It's sometimes easy to forget how much anime fandom has moved on. When I was getting into anime back in the 1990's Ninja Scroll was one of the biggest titles out there, yet when Manga's rep Jerome Mazandarani asked how many people in the crowd had seen it when recording a live podcast at the MCM London Expo, less than half the audience raised their hand. How times change.
Nonetheless, Ninja Scroll remains a marquee title for Manga Entertainment, and one that's been long overdue a decent reissue. The question is how will modern audiences view it?
Set during Japan's feudal era, Ninja Scroll starts with a local lord
dispatching a team of ninja to investigate strange sightings around a supposedly
plague-stricken village. The ninja suspect that a rival ninja clan is
operational in the area, and their suspicions are confirmed when they are
attacked by a monstrous opponent and all but wiped out. The sole survivor
of the team is Kagero, a beautiful but troubled woman who's rescued from a fate
worse than death by Jubei, a laconic wandering swordsman for hire.
However, his actions make him a target for her attackers, a group of ninja known
as the Devils of Kimon, who vow to track him down and kill him. The Devils
of Kimon wield powers and abilities that are not of this world, and work for a
shadowy enemy who aims to overthrow the government and conquer Japan.
Jubei wants to have as little to do with them as possible, but when Kagero is
ordered to return and discover what the Devils of Kimon are up to he finds
himself tricked into helping her by the mysterious wandering monk Dakuan.
Dakuan has his own reasons for wanting to uncover what they are up to, but as
they investigate and fight off further attacks from the Devils of Kimon, Jubei
soon discovers a personal reason to be involved. A figure from Jubei's
past, someone he thought he'd killed many years before, is rumoured to be
working with the Devils, raising some painful memories and an old grudge which
he cannot ignore...
It's been eight years since Ninja Scroll was last released in the UK, yet the film remains one of Manga Entertainment's all time best sellers. This new reissue sees the film remastered, repackaged and released on both DVD and Blu-Ray, with a collectors 'steelbook' edition DVD & Blu-Ray combi pack also available. Unusually the UK is the first English-speaking territory to get the film on Blu-Ray, and it looks better than ever. For the first time the film doesn't look like a VHS copy, the colours are bright and clear and the hand-drawn backgrounds really come to life, whilst some of the stylised visuals are truly stunning. Presentation-wise the new release is streets
ahead of the previous ones, particularly in the steelbook edition with its exclusive booklet written by anime expert Jonathan Clements, and it's fantastic to see an older film given this treatment considering the underwhelming release given to Roujin Z. So, it looks better than ever and it boasts great presentation, but how does the film itself hold up now? Back in the early to mid 90's the majority of anime released in the UK was pretty violent and/or sexually explicit, this was for a while one of the medium's main selling points and it thrived on the notoriety. In many ways Ninja Scroll is typical of this period, but this is no cheap video nasty.
Ninja Scroll is very much in the style of 1970's
exploitation cinema, it's gory, explicit and hugely violent with a cast of
larger than life characters. The plot is relatively simple, it's pretty
much a mashup of spy thriller and revenge story which comes across like an
x-rated feudal Bond film, and the story acts mainly as a way to link the many set
piece battles. However, what really sets it apart is its
The action is simply sublime, it's brutal and gory but massively exciting, with
excellent choreography and fantastic imagination. The villains are all
excellent, from the gigantic Tessai (a warrior who puts the 'mountain' into 'man
mountain') to the snake woman Benisato, and their varied powers lead to some
truly memorable and striking confrontations with the talented but human Jubei.
Whether a duel in a bamboo grove or a battle in a
ruined temple at sunset, each fight is stunningly animated and perfectly paced,
and even more impressive when you consider the fact that it is all animated by
Has Ninja Scroll dated? Well, yes, visually it's better than it has ever looked before, but content-wise this is simply the kind of anime that's rarely released here now. The film revels in its gory action, gleefully focusing on the visceral, blood-soaked fight scenes and sexual violence which hark back to the days when anime was largely sold on controversy. It's distinctly unsubtle in its approach to a very straightforward story, which largely boils down to Jubei fighting with a succession of henchmen before facing the megalomaniacal main villain, and boasts a distinctive, angular character design which makes everyone look a bit masculine. This new release sees the
reintroduction of a previously cut rape scene, and the sexual content - which is often violent and unsavoury - feels largely unnecessary and exploitative. There's also the sad fact that some of the visual impact of the film has been reduced by the advent of computer animation. Some of the visual effects - such as multiple layers of animation and even flames - were incredibly difficult to pull off and therefore hugely impressive when the film came out, but can now be reproduced with ease. It's hard to appreciate the innovation and skill that went into hand-drawing a swarm of bees or a fight in a burning structure when a halfway competent modern animator can replicate them with an off-the-shelf product. It's one of the reasons it's worth listening to the director commentary track included with the film, as it gives a true insight into the time and effort that went into creating some things that were often only on screen for a few seconds.
Whilst there's plenty of truth in the assertion that Ninja Scroll is a product of its time, it is probably the finest example of this style of anime. Yes, it is unnecessarily pervy, massively violent and pretty brutal in places, but it also boasts some truly breathtaking action scenes, plenty of distinctive and memorable characters and fantastic hand-drawn animation. It's not going to win any awards for sophistication or storytelling, but it's one of the few anime that can comfortably sit in the same bracket as live-action 1970's samurai films like Shogun Assassin or Lady Snowblood. If you like your action gory, fast-paced and exciting this is a film that is well worth owning, and it has never looked or sounded better than it does in this release. We'd particularly recommend the Blu-Ray Steelbook Edition, which is worth owning simply for it's awesome packaging and the Jonathan Clements booklet, but if you are a fan of anime and appreciate its past, Ninja Scroll should be in your collection.
An excellent array of extras considering the film is nearly 20 years old, of particular note is the commentary track featuring director Yoshiaki Kawajiri, which is an exclusive and well worth listening to, but there are also trailers and TV spots to check out too. However, extra-wise the Blu-Ray Steelbook is the version to get, as it includes the extras above plus exclusive metal packaging and a 20-page booklet about the film penned by anime expert Jonathan Clements.