Released in the US in 1995 by Manga Entertainment & Madhouse Animation Studios, NINJA SCROLL is one of the pillars that modern anime stands on. It has well earned a seat around the campfire with the grandparents of japanimation AKIRA, GHOST IN THE SHELL, and VAMPIRE HUNTER D. What makes it stand alone is the artistry of unrivaled ultra-violence and gore it depicts throughout. Written and directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, it transports us back to 17th century feudal Japan, where the warring Shoguns of the East hold the balance of power and the future of the country in their hands, while sinister forces plot from the blood dripping shadows.
Jubei Kibagami, a vagabond ninja who answers to no one, is roped into a suicide mission to stop the mysterious and evil Shogun of the Dark. This Shogun has already decimated several ninja clans with the help of the 8 Devils of Kimon, a band of evil bad asses each possessing an augmented super skill that makes blood letting anyone in black pajamas a walk in the park. Jubei is enlisted by Kagero, a cold yet beautiful female ninja he saves from being raped. She stands as the sole survivor after her Koja ninja clan is ambushed and slaughtered on a routine mission to investigate a mysterious epidemic in a nearby village.
Kajero possesses a unique skill herself, acting as her master’s poison taster. She’s immune to all toxins, but this skill also means that she can kill most men with a simple kiss. Jubei is forced further into the adventure when he encounters a Buddhist monk seeking to play both sides against each other in the unfurling political backdrop. When the monk poisons Jubei, it’s up to the lone swordsman to follow orders to obtain the antidote. Think Snake Plissken with a katana and you’re on the right path. Pulled unwillingly into this journey, Jubei must join forces with Kajero to uncover the political motivations behind the recent assassinations overtaking the countryside.
The plot plays out like a video game, with Jubei and Kajero battling the Demons to get to the end boss, Gemma, to unearth the true motive for all this bloodshed. A forlorn romance begins to bud between Jubei and Kajero, as he comes to terms with his dishonored past that is connected to his current mission and Gemma, the Shogun of the Dark. Kajero is one to root for as she begins to let love into her heart and attempts to find a proper place for a woman in this time and place. Each demon battle is fast and intense, introducing us to new life ending abilities that wise-cracking Jubei must somehow overcome. I like to imagine that he and Ash from EVIL DEAD would probably make for new best friends.
The amazing thing about this film is its incredible animation. Each frame swirls at full speed and will still marvel anyone at every viewing even 15 years after its official release! Each frame is perfectly rendered to draw the audience into a bygone era of fluid swordplay and oppression through deadly force. The colors pop with a vibrancy usually reserved for Saturday morning cartoons. Make no mistake though, the grueling battles, cannibalism, vagina snakes, and blood splatter make it completely unsuitable for the little ones, yet still equally shocking and endearing for today’s uninitiated adult audiences.
Now don’t get confused here. When you love this flick as much as I do, don’t falter for snatching up NINJA RESURECTION thinking it’s the next adventure. These two films are done by two different studios and only share the similarity that their title character is named Jubei, meaning it is not a sequel by any means. There is a stand alone series of 13 episodes that continue with the adventures of Jubei from Ninja Scroll: The Series for those looking for another taste of samurai swordplay, but they don’t quite pack the same punch as the feature film. In 2006, they even began releasing a run of comic books further following Jubei’s exploits, but as majestically as they are rendered, it doesn’t hold a candle to watching those images dance a blood stomp polka on your TV screen.
There’s been talks of Ninja Scroll being remade into a live-action Hollywood feature with Alex Tse, who penned the screenplay for THE WATCHMEN, adapting a new storyline. I say if you’re really unable to fully enjoy cartoon violence at its apex then you should screen AZUMI 2, which takes large liberties with incorporating a lot of the action and character designs from this film, but still offers the closest aestethic and feel to what these ultra-ass kickers would look like in real life.
Ultimately, NINJA SCROLL is a fantastic action adventure that has enough gore to garner a beloved spot in any horror fan’s DVD collection. It’s an anime cult classic that serves as a great jump-off for those seeking to learn more from the genre. This is a testament that before anime was cool, it was hardcore.