Friday, August 16, 2013

Ninja Scroll (1993)

For a certain segment of the population, if you include the word “scroll” in the title of your movie, they will rush to see it. Maybe that is why this film was re-titled from Jubei Ninpucho (literally Jubei the Wind Ninja) to its more famous name. Sorry to disappoint you, but there is not one single scroll to be found in the whole film. And that is why we were all here, to see hot scroll writing action!

Jubei (Kouichi Yamadera) is a wandering samurai for hire. He’s a master swordsman and has an unusual technique that allows his blade to send a deadly blast of wind at his enemies. This will come in handy when comes face to face with the supernatural ninjas known as the 8 Devils of Kimon.

The Devils are up to something, creating a plague that wipes out villages and terrifies the populous. The local lord sends his ninja team to investigate, but the Devils make short work of them. The only survivor is the lovely Kagero (Emi Shinohara), a ninja whose lips or embrace will poison anyone. Kagero and Jubei team up with a shady little old man named Dakuan (Takeshi Aono), who is investigating the incident on behalf of the Shogun. These three will battle the devils who have powers as varied as controlling snakes, having rock skin, literally melting into shadows and turning people into exploding zombies. Leading these creatures is the mysterious Lord Genma (Daisuke Gouri). The thing is, Jubei already killed Genma once before. But you can’t keep a good devil down.

Good Points: 
  • The animation is beautiful, macabre and disgusting
  • The 8 Devils have some creative and disturbing powers
  • Jubei and Kagero make one hell of a cool ninja duo
Bad Points:
  • The older dub has some real weak spots in it
  • Violence, gore and rape will offend some viewers
  • Plot and characters are unsurprising and predictable

Ninja Scroll is a solid blast of action/horror fun. It’s 90 minutes of cool characters fighting impressive villains in creative settings. The battles are unique and exciting. The violence is over the top, and the gore is excessive, but there is a visual poetry to the whole thing that just works. This is very much a guy’s movie, with the tough talking hero, sexy female ninja who ends up completely or nearly nude several times and the explosive battles. But for all that, it’s just a solid ninja-tastic adventure.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 3
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 5
Total:  4

In Depth Review
Kagero shows why you never sneak up on a ninja.
I’ve mentioned it before, but I think it’s important to set the background of this movie a bit. Back in the 1990s, Japanese animation had a reputation in North America for being ultra-violent, overly sexual and just plain disturbing. But as I’ve also mentioned, this came about because a lot of the material being released in North America at the time fit that description and was popular. So more anime was created to fill that niche and push the envelope further. This is the environment that spawned Ninja Scroll and why it was one of the most popular anime in the mid and late 90s.

Yoshiaki Kawajiri created this film. He has a very particular formula for movies and OAVs he worked on.  Starting with his 1987 film Wicked City most of his films follow the same structure. You get a loner hero who has a unique skill. He meets a dangerous and sexy woman who reluctantly joins forces with him. Along the way a crazy old coot will appear to help or hinder our duo. Against them is a group of super powerful beings with unique powers. All hell breaks loose. Blood is spilt. Skin is exposed. But in the end our hero kills the bad guy, beds the girl and saves the day. The patterns clicked along for the most part up to Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust in 2000. Ninja Scroll falls right in the middle of that ride.

With all the death in the film it literally rains blood.
Kawajiri wrote, directed and came up with the character design for the film, so in essence, we are seeing his complete vision here. Visually it’s got a lot going for it. His character design is fairly detailed with some exaggerations to add to the fantasy. You’ll see some long noses, huge chins and giant muscles in this film. But the faces are fully detailed and fairly realistic, which adds to the horror element of the film. Going along with this are the various costumes that allow each character to stand out and give us a bit about their personality. Jubei is dressed pretty simply, looking like a cross between Toshiro Mifune from Seven Samurai and Spike from Cowboy Bebop. Kagero is dressed in a colorful kimono, but she is like a poisonous flower you want to resist touching.

But the best character designs go to the 8 devils. Each is dressed in a way that suits their unique ability, and their character designs follow suit.   For example Benisato (Gara Takashima) has snake like abilities. So her neck is long, she moves in a fluid fashion, and her tattooed body has snakes and scale imagery in it.  The controlling Yurimaru has the ability to electrocute anyone he touches. But he is also very vain. His outfit is clean, but ornate with whites and blues. It becomes a game, as the devils appear to see if you can figure out their power before they use it. Many of them are surprising and unique. I’ve never seen the wasp ability duplicated in any other anime. For a rogues gallery this is one of Kawajiri’s best, and he’s created some doozies.

