Ninja Scroll (Cert 18)
2 Discs (1 Blu-ray / 1 DVD combo) (Distributor: Manga Entertainment) Running time: 92 minutes approx.
For any western anime fan worth their salt, this title should need no introduction; it is after all one third of the “Holy Trinity” of anime films that spearheaded the breakthrough in interest of Japanese animation on this side of the world. Alongside Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira and Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost In The Shell, Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Ninja Scroll remains one of the most important and influential anime titles of the modern era. At the time of its original release in the UK in 1995, its onslaught of sex and violence made it a cult hit due to such adult content in animation being exceptionally rare on these shores.
Over time however, the film’s impact goes beyond its graphic material and has now been rightfully regarded as a classic. With the twentieth anniversary of its original Japanese release coming in 2013, Manga UK now bring the film to a whole new audience while long term fans can enjoy this seminal work in glorious HD thanks to this Blu-ray release.
The plot is fairly straightforward: During feudal Japan a wandering samurai Jubei Kibagami finds himself embroiled in a hostile conflict between the Tokugawa Shogunate and the mysterious Shogun of The Dark, the latter seeking to overthrow the reigning government. A team of Koga ninja are wiped out by a stone demon named Tessai except for female ninja Kagero.
She is saved by Jubei who successfully slays Tessai, learning from a Shogunate spy named Dakuan, that Tessai was, one of the Eight Devils of Kimon, a group of dangerous ninja with supernatural abilities lead by Himuro Gemma, an old nemesis of Jubei’s whom he beheaded many years earlier but has since mastered the art of rejuvenation. With a bullseye now on his back, Jubei is tricked into working with Dakuan and Kagero to hunt down the Eight Devils and wipe them out.
Every samurai/historical fantasy anime film or series that has appeared over the past twenty years owes a huge debt to Ninja Scroll and from re-watching it, the influences are abundantly clear. For recent shows such as Basilisk, Samurai Deeper Kyo, Blade of the Immortal, Sengoku Basara, Shugurui: Death Frenzy, even Naruto, the blueprint can be found in this film which still holds up exceptionally well today. The story may now be old hat but the telling is multi-layered with intrigue and continuing developments beyond the simple revenge formula.
The main visual appeal is the grotesque villains that make up the Eight Devils of Kimon, with their bizarre individual talents and abilities. Aside from Tessai and his ability to turn himself into stone, you have a tattooed female who controls snakes and can shed her skin like one, a man with a wasp hive in his back, a shadow assassin and an evil puppet master whose threads can stretch for miles. On the protagonist side, Kagero is not quite as helpless as she looks, blessed – or cursed – with a particular trait that literally means life or death for Jubei.
Meanwhile shifty little spy Dakuan, who uses a poison dart with the promise of the antidote to force Jubei to work for him, has a few tricks up his suspicious sleeves too. Even with the heavy violence quota this is a character driven tale, with our stoic leading man, based on the Japanese folk hero Yagyyu Jubei Mitsuyoshi, veering closer to a romance with Kagero who is just as girly as she is tough. This is true for the women on the dark side, whose blatant sexuality is just as much as a weapon as their creepy ninja techniques.
Despite its age, Ninja Scroll remains a vital and potent piece of work. The unbridled violence is still shocking, the sex scenes explicit and disturbing while the action as frenzied and jaw dropping as it was back in 1993. Even with the competition of modern computer technology, the cell drawn animation on show here from the acclaimed Studio Madhouse is still a thing of beauty, retaining its smoothness and nuanced movements.
The new HD transfer lifts the colours and strengthens the definition of the images giving the film a shiny new veneer, with only the art style and character designs to date it. That said, this version has been presented in a 4:3 ratio as per the original release and not in widescreen as the 2004 tenth Anniversary re-release was, meaning either one fiddles with their TV settings or put up with the square image in the centre of your screen!
For its sheer visceral boldness and audacity blended with traditional storytelling and thrilling action, it is not difficult to see why Ninja Scroll has become such a landmark entry into the anime canon. Its impact and influence especially here in the west cannot be underestimated and this re-release simply reaffirms its place in anime history.
Newer fans may have been spoiled by everything that has come in its wake, potentially compromising its freshness in their eyes but this should hopefully be a temporary setback. Everything that made it stand out in 1993 is just as effective in 2012 and its unquestionable quality assures that it will remain a relevant title in years to come.
To make this re-release just bit more special, the Blu-ray double play version comes in a limited edition Steelbook package complete with a 20 page booklet about the film.
As essential a title for any anime fan’s collection as you are ever going to get.
English Language 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
Japanese PCM Stereo
Japanese Commentary with director Yoshiaki Kawajiri
20 page booklet (Steelbook only)
Ratings – *****
Man In Black