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Ninja Scroll

Original title: Jûbê ninpûchô

aka Jubei Ninpucho: The Wind Ninja Chronicles; Jubei the Wind Ninja

D: Yoshiaki Kawajiri / 94m

Cast: Kôichi Yamadera, Emi Shinohara, Takeshi Aono, Daisuke Gôri, Toshihiko Seki, Masako Katsuki, Shûichirô Moriyama, Ryûzaburô Ôtomo

In feudal Japan the village of Shimoda is wiped out by a mysterious plague. A team of Mochizuki ninja are sent by their chamberlain, Sakaki Hyobu (Moriyama) to investigate but are ambushed by a giant whose body is made of stone. He kills them all except for Kagero (Shinohara), the only female in the team. The giant, Tessai (Ôtomo), intends to use her for sex but is interrupted by a lone samurai called Jubei (Yamadera). Jubei Blinds Tessai in one eye and he and Kagero escape. She continues with her mission to discover the reason for the plague at Shimoda village, while Jubei finds himself pursued by Tessai; they fight a second time and Jubei is able to defeat him.

Afterwards, Jubei meets Dakuan (Aono), an old monk working for the government who  tells him that Tessai was one of the Devils of Kimon, seven supernatural entities under the control of Genma Himura (Gôri). Jubei is shocked as he had killed Genma five years before. Jubei was part of a ninja team led by Genma, and he was betrayed by him when Genma attempted to steal a horde of gold from his Lord; Jubei is shocked because Genma was beheaded. Dakuan informs him Genma now has the ability to reanimate himself, no matter how he’s killed. He also tells Jubei that with the death of Tessai the remaining Devils will seek him out to exact their revenge. Dakuan tries to hire Jubei to help him but he refuses; unwilling to accept his answer, Dakuan then poisons Jubei with the promise that if he assists the monk he’ll be given the antidote and a hundred pieces of gold.

True to the old monk’s warning, the remaining devils attack Jubei in turn. He defeats them, and as he does he learns that the gold that Genma tried to steal was on a ship that was sunk in a storm on the coast near to Shimoda village. He and the devils are in the process of recovering the gold. Jubei is rejoined by Kogera and also learns that she has a special gift: as her master’s poison expert her body is so full of toxins that she is immune to them; if anyone gets too close to her they run the risk of being poisoned themselves. Together, and only occasionally aided by Dakuan (who is using them as a distraction), they track the devils to Kishima Harbour where the gold is being loaded on to another ship. Once on board, they plan to sink the ship, but Genma and a remaining devil have other ideas.

Ninja Scroll - scene

Viewed over twenty years on from its debut, Ninja Scroll is still an exciting, vividly hand drawn (no CGI here) animated movie that stands head and shoulders above the majority of similar movies that have followed in its wake. It’s violent, unafraid to throw in some sexual activity (one scene is a little uncomfortable to watch), has a thin streak of malicious humour, and has some of the best choreographed fight scenes witnessed in an anime movie.

The storyline is almost classical in its simplicity, although the feudal politics might have some viewers reaching for the pause button if watching at home (good luck if you’re in the cinema). With its background of warring shogunates and treacherous clan retainers and double crosses, the history surrounding the gold and its whereabouts can be a mite confusing. But Kawajiri keeps it all brief enough to be ignored if the viewer wants to go that way, and concentrates on the clashes between Jubei and the devils, and his awkward romance with Kogera. Each of the showdowns features a devil with a particular way of fighting, from Tessai and his stone-like body to Yurimaru (Seki) and his command of electricity, and each makes for a continually compelling (and dangerous) series of foes for Jubei to defeat. It’s to Kawajiri’s credit that these encounters go such a long way to making the movie as successful as it is. The romance between Jubei and Kagero is equally well constructed and played out, its unrequited nature having a greater emotional depth than is usual, and the two characters’ scenes together add an extra punch to proceedings and benefit immeasurably from the voice talents of Yamadera and Shinohara.

The lone samurai figure is a staple of Japanese feudal fiction, and while Ninja Scroll is an homage to Futaro Yamada’s Ninpōchō novels, there’s much here that resonates beyond the source material. The themes of betrayal, honour, sacrifice, revenge and greed lie heavily on the narrative, but are complemented and enhanced further by aspects of love, duty, loyalty and compassion. All these add up to a storyline that is rich in potential, and which is used by Kawajiri to extremely impressive effect. He’s aided by an equally impressive voice cast, with Yamadera and Shinohara being superbly abetted by Aono (in a role that’s a homage to the famous Japanese monk Takuan Sōhō), Seki as the most debonair of the devils, and Gôri as the malignant sounding Genma.

The animation in Ninja Scroll is often stunning to look at, even if some of the imagery doesn’t always maintain the high standard set by surrounding scenes or shots – the hornets controlled by the devil Mushizo spring to mind – but this is a minor gripe in a movie that offers arresting image after arresting image (it’s a rare movie that can boast a death caused by head-butting). Again, Kawajiri assembles and orchestrates the material with undisguised skill, and is ably supported by Hitoshi Yamaguchi’s redolent cinematography, and the editing expertise of Yukiko Ito and Harutoshi Ogata.

Rating: 8/10 – an iconic anime that has stood the test of time (and what seems like a million and one imitators), Ninja Scroll has all the ingredients of a rousing samurai drama – and then some; bold, inventive, and endlessly enjoyable, it’s one animated movie that you just know will never be bettered by a live-action version.