Ninja Scroll Anime Review
Chronicles of the Wind Ninja, Jubei
US Release By
Period Ninja Action
Ninja Scroll, set in the days of Samurai, Shogun, and ninja, follows Jubei Kibagami, a wandering rogue ninja, and Kagero, a cold and deadly female ninja. Pulled unwillingly into a plot by the Shogun of the Dark and some very nasty demons to overthrow the Shogun and conquer Japan, the two are forced into an uneasy alliance against the forces of evil.
For a complete synopsis on the rather convoluted plot, see the notes section.
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Ninja Scroll is everything you'd expect from a gory anime ninja action movie: lots of ninjas, a corresponding volume of blood, a big group of superpowered bad guys, a cool good guy to cut them into little pieces, a sufficient selection of strange erotic situations, and a convoluted plot. It takes all the earmarks of a tried and true formula and nails every one of them, wrapping the whole package in slick art with lots of style, seasoned with plenty of smoothly animated action.
Though it's hard to call original and it occasionally pushes the limits of good taste, Ninja Scroll has everything a fan of the ultraviolent ninja genre could wish for, and the production values are high enough that even people who don't usually go for that sort of thing might find it worth watching. It is, for all intents and purposes, the quintessential animated ninja hack-and-slash movie.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
Ninja Scroll has everything you could ask for in ultraviolent ninja hack-and-slash anime--slick animation, lots of ninjas, a corresponding volume of blood, a big group of superpowered bad guys, a cool good guy to cut them into little pieces, a sufficient selection of strange erotic situations, and a convoluted plot. The sum is more than a ninja flick that's got it all--by taking all the earmarks of a tried and true formula and nailing every one of them, it has distinguished itself as the quintessential entry in its genre. Although its quality, depending on your definition, is debatable, one thing is certain: For lovers of violent ninja anime, Ninja Scroll is as good as it gets--a true instant classic.
To its credit, Ninja Scroll deserves its rank as an instant classic because it goes a bit farther than just rehashing the formula perfectly--the main characters aren't entirely familiar and the interplay between Kagero and Jubei is both more creative and has more emotional complexity than you might expect. Some of the bad guys also have creative powers, though that's not to say that you won't recognize a lot of things: The bug guy is straight out of Vampire Hunter D, with the spiders replaced by wasps, the big guy with rock skin is probably an ancestor of the metal giant in Fist of the North Star, and the blind swordsman feels like an old friend.
Also watch out for yet another demented Buddhist monk--this one is about three feet tall and is a government spy/assassin (must be a relative of Cherry). What is it with anime and Buddhist monks, anyway? What with Cherry, the guy in the Dagger of Kamui, and this little psycho, it's hard to take a Buddhist monk seriously these days.
Anyway, getting back on track, the plot (not that most people will care) deserves a nod for some originality, though it seems a little weird to have a bunch of demons involved in a scheme that boils down to stealing gold. No dark manipulations or demon armies from hell, just a bunch of money. Huh. Still, it's got a sufficient volume of semi-random political intrigue for a proper samurai-era story.
The story may not be the primary reason to see Ninja Scroll, but even if you're not the biggest fan of gore and too-cool-for-their-own-good ninjas, the visuals may be enough to make it worth checking out. Starting with the obvious (and most important), the action is superb: smoothly animated, well choreographed, and there are even some eye-catching little artistic touches. In particular look for the villains' supernatural powers--a guy who can literally slip into shadows, for example. In the non-action scenes, the character animation is also good, although some of the dialogue scenes are a little static. Backing the animation are a combination of slick art and rather original character designs--hard-edged but attractive and relatively realistic. The backgrounds are somewhat less memorable, but even those are quite well drawn--from detailed bamboo forests to rooms at sunset crisscrossed with hard shadows.
The well-selected Japanese cast features several big-name voice actors. I didn't notice any particular standout performances, but from Jubei's aloof, slightly bemused tone to Kagero's appropriately harsh (and dramatically well acted) voice to a whole collection of classically creepy sounding demons this is an all-around solidly voiced production. The translation in the subtitles, however, is occasionally a little... strange. Like, say, how every power is referred to as a "technique"--we have techniques for turning your skin into rock, techniques for turning yourself green and sprouting leaves (I'm not joking), and I couldn't help but laugh when they called reassembling dismembered limbs (and reattaching your own head) a "technique." As for the dub, the dialogue is awkward and much too modern sounding, more or less what you'd expect from your average kung fu movie dub (OK, not quite that bad).
In all, though it's hard to call original and it occasionally pushes the limits of good taste, Ninja Scroll has all the antisocial relationships, dismembered bodies, magical powers, building-jumping ninjas, and blood any fan of the ultraviolent ninja genre could wish for, and the production values are high enough that even people who don't usually go for that sort of thing might find it worth watching. It is, for all intents and purposes, the quintessential animated ninja hack-and-slash movie.
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Everybody seems to want to know what other movies are like Ninja Scroll, and the simple answer is none; it stands as the pinnacle of its particular genre. There is a TV series sequel, but it's not nearly as good. The closest movie in terms of style, characterization, and quality isn't a ninja movie at all, but it is very good--Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (not coincidentally, also directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri). The original Vampire Hunter D movie also has similarities to Ninja Scroll.
