Jubei-chan: The Ninja Girl Anime Review
十兵衛ちゃん - ラブリー眼帯の秘密
Juubei-chan - Raburii Gantai no Himitsu
US Release By
Wacky Ninja Girl Comedy-Action-Drama
13 25-minute episodes
1999-04-05 - 1999-06-28
What's In It
- Cute Ninjas
- Slapstick Like You Wouldn't Believe
- Extreme Weirdness
- Lots of good old-fashioned Stupid
- Unexpected Drama
- Violence: 2 (moderate)
- Nudity: 1 (mild)
- Sex: 1 (mild)
- Language: 1 (mild)
Three hundred years ago Yagyu Jubei, the greatest swordsman in Japan, all but destroyed a rival ninja clan. Since then they have survived in secret, plotting vengance. But Jubei foresaw this, and before he died, he created the Lovely Eyepatch--a magical item capable of bestowing his mastery of swordsmanship on the one chosen as his successor. With his dying breath, Jubei entrusted his loyal servant Koinosuke with finding this successor and saving Japan from an era of darkness.
Well, it took Koinosuke three centuries to locate Nanohana Jiyu (nicknamed Jubei by her widower father), an average, everyday (anime) high school student starting at a new school. Except Jiyu wants nothing to do with a magical eyepatch, a 300-year-old curse, and a string of teacher-assassins.
There's also the Ruffians, a trio of incompetent tough guys with an empty-headed leader determined to show his love for Jiyu. Plus his romantic rival Shiro, a Kendo champion running from his family's dark past and evil twin brother...
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A very cartoony, very Japanese, and very weird series that still manages to have something like a story, some drama, and several extremely likable characters. It somehow uses the bits of drama to move itself from a relentless parody to an interesting story, yet never lets the serious moments bog it down. Most of all it's downright hilarious if your sense of humor lines up right, blending relentless slapstick, throwaway comments, and quirky scenes, all with razor-sharp comic timing. Throw in a few spiffy action scenes and a spectacularly varied Japanese cast, and you won't even notice you're missing a quarter of the jokes.
The onslaught of stupidity will be too much for some, and it weirds itself into love-it-or-hate-it territory, but it's different enough that if it clicks for you, Jubei-chan is pure, mad genius.
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If you watched a random scene from Jubei-chan: The Ninja Girl, you could mistake it for a light action series about a girl who develops superpowers, an off-the-wall cartoon, or even a family drama about a widowed father and his only daughter. Watch the whole thing, and you'll probably just see a very weird, very silly adolescent comedy with a penchant for springing serious moments out of nowhere. But if you ask me, Jubei-chan is genre-confused brilliance from the slightly warped mind of Akitaro Daichi.
Love it or hate it
As many good things as I have to say about Jubei-chan, there's a lot to hate about it. It's the kind of series that a few people will love and the rest will dismiss entirely--it's too odd to fall in the middle.
If the series' offbeat sense of humor isn't your thing, nothing will save it for you. And even if it is, you're going to have to stomach a lot of hyperactive silliness to not find the whole affair juvenile and annoying. That said, I don't usually think much of cartoony shows, yet somehow this one had me loving it in spite of all the reasons not to.
A wet blanket that works
If the comedy was all there was to it, by the third episode you'd be quoting one of the characters: "Get me out of this anime." But I was surprised (shocked, even) by the amount of drama that appears once it gets underway. And, even though the plot is pure formula, the closer to the end it gets, the harder it is to tell quite how it's going to play out.
I was even more surprised by how little the abrupt shifts between comedy and drama bothered me. I usually hate overly dramatic comedies, but the comparatively serious ending is one of Jubei-chan's strongest points. I think it's so crazy early on, and the drama so willfully incongruent, that the inconsistency and bipolar disorder somehow fit right in. It also refuses to take itself too seriously--even in the most dramatic moments there are subtle bits of humor in the background.
Gags in front, gags behind, gags to the right and to the left
And if ever there was a series that doesn't take itself seriously, it's Jubei-chan. Some gags are straightforward rimshot types, some are slightly more subtle, a bunch are only funny if you speak Japanese,1 and a whole lot are very cartoony physical/visual gags. It's also quite self-aware, and not afraid to break the fourth wall. For example, when some characters aren't important in a particular scene, they're drawn crudely--and complain about it.
