There’s a scene early on in Ninja Scroll that leaves a lasting impression. A plague has supposedly wiped out an entire village and a ninja team has been sent to investigate. They reluctantly take along their resident poison taster Kagero, who up until now has existed solely as a downtrodden woman within feudal Japanese society.
Leaping gracefully through high treetops, spreading to all vantage points, the ninja nevertheless fail to notice a double-sided sword/boomerang weapon hurling toward their vulnerable meat bags. Suddenly blood and severed body parts are falling out of the sky in a giblet rainstorm. Kagero is forced to watch in horror as the assailant, a despicable golem giant named Tessai, rips her comrade’s arms from their sockets and chugs down the severed limb blood like sugary Kool-aid. Glug, glug, glug.
When you are 12 years old and have been raised on FCC friendly Saturday mornings, this scene is, using our bygone generation’s parlance, the absolute shit.
But I’m an aging, graying man now, and much as I hate to say it, have become jaded to this sort of thing. I’ve seen Tarantino, Rodriguez, Garth Ennis and Mark Millar pull off similar bouts of shocking violence. I’m used to gore, but beyond that, I’ve seen plenty of gross-out and shock used as a marketing gimmick.
I don’t have a problem with violence, nor do I think of the spree kill scene as shock for shock’s sake. All the same, I like necessity and meaning to go with my guts and gore. Fortunately, Ninja Scroll has a lot to offer aside from its forays into balls-out brutality, including a story that entertains and characters who matter. It just takes a strong stomach to look past it.
Jubei Kibagami is a mercenary ronin for hire, offering his sword skills throughout the land for reasonable fees. He seems a decent guy, but isn’t beneath badassery when the situation calls for it. Take the opening sequence for instance. Jubei is ambushed by brigands. He tosses a rice ball he’d been eating up in the air, dispatches the whole lot, and then catches his snack on its way back down. If there was ever a more memorable way to introduce a character, it’s not coming to mind right now.
Like D, Jubei is the kind of hero whose actions and deeds speak louder than vocalized bravado. However, us Americans love our one-liners almost as much as our blood and boobs. Manga Video’s dub, while being faithful to the subtitled version, hands Jubei a bunch of witty retorts. Gems such as “when I die, I’ll take you to Hell with me” or “the only sound you’ll hear, is the sound of your own voice, screaming” (wow!) permeate the dub script. As a casual anime fan I have sat through horrendous dubbing, and in comparison this dub isn’t that bad; however, making Jubei sound like a comic book superhero comes off as more than a little forced.
Anyway, Kagero is almost raped by Tessai after the blood guzzling scene, but Jubei comes to her rescue. Jubei is later ambushed and manages to vanquish the vengeful abomination. The problem is that Tessai belonged to the “Eight Devils of Kimon,” a group of warriors with lethal, supernatural abilities.
The Devils come in various shapes, genders and weird powers, ranging from a mutant with a wasp’s nest growing out of his back, a blind samurai who uses sound to kill and a lady who commands legions of deadly vipers, including one that slithers out of her, erm, snake pit. One interesting aspect of Ninja Scroll is that it devotes time to the villains when they are off duty. They form quite the dysfunctional family unit, where jealously, lover’s quarrels and begrudged betrayals abound. The tense connections between them make them fun, albeit despicable bad guys.
With Tessai’s death, Jubei is targeted for termination by the Devils. That’s when an old monk shows up to offer Jubei a job. Dakuan is a government spy, and word is that dethroned retainers have hired the Devils to help overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate. Jubei is a lone wolf with no interest in feudal politics. So Dakuan stabs our hero with a poisoned shuriken, forcing Jubei to cooperate like a good boy for the antidote. He joins Dakuan on a quest to save the government, picking up Kagero along the way.
As promised, the Devils come calling one by one, each drawing Jubei into elaborate showdowns. This is where Ninja Scroll starts to feel like a video game, drawing many parallels to a Let’s Play: Jubei progresses the level, end monster shows up, they fight, and he wins, only to face a stronger, more dangerous opponent in the next stage. Hell, even the final bad guy is kept in shadowed secrecy until he shows up for the climax.
The Devils’ uniqueness is key to keeping the action interesting. Each one brings their own weird superpower into the fight, meaning Jubei has to come up with sly or elaborate ways to kill them. As mentioned, the Devils are not above betraying each other, either.
It’s not all about battles, though. The political intrigue forms an interesting background plot, one that harmonizes with the adrenaline and eye candy. Meanwhile Jubei has to balance dealing with not only a scheming Dakuan, who is as insidious as he is a driving protagonist, but also Kagero. She is a complicated case of resentment and self-loathing. Poison tasting has seeped venom throughout her entire body, meaning that if she so much as kisses a potential lover they will suffer instant death. A lifetime of being used like cattle has also driven her to embittered subservience. She harbors a death that wish gives Jubei more than he’d like to handle.
The relationship between Jubei and Kagero makes up the sweet part of Ninja Scroll. At first Kagero loathes Jubei like everyone else (including herself) but warms up to him. As hardened and apathetic as Jubei’s demeanor radiates, he ends up being the only person in Japan to ever treat Kagero as a human rather than an expendable tool. What she perceives as Jubei insulting her is him responding to any annoying person, male or female. Kagero brings out the most of Jubei’s humanity, and vice-versa.
Ninja Scroll is one of those movies that is consistently good but requires a certain mindset to reach the candied center. On the outset it’s an obnoxious, violent T&A show, not for the easily offended. The sworderang massacre and subsequent sexual assault is as worse as it gets; that is, until numerous decapitations later on result in volcanic blood geysers. At its heart, Ninja Scroll has a complex, character-driven story to tell that radiates genuine poignancy. Amidst the blood ocean there is good stuff to be found.
It deserves to be called an anime classic and stays in my collection.
FINAL GRADE: B