The other works of Kawajiri may also be of interest; Wicked City is probably the most similar of the bunch, but others such as Midnight Eye Gokuu and Cyber City Oedo 808 may be worth a look.
If you're desperate for more bloody ninja action, there is Sword for Truth (bad), and Yotoden: Wrath of the Ninja. Ninja Resurrection is absolutely not a sequel, but features another character named Jubei and is incredibly violent. If you want to try another area of the samurai/ninja genre, you might consider The Dagger of Kamui. Though they are both ninja movies and have similar convoluted political plots (and both have weird Buddhist monks), the Dagger of Kamui is an entirely realistic take on a similar idea, and is very good in its own right. Finally, the most stylistically similar anime to Ninja Scroll may be The Hakkenden, but it is also very different--it is bloody, features a lot of swordfighting and demons, and has a lot of style, but the plot is huge, convoluted, and very Japanese.
Notes and Trivia
Jubei Ninpucho (more accurately written "Juubee Ninpuuchou") is a somewhat hard to translate title; Jubee is of course the title character's name, and "Ninpuuchou" is made up of the characters for ninja ("nin"), wind ("puu") and "chou," a character roughly meaning story. The title, therefore, can probably be translated as something like "The Story of the Wind Ninja, Jubei."
The English title "Ninja Scroll" has little if anything to do with the original title, or the movie--there isn't even a scroll in it (unless you count a message sent by Kagero). However, the Ninja Scroll title has become well known enough that some Japanese promotional materials for the new TV series has a subtitle of "Ninja Scroll" in English under the main Kanji title.
In a stroke of irony, there is a different ninja movie that does involve scrolls, released a bit later--Ninja Mono, aka Ninja Cadets.
As a second note, there is a legendary wandering samurai-ninja character from Japanese history named Jubei Yagyu; I don't know if the Jubei Kibagami in this movie was supposed to be of any relation or just had the same given name (not family name), but I wouldn't be surprised if that legend at least inspired this movie.
Finally, since a lot of people seem to get confused about this, let me make it absolutely clear that Ninja Resurrection is not a sequel or otherwise related to Ninja Scroll--it clearly tried to capitalize on the popularity of this movie (particularly the US marketing), but the productions and stories have nothing to do with each other. For reference, the Jubei in Ninja Resurrection is supposed to be Jubei Yagyu, unlike this Jubei.
Since the plot was pretty darned convoluted, once you've seen it (or if you don't really care about having anything given away), you may be interested in this more complete synopsis: The story begins when the demon Tessai attacks and wipes out the Koga Ninja, leaving only one survivor as his plaything--Kagero. Kagero is rescued from the unpleasant fellow's clutches by a rogue ninja, Jubei Kibagami, but Kagero has little thanks, and reports the shady dealings of the "Shogun of the Dark" to her superior. Jubei, meanwhile, has another run-in with one of the minions of the Shogun of the Dark, a snake woman. After being saved by a weird Buddhist monk, Dakuan, he is promptly forced into service by that same friendly religious man by way of a poisoned throwing star. To get the antidote from Dakuan before the poison kills him, Jubei has to help him find out what that pesky evil Shogun is up to (turns out Dakuan is a government spy). It's not long before Jubei and Kagero run into each other (and a bunch more nasty agents of evil). Since they both have the same goal now, they join forces, and soon find that the Shogun of the Dark is trying to get his hands on a shipload of gold from a secret mine--which he will use to gain power and eventually take over all of Japan. Furthermore, the Shogun of the Dark is an old enemy of Jubei's, who he thought he had killed years ago. Obviously, both Kagero and Jubei are going to do something about this, involving killing a lot more superpowered minions.
US DVD Review
The DVD includes an English 5.1 soundtrack, the Japanese Dolby Pro Logic soundtrack, subtitles, and a caption track (which doesn't quite match the English dialogue--it uses the same text as the subtitles, with written sound effects added). It also includes attractively illustrated menus, with some music, that provide access to a chapter index with still frames, a long plot synopsis, and a block of text about each character, as well as the theatrical trailer, the Manga Video promo video, and a "Manga Video Fan Club Video", which despite an impressive title is just their price list. One complaint: although the Japanese soundtrack is included, and doesn't feel like an afterthought, they neglected to include the Japanese cast, a rather annoying oversight.
There is also a 10th anniversary special edition coming in late 2003; it will feature remastered audio, and a remastered widescreen video presentation (though even the original release was apparently in standard TV ratio), among other things.
Featuring some extreme violence and gratuitous sex, this is most definitely not for the kids, or even most younger teens--definitely 16-up.
Violence: 4 - Lots of hacking and gore.
Nudity: 3 - A few nude scenes, nothing extremely graphic.
Sex/Mature Themes: 4 - One random sex scene, a semi-rape scene, and some other adult situations.
Language: 2 - Relatively mild language.
Staff & Cast
Partial Japanese Cast
Kibagami Jubei: Yamadera Kouichi
Kagero: Shinohara Emi
Dakuan: Aono Takeshi
Available in North America from Manga Video on a "Special Edition 10th anniversary" bilingual DVD (buy from RightStuf or AnimeNation). It was previously available on bilingual DVD (Manga's second), subtitled, or dubbed VHS.