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  • Manny Labram

Ninja Scroll, 1993 - Review

Updated: Jan 31

“Looks like a nasty storm’s brewing… Can’t waste my time here!”

Ninja Scroll is a 1993 action anime film written and directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri. It is a period high-action drama set in Edo period feudal Japan.

Ninja Scroll’s plot follows suit of many other ronin centred anime. We follow calm and collected rogue mercenary swordsman Kibagami Jubei (voiced by Koichi Yamadera), who involuntarily finds himself taking on The Eight Devils of Kimon, a team of ninjas with supernatural powers, bent on overthrowing the Tokugawa shogunate, and are led by a dark figure of Jubei’s past; the malevolent, and now immortal, Himuro Gemma (voiced by Daisuke Gōri).

Jubei, lost on his way to Kakio on a unrelated mission, encounters the first of The Eight Devils, Tessai (voiced by Ryūzaburō Ōtomo), who is about to rape Kagero (voiced by Wendee Lee), a female ninja (kunoichi) with a secret ability, who had been investigating a mysterious plague that has wiped out a neighbouring village. Tessai, having the ability to harden his body with rock-like armour, is more than a formidable foe. Tessai by all accounts is a brute. He possesses inhuman strength, easily able to dismember limbs with his bare hands, wields a giant double bladed sword that dwarfs even the taller characters in the film, and is overall more destructive and vulgar than the rest of the characters. Out of the Eight Devils, Tessai is in my opinion the most ruthless.

Demonstrating his superb swordsmanship and resourcefulness, and with the help of Kagero who has poisoned Tessai, unbeknownst to him, causing his impenetrable rock armour to weaken, Jubei is able to defeat him by the skin of his teeth.

As Jubei recuperates from his close battle with Tessai, he is met by Dakuan (voiced by Takeshi Aeno), a government spy who, after witnessing Jubei’s incredible fighting skills against Tessai, tactfully, and comically, recruits Jubei to help him defeat the rest of The Eight Devils who plan to steal a hefty amount of gold for their own agendas.

Jubei, together with Dakuan and Kagero, go head to head against The Eight Devils consisting of the aforementioned rock-clad juggernaut Tessai, the serpent tattoo dorned hypnotist Benisato (voiced by Gara Takashima), the hunchbacked Mushizō (voiced by Reizō Nomoto) who holds a hornets nest on his back, the blind swordsman Utsutsu Mujūrō (voiced by Norio Wakamoto), the shadow ninja warrior Shijima (voiced by Akimasa Ōmori), the explosive Zakuro (voiced by ), the electrifying, and also Genma’s right hand, Yurimaru (voiced by ), and finally the big boss himself, Himuro Genma.

As mentioned, the overall plot is similar to other ronin anime like Samurai Champloo, 2004, or even Afro Samurai, 2007 in terms of story template, and it is apparent anime such as those were influenced by Ninja Scroll. The story is fairly simple to follow, but is not the main attraction. Clearly, it is the energetic action sequences that really absorbs the viewer. The high level of gore and profanity works well within the film and emphasises the strengths of the characters and some plot points of Ninja Scroll. It makes for a great popcorn anime film that I think most people can get behind.

“We’ve saved each other over and over since yesterday. You’re a precious friend to me.”

I think the ending of Ninja Scroll was well done. The climactic battle between Jubei and Genma is as gruesome as it is entertaining. Genma is finished in such a method that is befitting of both the plot and his own selfish desires. Also, the final scene between Jubei and Kagero was heartfelt and felt genuine to the story, which is something you don’t often see in anime, especially with a casual film such as this where the plot is not as elaborate.

I should also note Daisuke Gōri does well to deliver a sinister, low, brooding voice to Genma Himuro, that certainly lives up to his intimidating demeanour.

The action sequences are beautifully choreographed and greatly show the different fighting styles of the ninjas involved. Though the film deals with the supernatural, it’s great to see that there are some imaginative tactics being used in the ninjas, and the fights are not simply one sword against the other. Jubei is very resourceful as a fighter, often using the surrounding environment to defeat the members of The Eight Devils. This helps shake things up in each encounter he has with the villains, and keeps the viewer engaged.

“Just be quiet and you’ll live a little longer.”

Meeting Tessai on screen was the most memorable part of the film for me. Watching him dismantle a large group of highly trained ninjas in a dark, eerie forest completely sets the tone of the rest of the film. Holding the dismembered arms of the leading ninja in his giant rock hands, to then take a drink of the flowing blood, all the while staring at Kagero as she delivers a piercing scream of fear, was frightening to say the least. I would say the feeling of hopelessness against such a formidable group of wicked warriors is less felt in the later parts of the film, aside from the final battle against Genma Himuro. Overall, the struggle against The Eight Devils is still a difficult one for the heroes of the film.

The animation of Ninja Scroll is stellar. I am a big fan of 80s and 90s style anime animation, and this film doesn’t disappoint. With its highly saturated colours, painted backgrounds, and detailed character designs, the film is visually alluring and stands well against the test of time.

“No, what I speak of is literally of life or death importance to you.”

Character wise, Dakuan steals the show. The old spy is witty, cunning, and good humoured. He’s an old dog who still has a couple tricks up his sleeve. Watching his frail, withered body camouflage as a tree branch is both hilarious and imaginative. His dialogue pieces are perhaps the only notable in the film. Though Dakuan is quite underhanded, he adds a lighthearted atmosphere that you can’t help but love. Jubei is also well humoured but to lesser effect.

I thought Kagero was an interesting character too. The explanation to her moodiness and desire to prove herself as a warrior made for a compelling character to follow. She is a good counter character to the good natured Jubei and the two balance each other well.

My main gripe with the film is that we don’t spend as much time with The Eight Devils as I would’ve liked. Filled with their own selfish desires and perversions, they are much more interesting characters than the two heroes Jubei and Kagero. There is a Ninja Scroll 2003 animated series, which perhaps shows these villains a bit more. But as for the film, I was left wanting more of Tessai’s barbaric fighting and pervertedness, or Genma Himuro’s arrogance and greed.

What I loved about Ninja Scroll was that it is very much what you see is what you get. If you’re looking for some awesome action, and devilish characters, then you’ve hit the jackpot. If you’re looking for a detailed story with compelling plot twists, then this won’t do it. Ninja Scroll did well in the US, but not so much in Japan, because, in my opinion, it shows the intensity of a great anime but in a very digestible way. It deals with the supernatural but does not give them such an advantage over human intelligence, resourcefulness, and luck. Overall it is a very pleasant watch and a good example of pure anime violence.

Overall rating - 7.5/10

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