Many are they who consider this their anime gateway drug.
And rightly so. When I saw my first glimpse of this masterpiece on MTV, all of my brain cells dropped what they were doing and shouted a single question at once:
“What the hell was that???”
God bless 90s MTV. 90s MTV understood that, as emotional media go, music and animation are very close cousins. To develop the “edgy” attitude that it needed to stand out, the network employed freaky, stunning animation for its IDs and commercials. It even produced shows specifically to showcase wild animation. Liquid Television was the first such program, and it turned Æon Flux and Beavis and Butt-head into national names.
A later show, Cartoon Sushi, used clips from Ninja Scroll as commercial bumpers. My brother called me over to check it out because he knew I’d go nuts for it, and holy shit, was he right. I couldn’t believe how amazing it was. Even my father said “Whoa,” when he happened to see it. You know your cartoon’s special when mere seconds of it get a better reaction than the remainder of the show it’s sprinkled in. It also helped that Japanese animation as we know it was just beginning to sink its claws into American culture at this time. Most of us hadn’t seen shit like this before.
But once we had a taste, we all wanted more.
The Japanese title of this movie is “Jubei Ninpocho,” which means “The Jubei Ninja Scrolls.” This peculiar phrasing is taken from the titles of ninja novels written by Futaro Yamada. These “ninja stories,” or “ninpocho,” were each titled in a similar manner: Koga Ninpocho, Edo Ninpocho, Yagyu Ninpocho, and so on.
The cartoon is set in a twisted version of feudal Japan, where blood and betrayal flow freely. In the opening scene, a roaming warrior named Jubei Kibagami is accosted by thieves, and seconds later, we’re told not only what we need to know about the setting, but also about our hero:
1.) Jubei is an unflappable man with a well-honed spider-sense.
2.) Jubei is a decent man who despises injustice.
3.) Jubei…is a badass.
He even catches the rice ball without looking.
He is based on the Japanese folk hero Yagyu Jubei Mitsuroshi, a great samurai who was dismissed from service to the Shogun for unknown reasons, and who then spent years wandering Japan, perfecting his swordsmanship. Think of him as a Davy Crockett to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Our Jubei enters into a complex and nefarious plot when he happens upon a horrible scene: a monstrous man, Tessai, raping a young woman.
This woman is Kagero, a poison taster for the Koga ninja clan. She has just witnessed the slaughter of her comrades at the hands of her captor, who has since revealed himself to be a bloodthirsty monster with a skin of stone. Jubei bravely confronts Tessai anyway, and creates an opportunity for both he and Kagero to escape.
The two ninja part ways, and while Kagero reports the night’s terrible events to her indifferent lord, Jubei is caught by the highly-pissed Tessai. What ensues is a frightful battle in which Jubei is nearly overwhelmed. Tessai’s sheer strength and stone shell seem insurmountable, but then something happens to turn the tide: the monster’s skin starts to crumble and soften, seemingly for no reason. Thinking that Jubei used some unknown technique on him, Tessai pours his rage into one last attack — one that backfires on him in a most satisfying way. This whole scene is dazzling from top to bottom, and you might need to rub your eyes afterward because you forgot to blink while watching it.
Thus, Jubei draws first blood in a war against Tessai’s buddies, as well as the attention of a doddering, walleyed priest named Dakuan, who sees potential in the young ninja — and some use.
Dakuan, who is really a government spy, is the trickster of the story. His comical voice and appearance belie a cunning and ruthless personality whose motives are only ever kind on the surface. Still, he comes off as likable, and he’s also the only one who knows what the hell’s going on in this movie, so I can’t imagine anyone hissing when he shows up onscreen.
Dakuan explains to Jubei that Tessai was one of the Eight Devils of Kimon, a team of demons hired by the Yamashiro ninja clan — the same clan that Jubei once ran with. The Devils are contracted to protect the Yamashiro as they smuggle gold to their lord, the Shogun of the Dark (a.k.a. Toyotomi), an unseen villain who wishes to overthrow the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate. The Devils crossed paths with Jubei and Kagero while on their way to recover gold from a smuggler ship that sank accidentally, and now it seems they are entangled to the bitter end.
So how did the Yamashiro boys end up with all this cheddar? Well, some years back, its leaders discovered a gold mine, and instead of reporting it to their master, a Tokugawa daimyo, they tried to sneak the riches past him. A series of betrayals followed, and in an attempt to eliminate everyone who knew about the mine, one of the Yamashiro leaders, Gemma Himuro, ordered the extermination of his own men. This forced Jubei to slay his fellow ninja in self-defense, but in turn, he found and decapitated Gemma, and became a ronin.
