A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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.

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June 25, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , ,

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