For all the broad slapstick, though, it's the subtle humor that kept me laughing. The best bits are practically throwaways: Under-the-breath comments, backhanded compliments, a variety of background visual gags, and (my personal favorite) clever randomness.
Slice like a ninja / Jokes like a razor blade
The low-key, quirky little scenes that pop out of nowhere sprinkled throughout the series are my idea of comic brilliance. Take the ninja assassin "Francois," who poses as a publisher to sneak into Jiyu's house; rather than turning into simple situation comedy, this leads to a long, awkward silence while she and Koinosuke stare each other down over tea.
That scene is an example of what, more than anything, makes Jubei-chan so funny: Absolutely perfect comic timing. The timing is impeccable, whether in the series of deadpan follow-up rebukes one of Jiyu's classmates constantly mutters, or the long, awkward pauses that break up the rapid-fire funnymaking elsewhere.
In addition to minor folks like "Francois" and her husband "Mick," the series is built around a range of not-quite-formula characters. The anachronistic Koinosuke, my personal favorite, combines samurai ethic, a pathetic situation, dogged determination, and a fascination with modern amenities to become one of those beleaguered and absolutely lovable weirdoes.
Shiro, the would-be classic quiet stud, is fun-and-a-half, too; his obsessive expressions of love are almost creepy, he's easily duped by his loser classmates, and he's constantly getting unintentionally snubbed by Jiyu, who can't even remember his name. His evil twin brother, Hajime, is a stark contrast--quiet, entirely serious, and an all-around creepy villain.
The heart of a father and Daughter
The heart of the series is Jubei (or rather, as she's quick to point out, Nanohana Jiyu). She could have easily been a vacuous ditz or another one of those characters: "I have no confidence in myself until I realize I'm special, then go save the world." Instead, she's... well, chipper, normal, and kind of real. She has a positive attitude and is cheerful in front of her dad and new classmates, but every time you think she's just blindly smiling through things, she'll drop a hint that she's paying way more attention than it seems. She doesn't appreciate having to deal with being the successor of a long-dead swordmaster on top of normal problems, but she's not nearly empty-headed enough to ignore all the mayhem going on around her, however much she'd like to.
Jiyu gives the series a solid center along with a lot of infectious spunk, and her dad, Sai, rounds out the picture. He starts out playing the part of a bizarre, sleep-deprived weirdo (with hilarious results), but he's an almost shockingly normal, mature, and generally likable single father through most of the series. The picture we get of Jiyu and Sai's home life is almost idyllic, but neither particularly sappy nor unbelievable. In a bit of turnabout, it's Sai who has to overcome his self-doubt, not Jiyu. Coming to grips with the pain that losing his wife brought on both his daughter and himself is handled sensitively and with as much seriousness as appropriate.
Seemingly at odds with the rest of the story, this emotional core manages to provide a counterbalance to the wackiness. That, coupled with just a hint of romantic desire on Sai's part, made me actually care about the characters in one of the most off-the-wall series I've ever seen.
Budget to joke
The basic visual style of Jubei-chan is classic anime--cute, rounded character designs, relatively bright colors, and simple but crisp art. The only unusual bit is that the linework is quite heavy. Some of the more serious scenes (and a few that could have been, but aren't) are rather dark and occasionally stylish enough for a more traditional ninja movie. The character designs, while simple (and occasionally very cartoony), are surprisingly distinctive. The most interesting are the Ruffians, who look less or more realistic depending on how serious they're being, sometimes drastically so. Importance-based-art is just one ongoing visual gag of many, ranging from subtle to blunt SD slapstick.
The animation, courtesy Madhouse, is quite smooth, and although the bulk of it is "wasted" on the cartoony stuff, there is some attractive character animation. There are also a handful of very slick ninja swordfights--smooth, fast, and well-choreographed.
Toshio Matsuda's musical score ranges from the perky end theme to the occasional dramatic drum flourish, but the driving drumbeats that accompany the action are the only memorable part.