But Gemma has revived, having somehow developed an ability to reconstruct his body after even the most traumatic of injuries. He now leads the Devils of Kimon, and seeks to undermine both Tokugawa and Toyotomi by purporting to guard the Yamashiro smuggling operation, and then stealing the gold for himself.
Whew! You get all that? Well, sorry; I tried. Let’s carry on.
These Kimon guys are an eclectic bunch. Each one has some unique and creative method for killing. One of them can literally hide inside shadows. Another can both animate, and detonate corpses as if they were bombs on legs. One carries a nest of hornets in the flesh of his back, and is able to communicate with them and give them orders. Still another can use the snake tattoos covering her body to hypnotize and attack her enemies, while the last can generate deadly amounts of electricity and conduct it through even the thinnest steel wire. Such powers might not sound immediately useful, but the movie sees the Devils apply their skills in some mighty creative ways.
I find it incredible that this movie makes time for encounters with eight separate supervillains, but it DOES, and if I tried to cover them all in-depth, we’d be here for months. So, I’ll just talk about my favorite of the group instead: Mujuro.
Mujuro Utsutsu is a pale, soft-spoken fellow who appears, at first, to have little of the supernatural about him. It turns out he’s an archetypal blind swordsman, but that’s really not that exciting, not after some of the crazy shit this movie’s already shown us.
But then, he goes and pulls out a really nasty trick.
Mujuro is so skilled at determining his unseen opponent’s position that he can calculate the angle at which to tilt his blade so that it will reflect the glare of the sun right into Jubei’s eyes.
“Your sight is your weakness,” he says.
This is one of my favorite moments in the film. Jubei is once again outmatched, but this time it’s in a way that’s so deceptively simple, it’s wholly unexpected. When combined with Mujuro’s aggressive fighting style, this bizarre talent nearly presses Jubei to the ground, and Jubei only survives the encounter because of pure luck.
Well, luck, and the loyalty of a friend.
While it initially seems that Jubei and Kagero have divergent paths, and that they would likely be rivals in other circumstances, it’s soon made clear that fate has linked them together. Both are their clans’ sole survivors, and both of them have suffered from the cruelty of the Eight Devils of Kimon. Both are immensely talented warriors, and both have a strong sense of justice. They are also both in need of someone to trust while they’re in this awful situation.
So only an idiot would be surprised that these two fall in love. What is surprising is that they really can’t do anything about it. Kagero has spent so many years immunizing herself to poison that her body is now saturated with it. Anyone who makes love to her, or even kisses her, is signing his own death warrant (just ask Tessai). Kagero tries to carry this deadliness as a point of pride, but it is plain that she resents it, for it has caused her to lose something beautiful and human about herself.
It’s a doomed romance to be sure, and it certainly ends tragically, but the connection between the two is indelible. In a gesture of honor and respect, Jubei dons Kagero’s ruby headband, so that they may continue to fight — figuratively — as one. This metaphor becomes literal in the desperate, final battle when, having lost his sword arm, Jubei resorts to head-butting Gemma until the Devil’s skull turns to paste. It’s amazing.
My most recent viewing of Ninja Scroll was also my first viewing of it on Blu-Ray, and holy shit…it looks better than it ever did. It sounds strange, but it really looks more impressive today than it did when it was first released, and that’s not something that can be said about many movies. I paused the playback many times just so I could take in the details in the artwork and to analyze the motion in the lightning quick ninja moves. I can’t imagine animation of this caliber ever, EVER losing its appeal.
Of course, it’s not just the animation that makes Ninja Scroll wonderful, it’s the direction. The pace fluctuates as it should in any good movie, but it never gets too terse or too slow. The action scenes fly by with one intense, perfectly-trimmed shot after another, while the softer sequences provide much needed breathers. I’d hazard to say that there are one or two scenes that go on too long, but overall, it feels like the whole thing was produced in time with a metronome. I still marvel at the fact that this was made in 1993.
If you’ve somehow not seen this movie before reading this entry, relax; you need not fear. Ninja Scroll is so masterfully produced that nothing I could write on this silly little blog could ruin it for you. Even after dozens of viewings, it continues to give me the chills. So if you’re going to see it for the first time (and for that you are envied), all I have left to say is that you should curl up in a warm blanket beforehand, because Ninja Scroll will hold you in shivering, wide-eyed suspense, all the way up to its final betrayal.