TurningJapanese#2: Ninja Scroll 獣兵衛忍風帖

ILT’s TurningJapanese# series returns with its first anime retrospect, a bonafide cult classic of the genre that all but made me lose my shit as a teenage fanboy…

Ninja Scroll
Dir: Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Original Release Date: 5 June 1993

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Anime, for the most part, is a bit mad. Ranging from the groundbreaking and visually spectacular to the darkest depths of outright bonkers, Japan’s film and television animation is a true game of Russian roulette in terms of taste, quality, and consistency. Whilst I somehow found myself watching some pretty out there, firmly adult-orientated shit as an early world cinema-hungry teen (*cough* Urotsukidōji), thankfully my introduction to the wonders of moving manga came by way of a timeless, stone cold classic: writer/director Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Ninja Scroll. Originally released in 1993 but first seen by yours truly around twelve years ago (managed to blag that 18 certificate like the cooler than cool cat I was), I thought a return to one of the original building blocks of my cinematic past would the perfect opportunity for a fresh watch and retrospect in the name of ILT’s new TurningJapanese# series. Turns out it was a rather good idea, as the film is still nothing short of bloody brilliant (pun intended).

To quickly provide some necessary context it should be mentioned that, for the sake of nostalgia, I decided to watch the English dub version. The enemy of modern world cinema, acceptance of dub tracks tends to exist solely within the memory of old school Japanese and Hong Kong-based pictures first watched during one’s youth. Sure, it’s not as originally intended, and the delivery and synchronicity has that tinge of  the hilariously awful 70s kung-fu style about it at times, but some of the voice work is still great and, ultimately, it was the readily available version I and many others fell in love with as kids. Whilst for newcomers I would definitely recommend watching the Japanese track, for those who remember both versions I am happy to report that the English dub actually holds up well enough to be declared more than a passable relic of that bygone era of dialogue recording that  these days only really strikes a chord with those from the VHS generation.

Whatever the audio track, the film is a masterpiece. The second release of the ‘big three’ anime movies to break the western market, coming between dystopian classics Akira (1988) and Ghost in the Shell (1995), what separated Ninja Scroll was its traditional swashbuckling period setting and wonderfully crafted, no holds barred Feudal Japan mythology. Visually, the picture still looks incredible to this day. Whilst nothing will ever likely be as groundbreaking animation-wise in Japan as Akira was, Ninja Scroll kept pace with beautiful direction, cinematography, and editing that does justice to its drawings. The glorious use of colour and texture helps create a vibrant, varying backdrop of locations that complement the well-honed contrast between day and night; the former a regular demonstration of epic scale, the latter a knotted band of creeping shadows, concise cuts, and claustrophobic settings. No frame is wasted, utilising the nature of the film’s many unique environments to the full in order to project the object of focus with meaningful diversity on each and every occasion, whether said focus be a character, object, or location establishment. The result is a rich, dazzling experience capable of both impressing its viewer with impeccable wide-angle landscape shots, as well as grabbing and pulling them in close during a shadowy storm or tense fight sequence.

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Flowing through the animation is a tale of power and corruption, intercut  with themes of lust, love, and hate. Whilst some of the finer history-heavy political plot points definitely went over my head as young teen (it would seem some films are appropriately rated 18 for reasons that extend further than insane violence), the well-paced, gradually revealed, altogether basic good-verses-evil nature of the story meant it was more than manageable, and still thoroughly entertaining. Watching it back as an adult, the frequent mentions of Japan’s mysterious past make a lot more sense in conjunction with the picture’s overall plot, although the mention of various clans overlapping back and forth across a timeline that, via flashbacks, jumps around a fair bit in terms of exposition, still has the potential to confuse. Missing any ultra-precise points of the story thankfully doesn’t really matter however, as everything is kept flowing by the manner in which the well-layered story structure ties into the truly fantastic action set pieces, fronted, in turn, by a memorable array of characters worthy of any great fantasy line up.

On one side there is the vagabond ninja himself, Jubei Kibagami (based on mythical 17th century figure, Yagyū Jūbei Mitsuyoshi), backed by his hastily assembled, equally distrustful and reluctant team of cohorts; the (literally) poisonous Kagero, and Dakuan, the hilariously unorthodox and unapologetic crafty-rather-than-wise old man. Whilst Jubei is fairly clichéd as the skilled, volatile, but generally good-willed anti-hero (not that this detracts from his character in any way), Kagero and Dakuan provide unique, intriguing company. A fierce female lead frequently beset with, and torn by realistic emotions in tune with the haunting condition of poisoning whoever sleeps with, or even touches her sexually, Kagero is the highlight when it comes to character depth and development. In constructing her and Jubei’s turbulent relationship, Kawajiri demonstrates wonderful poise in his writing. Neither character resists the ever-present instinct-based reaction of cynical affection when dealing with the other, enabling both to develop within the realm of bitter emotion to form an unconventional, but genuine love story. Not only engaging in its own right, crucially this dual character arc also helps to dictate and drive the action scenes in which both Jubei and Kagero are involved.

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Antagonising our three protagonists to the extent that they are forced to work together is one of the finest sets of (predominantly) supernatural villains ever to grace the screen: The Eight Devils of Kimon, led by Jebei’s old nemesis, Himuro Genma. Each one innovative in design and exhibiting their own brand of terrifying destructive power (reincarnation, electricity, explosive manipulation, vessel control, insects – you name it), the DoK are glorious mythology personified. Whilst eight primary villains may appear a tad excessive, Kawajiri makes it work by having them encounter Jubei and the others almost exclusively one-by-one. The sharp, concentrated bursts of wildly varying personalities and fighting styles, all existing within a series of highly elaborate, but never overly elongated individual battle sequences, means that each villain successfully resonates with the audience despite little overall screen time.

Such an effective multi-character execution consistently produces believable new challenges for Jubei and co., thus keeping the action fresh and engaging in tangent with the short, direct nature of the fight scenes. Frequent tension and the subsequent development of our heroes is therefore aided thanks to a new situation of peril emerging out of nowhere at almost every turn. From this methodology comes an almost subconscious, but extremely smart aspect of the DoK’s rivalry with Jubei, in that it remains, within the rules of the universe, grounded in realism. By that I mean the dark creatures’ freakish strength and abilities sees each of them best Jubei or at least have him firmly on the back foot. While certainly strong and skilled with the sword in a conventional sense, it’s only through a combination of determination, outside intervention, and luck that sees Jubei frequently win through, a welcome plot device in that his own strength is one of simple survival, rather than the stereotypical discovery or harbouring of a later-to-be unleashed power usually associated with this sort of mythical fantasy hero.

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Amongst the numerous examples of superb characters and animation, three sequences in particular standout as highlights from creative, artistic, and technical standpoints. The first is the three quick-fire blood-soaked encounters with Tessai, the debutant devil and a thoroughly excellent character – despite his tendency to be a bit of a prick. Utterly grotesque in nature, his shameless, merciless contempt for human life, coupled with his double-ended boomeranging blade and rock solid features make him a formidable foe. From his slaughter of the Mochizuki Koga ninja team, through his attempted rape of Kagero and final showdown with Jubei, the direction, animation, sound (that high-pitched whirring of his blade), dark humour, and even voice acting on the English dub are all running together at full speed in perfect harmony to produce one of the film’s strongest segments. In turn, the infinitely pitch black tone is set without question – these chaps are not fucking around (figuratively speaking).

A later scene of different style but rooted in equally outstanding quality is the straight up crossing of katanas between Jubei and Utsutsu Mujūrō. The only member of the DoK who doesn’t appear to have any supernatural powers, relying instead on exceptional hearing and reflexes to make up for his lack of vision, Mujūrō, again well-voiced, is a great example of how to write and conduct the briefest of engagements by way of fascinating, memorable methods of conveyance. Beginning with a lovely shot of Jubei gearing up to attack in the reflection of Mujūrō’s blade during an establishment close-up, the subsequent cut from bright sunshine to the soft green tint of a tight-knit canopy filtered bamboo forest, in which the two warriors duel, is a visual highpoint. The fight itself again sees the sound really coming to the forefront in alignment with the villain’s main strength and eventual handicap. The rustling of leaves, creaking of split bamboo, old school shinobi-style crashing of steel each proceed another great moment in which a rush of whispering audio emits an intended emphasis on light, sight, and blindness all at once.

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Away from the more direct tone driving the majority of action found elsewhere throughout the film, a fine example of an eerie, bordering on horror-type atmosphere comes during the sequence immediately proceeding the big finale; Jubei’s battle with Shijima and, by proxy, Kagero, the devil’s temporary puppet. Bathed in a haze of shadowy, silhouetted crimson in the face of the setting sun, a heavy sense of fear and death hangs over the scene, making for some of the picture’s most striking imagery. With the shadows serving Shijima, enabling him to stalk Jubei while using Kagero as a distraction, the battle becomes less about the action itself and more about the emotional engagement between our heroes, as Jubei risks his life to bring her back at the expense of the greater good. The involvement and demise of Shijima,  keeping with his indirect, long range destructive influence, is actually more of a framing device for the development of Jubei and Kagero. Indeed, it is the only DoK death that feels just a little off, almost too easy, although at the same time just getting to hear his screeching claw fly through the air one more time more than makes up for it.

One of the great stoner/action fanboy cult classic VHS features of the early-mid 1990s, Ninja Scroll exists now as probably the least well known of the aforementioned ‘big three’ anime flicks of that era, which is hardly surprising given the ever-lasting teenage longing for really fucking good dystopian-based sci-fi. Indeed, Kawajiri’s successful blending of a mile-a-minute approach to the traditionally epic Japanese feudal period and related haunting mythology, coupled with sharp writing, an outrageous list of quality characters, and finished off with to-the-point, always engaging, but never duplicated action, is made all the more impressive by the fact that, as a cinematic feature, it was completely original in terms of both story and animation. With many famous anime pictures of the time being developed from already well-known manga series, Akira and Ghost in the Shell included, Ninja Scroll is unique in comparison as it was essentially born from scratch. Its big(ger)-in-the-west cousins subsequently enjoy a legacy capable of reaching further across future generations, but overall I think I still just about prefer Ninja Scroll‘s timeless, understated, altogether standalone place in both anime and action movie history (distant ten year anniversary television sequel series aside).

Always pleased to see it held in continuous high regard by fans and critics alike, it’s good to know that every time a veteran dusts off a slightly worn copy of Ninja Scroll, or a curious kid *purchases* the sleek blu-ray edition, the spirit of Jubei will live on…

…and everything ends exactly as I have written it.

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