Acting to match
There's no way a series like this could work without a skilled voice cast, and the Japanese actors are up to the challenge. The collection of colorful caricatures--the ruffians, some of Jiyu's classmates, and some of the assassins--run the gamut from Sachi's dry monotone to one-shot-joke Tenchi Muyonosuke's piercing screech. The handful of relatively serious characters--mainly the twins, both voiced by Tatsuya Nakazaki--are believable and would be comfortable in a far more serious series. The folks somewhere in the middle hold the series together--Sai (Keiji Fujiwara), Jiyu (Hiroko Konishi), and Koinosuke (Ryotaro Okiayu). Thanks to fine performances from Konishi and Fujiwara, Jiyu and Sai are remarkably believable most of the time, both as normal folks and in their occasional dramatic moments.
As for English... well, I'll just say is that this is the sort of series that's nigh-impossible to dub. Although the casting is decent and the effort valiant, there's only so much they could do. It isn't nearly as funny and loses a lot of what made me like the series as much as I did.
Jubei-chan: The Ninja Girl is, in essence, a very cartoony, very Japanese, and very weird series that still manages to have something like a story, some drama, several extremely likable characters, and yet never lets the serious moments bog it down. The onslaught of stupidity is a bit too much in the first couple episodes, and it's too crazy for most people to get in to, but it's different enough that if it clicks for you like it did for me, it's pure, mad genius.
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The sequel, Jubei-chan 2, aside, Dragon Half is about the closest thing I can think of to this series in terms of cartoony humor. Jubei-chan has more in common with Fushigi Yuugi, in that it's a mix of comedy and serious action, but with the proportions reversed. It probably shares the most in spirit with Urusei Yatsura--both series are very weird, very wacky, and yet have just enough plot and heart to keep you interested in the characters.
Notes and Trivia
Jubei-chan is an original creation of writer/director Akitaro Daichi. There is a sequel series, Jubei-chan 2.
Daichi's works are consistently somewhere on the odd spectrum combining frenetic action and heavy drama; well-known examples include Elf Princess Rane, Now and Then, Here and There (which he also created), Kodocha, and Fruits Basket. He also created, wrote, and directed Tsukikage Ran, a much more conventional period action-comedy about samurai.
Yagyuu Jubei was a real character from Japanese history. He was rumored to be a sort of Samurai-Ninja in the service of the Emperor. Although there is no historical evidence of his having an eyepatch, it is part of his lore (the one he wears in popular art and stories is usually made from a sword guard). The legend of how he lost the eye is similar to the one given in this series, but Jubei passing his skills on through an eyepatch is unique to this anime. As usual, Wikipedia has a brief biography. Adaptations of the character have made appearances in a number of other anime.
Footnote 1: In fairness, even a lot of the "Japanese" humor can be caught by an anime fan with a functional understanding of Japanese culture, and Bandai's subtitles capture the existence (if not the laugh) in other parts.
US DVD Review
Bandai's DVDs are simple but very nice productions. Each includes a Bandai-trademark extremely crisp video transfer, a notably good subtitle track, and crisp, two-channel Japanese and four-channel English soundtracks. It also has full opening and end credits on every episode (it's easy to forget that a lot of early DVDs omitted the credits on mid-disc episodes), complete with alternating English and Japanese sing-along subtitles for the end theme. The silly-looking animated menus provide a few minor goodies--recipes and fashion advice from Jubei, Bantaro's dating tips, an art gallery, textless ending (there is no opening animation), and some TV commercials. The later Complete Collection re-release doesn't change any of the content, just the packaging.
A few bits of mature humor and surprising flashes of violence account for Bandai's 13-up rating, which if anything is too strict.
Violence: 2 - A lot of semi-serious fighting, but almost nobody dies.
Nudity: 1 - Essentially nothing, but a lot of chest-staring.
Sex/Mature Themes: 1 - Nothing past schoolyard romance, but a few mildly mature comments.
Language: 1 - The Ruffians are, well, a bit ruff...
Available in North America from Bandai on bilingual DVD as a "Complete Collection" box set, out of print as of 2012. Prior to the complete collection, the four DVDs were available individually or as a box set combining them. Was originally available on four subtitled or dubbed VHS volumes.
At last check Amazon had used copies available at a reasonable price: Jubei-Chan the Ninja Girl - Complete Set