One of the many visually striking battle scenes.
But there are a couple things that just stand out from a visual stand point in this film. The first is the use of color and light. Kawajiri’s work always excels in this area, and Ninja Scroll is filled with some of his best work. The primary background color in the film is black, fitting with its horror-like imagery and feel. But on top of the darkness are a vast array of startling colors, from flaming orange during a sunset battle with the shadow devil, to the dark greens and blues of a rotting temple where Jubei faces the snake woman. The vibrant colors add to the dreamlike feel of the work and create some startling images. It also makes each battle scene feel unique and stick in the mind. Jubei’s battle against the blind swordsman in the bamboo forest is a blaze of while light, flashing blades and vibrant green. That image always sticks in my mind when I think of the film.

But the color that permeates the film is red, because let me tell you, gallons of blood are spilled in this movie.  It is all done in a stylistic way, with every character seeming to have extremely high blood pressure, when they are cut and fountains of gore erupt forth. During the slaughter of a team of ninja, it latterly rains blood, creating a dynamic image of cool blues of night, with bright red splashing down. For the most part all the violence is fully animated with very little cheating. The action is the focus and there’s plenty of it. But the film is not for the squeamish, because just about any way you wanted to see someone sliced and diced will be explored in this film.

Jubei is cool, even while snacking.
To go along with all the creative supernatural attacks and effects you have to have some creative sound. For the most part you get some really interesting stuff. One of my favorites is the spinning blade weapon used by the hulking Tessai (Ryuzaburo Otomo). This huge blade makes a distinctive whistle that just sends shivers down your spine. When you hear it, you know someone’s going to get mutilated. There’s a fair bit of explosions and fire, thanks to one of the devils who loves stuffing still living bodies with TNT and then blowing them up. Yeah, she’s a bit of a nut. The explosions pack a punch. The final battle takes place in a burning ship, and the fire blazes and crackles all around.

The music by Kaoru Wada is pretty good. The main theme is intense and strident, fitting the film perfectly. Unfortunately, it appears to be one of about five pieces written for the film. It is so distinctive that you recognize it immediately. So after the fifth or sixth time you hear it in the film, it has worn out its welcome. Unfortunately you get to hear it about six more times after that. A little more variety could have helped the film a bit. The end J-pop song is forgettable.

Kagero doesn't trust anyone, which may be a problem.
Now this was an early dub release for an anime, and that means you get a real mix of acting. Some of the performances in Ninja Scroll are pretty good, especially veteran Wendee Lee as Kagero. But some of the supporting cast goes over the top. Besides this is a samurai era flick, you should watch it in Japanese. I really like Kouichi Yamadera as Jubei, he has that perfect devil may care attitude in his voice that matches the character. The only one that seemed a bit off was Daisuke Gouri as Genma. His voice seemed too sonorous for the character.

For a film like this, you don’t need a complicated script. You pretty much need a solid storyline to set up the fight scenes and deliver a couple twists along the way. Nothing terribly complicated. We do get some well-written characters with some unique character flaws and backstory.  Jubei is very much in the Sanjuro vein of wandering warrior. He’s a bit on the rough side, but he’s got a heart of gold. He helps people in need, but also knows when to run away when things get too dangerous. But he’s also one tough customer who manages to stay level headed even when he’s getting the crap beat out of him. Then you’ve got Kagero who is cold, deadly and yet fragile in her own way. The fact that she can’t experience a simple touch without killing has made her shun any kind of relationship. There is a lot of pain in the character and it works well in the story and the way she ends up connecting with Jubei. It is that relationship that provides an interesting twist that I didn’t see coming during my first viewing.

Jubei faces his nemesis in the fiery finale.
But let’s face it; Ninja Scroll is an action adventure film and that is what we are here to see. Kawajiri does an excellent job balancing all the elements of his movie perfectly. The action scenes are exciting; they were spaced throughout the film. The story itself isn’t complicated, but the interesting characters help drive the whole thing forward. The final battle is brutal and climactic and feels like a fitting conclusion to the movie. It’s the perfect length and doesn’t overstay it’s welcome. All in all, it’s gory but solid entertainment. So if you are looking for some supernatural sword and sorcery samurai anime style, check this one out.

Want to learn more about the villains in Ninja Scroll, check out my Rogues' Gallery.


  1. Reminds me of She-Wolf of London (1946), which would be a perfect title if only there were a she-wolf in the movie. At least it has June Lockhart a couple decades before she was lost in space.

    1. I've never seen that film. There was a television series in the mid 90s called "She Wolf of London". One of my favorite on-line reviewers/comedians, Obscurus Lupa has declared it one of her favorite shows from that era for it's mix of horror and comedy. I'll need to check both of these out.

      Actually director Kawajiri has probably had a she-wolf in one of his anime. I know there is a werewolf in "Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust", but I think the female demon was one that could fuse with plants. I haven't seen much of his output in years, but he came up with some really creative bad guys and lots of great battle scenes with them. Seems like he's retired these days.