Kawajiri Yoshiaki’s anime is a hyper-violent, bloodthirsty excursion into the world of ninja but cannot simply be described as exploitation cinema as its careful use of plot and characterisation generates a piece that engages the mind with its thoughtful narrative even as the screen is drenched with the flow of blood.
Jubei Kibagami is a rōnin with incredible ninja skills and a strong sense of justice. He was part of a team led by Gemma Himuro but a gold hunting excursion to benefit the Yamashiro clan turns sour and his near death leads him to decapitate the treacherous Gemma. But Gemma is reincarnated and returns as a sadistic leader of the Devils of Kimon, a group of demonic ninja with a lust for gold and a barbaric way of gaining it for their boss, The Shogun of the Dark. Jubei rescues Kagero, who is trying to aid the village from demonic rape and eventually kills the perpetrator. Jubei is persuaded to join in the battle to defeat the Devils of Kimon, and ultimately Gemma, by Dakuan, an old man with surprising abilities who gets Jubei onto his pro-governmental side by poisoning him, promising the antidote only after the job is done. Kagero joins up to help Jubei, although she doesn’t need to be coerced by poison. Jubei has a difficult task at hand but can he really rely on a cure for the poison that Dakuan had delivered to him by a swift shuriken of contaminant when he has completed it?
Certain aspects of Ninja Scroll are ideally suited to anime in a way that is difficult to achieve in live action film-making in a convincing (or at least affordable) way. Set in an alternative past and based on the series of novels by Yamada Futaro, this release is uncut (previous video versions was cut by nearly a minute) and occasionally makes for challenging viewing. Bloodletting is a fundamental part of the violence depicted, a fountain of crimson spray that hoses the scenery in excessive detail. The sexual assault on Kagero and her rescue by Jubei could be seen as masculinity personified in the actions of its testosterone enhanced lead, but Ninja Scroll gives us a stronger characterisation of Kagero than would otherwise have been assumed. She is brave and determined and her exceptional combat skills make her a welcome addition to the team. The way that she and Jubei deal with their situation and, in Jubei’s case, specifically with the cure for his poisoning, make for a film that does not skirt difficult issues but ensures that their portrayal does not dominate proceedings. Instead this is plot and character based anime that is broad in scope which at times, despite its 90-odd minute running time, feels almost like the adaptation of a larger work.
Ninja Scroll is provocative fare but its intelligent scripting and thrilling action, including copious violence, results in rewarding viewing. It is good to see this anime receive a release on Blu-ray, and in the form its director intended. Ninja Scroll is out in cinemas on 23rd November, and will be available on Blu-ray release on 26th November.