"The river to Hell is this way!"—Tessai
When the village of Shimoda, on the fringes of the Tokugawa Shogunate, succumbs to a mysterious plague, the local lord sends his crack ninja team to investigate. A cadre of supernatural villains, the Eight Devils of Kimon, quickly slaughters the team. Only one female ninja, Kagero, survives.
Enter a hero: Jubei Kibagami is a ronin with a heart of gold. He wanders the land, fighting for justice, if the price is right. But is 100 gold pieces from a wisecracking spy enough to tempt him into battle with the dreaded Eight Devils and their master, the evil and immortal Lord Gemma—especially since Jubei already decapitated Gemma years ago?
By all rights, Ninja Scroll should fail. It is, after all, full of the clichés of the fighting anime: a reticent hero battling superpowered bad guys (who always seem amused by their own capacity for evil) in excessively gory splendor. Throw in a tough heroine (who still needs periodic rescuing), an indestructible final boss, some gratuitous (and borderline tasteless) sexual violence, and enough arterial spray to power a downtown city fountain.
But Ninja Scroll works…somehow. It is not the best action film ever made, or even that high on the list. But it manages to succeed at what it tries to be: a thrilling ride.
Part of this is due to its interesting array of action sequences. In many fighting anime, the battles get rather repetitive. But writer and director Yoshiaki Kawajiri (known for his over-the-top supernatural epics like Wicked City) manages to keep things moving with a few visual surprises and some genuine scares and suspense. While the animation and art direction are obviously limited by budget, the film makes up ground with a story that moves almost too quickly to reveal its plot holes and characters that have just enough personality to keep them interesting.
Jubei has a dry sense of humor (his verbal sparring with the spy Dakuan are an entertaining diversion from the action). As an action hero, he does not rely on brawn and bravado, usually winning his fights with a combination of cleverness and preternaturally good luck (mostly the latter). As woman whose very touch is poison, Kagero is both threatened and threatening, and Kawajiri takes the opportunity to suggest the ways in which women in these sorts of action films are marginalized as objects of abuse. But the villains themselves—"a gang of freaks," as Dakuan describes them—are the most entertaining aspect of the film—as well they should be. Their soap opera relationships with each other give them something to talk about between battles, and during the battles, they deploy a clever fusion of magic and steampunk technology. Kawajiri offers a new challenge for each of Jubei's duels with the Eight Devils: a blind samurai, a hunchback with a legion of wasps, an explosives expert who wires up zombies to explode. And Gemma himself, whose plan to heist a shipment of gold to finance a coup against the Tokugawa Shogun injects a little politics into the story, helping to ground the fantastic elements in the context of actual Japanese history.
Okay, maybe it is not all that well grounded. Nevertheless, the 90 minutes flies by so quickly that you will not think too much about it. Just in case you have trouble following the plot (although it probably does not matter), Manga Video offers a "Guide to Ninja Scroll" as a bonus feature. There is a thorough, perhaps too thorough, synopsis of the plot. I have seen this movie at least a dozen times over the years, and it never seemed as complicated watching it as it does reading about it. There are also character descriptions. Manga Video throws in a theatrical trailer with its original Japanese soundtrack, but with all the Japanese intertitles replaced by cheap looking English ones.
Manga Video presents the film in full frame (I can find no information on its original aspect ratio, although I could swear I've seen a Japanese print in widescreen), in pretty decent shape (although it seems slightly faded), with a mediocre English dub in 5.1, and the original Japanese soundtrack in, as is typical for most Manga Video releases, plain old 2.0. This is pretty standard for one of Manga Video's older titles, so I suppose there is no point in complaining about it now.
Ninja Scroll has modest ambitions: it does not aspire to epic status, but it does not dumb down its material either. Overall, it is a pretty entertaining action film that might be worth a rental. Somehow, I manage to find myself sitting in front of it, either at a con or a friend's house, every now and again. I watch it, enjoy it while it lasts, and then go on to something else. I would not go out of my way to watch it, but I do not run from it either. I suppose, given all the genuinely unlikable movies out there, that is not really a bad thing.
Yoskiaki Kawajiri and company are released, but Manga Video is ordered to mop up all the blood from Jubei's escapades. Case dismissed.
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• "Guide to Ninja Scroll"
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