A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 482 – Ninja Scroll

Ninja Scroll – June 25th, 2011

I know I’ve mentioned my video store experience in the past. It’s one of those things that figures into this whole project since it figures into our love of movies of a wide variety of genres and quality levels. After all, when you have access to a huge number of movies for free, you become willing to pick up a lot of things you otherwise would have passed over. And believe me, I was thrilled to have the run of the anime section at the store I worked at in college. The store I’d worked at in high school had a total of maybe thirty cassettes of anime, and over half of those were Ranma ½ episodes. And this was not in among the non-Ranma tapes. So I ended up not seeing this until college, when Andy brought it back from work one day so I could see a classic.

He did warn me at the time that there was a moment in the movie where a snake slid out of a woman’s crotch. And that right there is the thing I think of when I think of this movie. And I do think of it. It’s still strange to think back to a time before I was at all familiar with anime, when this was brand new to me. But strangely enough I didn’t see this until college. I’d seen some of what I’m fairly sure was the original Macross series when I was a kid, up early enough in the morning on Saturdays to get away with watching something not on PBS. And I’d seen Vampire Hunter D (which we don’t have yet!) during my high school years when I didn’t sleep more than an hour or two every night. There was a smattering of other stuff I’d seen with friends or caught on television, but this had escaped me. And it was a title everyone seemed to know. I wasn’t sure what I was going to see on the screen, because by the time I sat down to watch it I’d seen a variety of other things. Enough to know that anime isn’t so much a genre as a medium with a number of common themes that show up but certainly not limited to them.

This movie falls solidly into the supernatural feudal Japan theme. It follows swordsman for hire, Jubei, as he is drawn into a plot to use stolen gold to start a civil war. A mysterious old man poisons him in order to force him to help in return for the antidote. Turns out Jubei has history with the man responsible for the whole plot, Gemma, and I’ve got thoughts on the poison plot and all that but I’ll get there in a moment. As far as the main plot goes, Jubei ends up having to fight off a number of warriors with supernatural powers who are working for Gemma in hopes of stopping Gemma from getting the gold and using it to start a super army. Their history together is a little complicated but suffice it to say that they’re rivals and Jubei killed Gemma but Gemma found a way to reincarnate himself and make himself immortal. Immortal enemies are always a pain in the ass, aren’t they? Yeah, Jubei agrees and gets kind of pissed that all his earlier hard work is more than undone.

Alongside him in his mission to stop Gemma is a young woman named Kagero who is usually employed as a poison taster for the head of the Mochizuki clan. She’s also a ninja, and since her poison tasting skills aren’t needed at the moment she goes with a team of ninja to investigate a town that’s been wiped out by a plague. Her team is wiped out by the supernatural warriors sent by Gemma, since the town wasn’t killed by a plague but by poison so Gemma’s men could retrieve the gold. And you know, the specifics of where the gold is and getting it and sneaking it through the area and all? Yeah, it’s important to the overall scheme of things, since without that impetus there wouldn’t be all that much reason for the movie to happen, but I glaze over when I try to explain it. There’s an evil dude who wants power and in the course of his attempt to get it he kills people and the hero and heroine try to stop him. There. Done.

Because what I take away from this movie isn’t the political maneuverings of Gemma or the clan he’s latched onto to get his dirty work done. I don’t really care about the clan leader Kagero works for. What I care about are the fights between Jubei and the warriors Gemma sends after him. Known as the Devils of Kimon, we’ve got the aforementioned snake woman, a woman who can make things explode, a man who has a wasp nest in his back, a man who can turn his skin rock hard, a man who can slip in and out of shadows, a blind swordsman and then Gemma himself and his immediate second who can control everyone else with invisible threads (which he can also kill them with). It’s implied that the last one there has a thing for Gemma and that the explosive woman wants the thread dude and they’re all jockeying for position and don’t trust each other or much like each other and I’m kind of fascinated by them. I do wonder if their powers are based on anything in particular or if they’re just a random collection of potentially useful powers. I like that they don’t all work on a theme, like all be animal related or something. It makes them more interesting.

It also makes for a wider variety of fights for Jubei. He has to deal with the snake woman more than once and the wasp man is a far different sort of fight than the swordsman is. And he doesn’t even kill all of them himself! Which I also like. The snake woman is killed by her superior for failing and Jubei wouldn’t have been able to take down the stone man without Kagero having weakened him. Which brings us to Kagero being awesome in a way I’m not entirely comfortable with. Because she’s a poison taster she’s immune to all sorts of poisons herself, but she’s also taken in so many over the years that she secretes poison. She’s saturated with it. Which means she kills anyone who touches her too much. Which is how the stone guy got weak enough that Jubei could take him out, since he’d tried to rape Kagero earlier. Which is what started to make me uncomfortable. Later on we find out that the cure for the poison the old man gave Jubei is, surprise surprise, to sleep with Kagero. Which is when I start glaring.

