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Review: "Ninja Scroll" (UK Theatrical Screening): Art of the Ninja

Ninja Scroll is a feature held as a classic amongst the echelons of Japanese animation fans. Unfortunately, here in the UK it is also linked to an urban legend of it all being ‘violent animated pornography’. I remember buying into these inaccurate slurs in my childhood and vowing I’d stay well away from the stuff when I saw VHS volumes next to the more familiar Batman and Spider-Man comics.

Life sure is ironic sometimes, and thankfully education is the remedy to ignorance.

The story is set in the ever imagination-inspiring ‘Warring States’ period of Japanese history, when the country was striving to establish a consistent and stable order. A threat to this effort emerges in a plot championed by the Eight Devils of Kimon, a group of monstrously powerful ninja. Wandering swordsman Jubei inadvertently becomes involved with the crisis when he saves Kagero, the lone survivor of a ninja recon team, from one of the Devils. Drawn in deeper and deeper, Jubei discovers that the mission may have more to do with him than first thought.

One of the things that is instantly striking about the film is the tempo. The movie establishes both this and Jubei’s character with the opening scene, where he is ambushed as he crosses a bridge by three bandits who are incredulous that he accepted such a small fee for securing a relic in an unseen assignment. The scene quickly establishes much of the movie’s tone, including the presence of romanticised super ninjas and Jubei’s personality of ethics, skill and honour. 
Jubei is actually surprisingly progressive for the protagonist of a 19-year-old Japanese movie. There’s rather active sexist undertones in a lot of productions coming from the country even to this day, so not only does the facet stand out more but seems to be intentionally explored by writer and director Yoshiaki Kawajiri. Jubei feels like a strong influence on Cowboy Bebop’s Spike Spiegel with his easy going yet jaded nature backed up a firm moral code and clear combat expertise. He’s instantly likeable.

The issues of sexism are mainly explored through Jubei’s interactions with Kagero, a female ninja whose team were wiped out by one of the Eight Devils and is ordered to continue to monitor their activities. Kagero is the female lead of the feature and arguably quite an empowering one. She reports on the failed mission to her lord from behind a paper door as he thinks nothing of ‘attending’ to one of his lovers at the same time, leaving a clear look of disgust on Kagero’s face. Her position as both a disposable ninja and a woman leaves her in an unfavourable position, deepened by a curse she carries. The issues are actually explored in a sympathetic way, unlike other Japanese productions I could name which seem to treat the idea of a strong woman being a façade for how weak she really is.

The issue is of course also explored in the now restored sequence which brought the title to media attention years ago: Captured as a trophy by Tessai, who wiped out her team, she suffers an attempted rape. This sequence is intentionally uncomfortable to watch and in no way meant to be titillating. There is a very fine line when it comes to including stuff like this in a story but I feel its presence here is used to illustrate a triad of character development; Kagero’s curse, Tessai’s lack of humanity and Jubei’s heroism. Indeed the events of this sequence lay the foundation of Kagero and Jubei’s relationship which is explored throughout the feature.

The inhuman quality is played up with each of the Eight Devils. Kawajiri states “I’m interested in the impact of horror created by blending reality and fantasy. I like designing creatures that are half-man and half-beast.” Each of the Eight utilises a special fighting technique that couldn’t be replicated by real warriors. Tessai, for instance, possesses the ability to turn his skin to stone and uses it in combination with his weapon and strength to pull of devastating attacks no normal human could. I don’t want to discuss the variations too much as a big part of the fun is seeing what sneaky trickery the heroes will be faced with next but it’s easy to see the influence Ninja Scroll has had on later Japanese ninja productions such as Naruto. Even Dakuan, the government spy who recruits Jubei and Kagero to stop the plot, gets in on the fun by way of the always cool ‘ninja grandpa’ shtick.

Whilst the animation hints at its near two-decade age, it’s still quite agreeable. The vivid animation and colour palette have been complemented by the restoration process. Being set in ancient Japan means we get to see many detailed mountain ranges and lush forests. However the movie doesn’t simply recreate life, and takes advantage of the unique presentation of cinema. A fight near the end between Jubei and a ninja who can literally sink into shadows uses moody, two-toned lighting to push both the danger the shadows present and the emotional weight driving the fight. It’s a brilliant stylistic juxtaposition that helps the viewer feel the tension, putting us just on edge about the darkness as Jubei is.
The actual action is just as well handled. In some ways it’s a negative that the movie partly feels like a series of loosely connected fight scenes as each of the Eight challenges Jubei, but the handling is in fact done better than similar hierarchies in Japanese action shows. The fights are actually fun to watch, being beautifully animated and each offering a different fighting style for our heroes to overcome. As is most fitting for a ninja movie victory is often won with a cunningly foreshadowed trick.

The cinema screenings will be split, with some venues showing the film subtitled and others showing it dubbed. The dubbed presentation was the one shown to press, and it’s workable if slightly archaic. The dub appears to be from the days when companies like Manga Entertainment were frequently licensing standalone movies, a time when anime dubs were less polished. The cast as such is a mix of those who were prolific dubbers and those who have continued to appear in dubs to this day. Dean Elliot does a good job as Jubei, but there’s something distinctly American about his performance. Kagero’s Wendee Lee will certainly be famous as the ‘goddess’ of dubbed anime, and brings her usual talent to the role. More hokey is Rudy Luzion’s Dakuan, often opting for very literal line readings. The rest of the cast generally do a good job even if at times it’s quite easy to picture dialogue as lines being read by an actor. I’ll give special praise to Richard Hayworth’s Yurimaru, Genma’s infatuated second in command. Hayworth plays the role in a way that provides intentional subtext and exerts an aura of command and menace.

I’m always a little uncertain whenever I watch something hailed as a classic because it’s so easy for hype to outclass the actual merits of a production. Ninja Scroll however manages to live up to its reputation. It’s a story that uses both the visual focus and engrossing presentation of cinema to full advantage, delivering a perfectly paced adventure. My only caveat is that the 18 rating is justified; exciting as the action is, this isn’t a film for children but neither is it an ill-advised shock fest. Don’t miss the chance to see an intelligent classic on the big screen as it was intended.

Ninja Scroll will screen at selected Picturehouse Cinemas and Picturehouse Partner Screens in the UK from 23rd November.

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