sends out his sizable ninja force to investigate. Coming along is his female food tester and ninja leader love interest Kagero. While in the woods they run into what appears to be a very large stone golem who slaughters all the ninjas tearing the arms of the ninja leader and drinking the blood that pours out of them. He only spares Kagero as he plans to rape and then kill her or maybe kill and then rape her as he notes it doesn’t matter to him.
At this point, the sounds of thousands of parents desperately looking for the VCR remote and wondering how Blockbuster could rent such a cartoon could be heard across the land. Also at this point, our hero shows up.
Our hero Jubei is a rōnin… well, actually he states he is a ninja… Though truth be told he isn’t very ninja-like but instead much more of a swordsman. A ninja swordsman rōnin perhaps? Anyway, he is a swordsman for hire more interested in doing good than earning gold. A very classic character in both Japanese film and American Westerns where there is much overlap between the two (Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven being the most famous.). He also owes a lot to the Lone Wolf and Cub manga.
Jubei’s key as a character is his superpowers. He doesn’t have any. He wins through skill and an awful lot of skin of the teeth luck. He is a very vulnerable hero. There is an appeal to this hero that both anime and western media often forget. Think of the appeal of the bloody foot everyman that Bruce Willis played in Die Hard and now compare to the car crashing into a helicopter superhero Bruce Willis played in Live Free or Die Hard.
Jubei needs that luck because he is actually up against the eight devils with the Stone Golem only being the first one. Video game aficionados will recognize this for what it is a collection of spectacular boss fights with the final boss being a man who can shapeshift and regenerate at will. Ninja Scrolls influence on modern video game design and follow up anime such as Naruto is self-evident.
The animation all hand-drawn is spectacular. The action scenes are very well staged and the eight demons are extremely grotesque and creative. (There is one demon that is a hunchback with a beehive where his hunch should be or maybe bee. I had the voice of Nicholas Cage in The Wicker Man throughout all his scenes.)
Ninja Scroll even manages a bittersweet love story and some nice humor through the chaos. For a brief ninety-four minutes, it packs in a lot of story and characterization without a seemingly wasted frame.
I highly recommend this film for anime fans who somehow missed it or haven’t seen it in twenty years and to newcomers though I do warn the newcomers the first twenty minutes are kinda rough till the characters start to take hold. An excellent action film with a great story and some surprisingly deep characters.