I like Kagero. She’s strong and smart and she’s clearly good both at what she does most of the time and at her side job of kickass ninja. She’s able to use her poison powers to hold off an attack from the wasps at one point and she’s clearly an excellent fighter. But her major contribution to the plot is her deadly sexin’. There’s something distinctly unpleasant about that to me and it makes me unhappy because she is so strong otherwise and I do like her and I do like the rest of the movie. To reduce her importance to sex just irks me and due to Jubei’s history with Gemma the poison wasn’t even really necessary and given how much the old man knew and planned you’d think he could have figured that out. Which means he was trying to hook Jubei and Kagero up for kicks. Fortunately for Jubei, he declines to actually use her like that, giving her a friendly hug instead, which makes me like him a lot more as a character. Unfortunately for Kagero, she’s doomed to die so Jubei can walk off alone like he walked in.

But other than that, this movie is really pretty impressive. The animation is lovely and the villains are interesting. It’s a wonderful example of a fairly dark animated film and I really do like the vast majority of it. I think the political plot is a little ambitious and not given enough time for the details it’s supposed to have and there’s the Kagero issue, but I like Jubei and I like the overall mood of the film and I think it’s a great accomplishment. Certainly worthy of its status as a classic.

June 25, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ninja Scroll

June 25, 2011

Ninja Scroll

This review is going to make me feel old. I can sense it. It’s a “you kids today” review. You kids today with your handheld video games and your internets and your smart phones – you don’t know how lucky you are. When I was growing up in the days before VHS and cable television there was almost no anime available to sate my desire for strange, non-American animation that was not necessarily intended for children. Of course I obsessed over the few tantalising glimpses I was able to find on UHF TV hidden between the mind-numbing Saturday morning fare. Like the intriguing Battle of the Planets (severely edited for American audiences from Gatchaman) or Force Five (which was actually five different shows, a different one for each day of the week) or Robotech, which made no sense to me because I kept missing episodes – and because it was adapted from four different anime shows and re-dubbed into a single non-sensicle time line – or the awesome space soap opera that was Star Blazers. I remember how disappointed I’d be when I tuned in to Force Five and it wasn’t a Grandiser episode, for example.

Anyhow, my point is that I spent my youth intrigued and fascinated by these awesome cartoons which were so completely unlike anything else on TV. Only when I was in college in the early nineties did I start to find original anime in Japanese so I could enjoy it in its unadulterated form. At that time the big sensation of course was Akira, which had only come out a couple years prior and was far from as ubiquitous as it is today. Naturally I saw other classics like Vampire Hunter D and Dirty Pair. This movie, however, had not even come out yet. Years later when I was working at TLA and Amanda was in college in Pennsylvania anime was beginning to gain a more significant foothold in America. People who didn’t live entirely in dark rooms lit by computer screens had heard of it. It was at this time that Ninja Scroll became required viewing for anybody new to the genre. The reason why is clear as we watch this again tonight: this movie exemplifies everything awesome about Japanese animation that isn’t present in the pap created for American audiences.

What this movie is is a classic Japanese samurai movie but more magical and extreme. It takes place in feudal Japan, but includes unearthly magical powers. Three unlikely companions, each for reasons of their own, do battle with an upstart clan that is trying to oust the Tokugawa warlord that currently rules the country. Opposing them are the shadow clan, who have retained the help of eight legendary ninjas – the Devils of Kimon. Each of the eight Devils has his or her own deadly power. One can turn his skin to impervious stone and hurl a devastating spinning boomerang sword, one can fill corpses with explosives and re-animate them under her own control, one commands hordes of snakes, another hordes of wasps and so on. Leading the devils is the immortal warrior Gemma whom our hero Jubei had thought dead after they fought years ago while in the service of a different master.

The basic plot, of Jubei the wandering ronin teaming up with the last survivor of a ninja strike team sent by a local leader to investigate the doings of the Devils and a wise old manipulative government spy, doesn’t hold many surprises. It’s pretty much the story of the three of them reluctantly uniting and one by one defeating the unimaginably powerful foes they face, leading up to a climactic confrontation between Gemma and Jubei in a burning boat full of stolen gold bars. Kagero, the ninja woman whose kiss brings death because of her years as a poison taster for her clan, is bitter and cold. Jubei is your classic lone wolf, who has no interest in political conflicts like this but is manipulated by the government spy Dakuan. Even together they have no hope of defeating their supernatural foes, but they do battle with them nonetheless.

That’s not really the point of the movie though, at least not to my eyes. The point of the movie is to have a never-ending series of brutal action scenes that are the absolute pinnacle of extreme Japanese animation. This movie is absolutely packed with nudity, sex, severed limbs and geysers of blood. Right from the beginning when Kagero’s ninja team are destroyed by the giant stone-skinned Tessai, raining blood and body parts from the trees to the ground below you know exactly what this movie is all about. It’s a thrilling action adventure with a pulsing soundtrack and awesome fight scene after awesome fight scene. It also manages to encompass many of the tropes of the entire anime genre.

In the late nineties if you wanted to introduce somebody to anime as a genre there were three films they were required to watch: Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Ninja Scroll. All three, for an American audience raised on Disney films, were shocking, awesome and left an indelible impression. Animation as a whole is not limited to childrens’ films about talking animals – it can be dark, violent, bloody, and sexy. It can be a whole lot more as well (as evidenced by the works of Hayao Miyazaki) but this movie is part of an important revelation for American audiences. I love it for that. And for being unbelievably cool too.

June 25, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment