Fans of Akira and Ghost In The Shell could do a lot worse than catch Kawajiri Yoshiaki's blood-splashed samurai anime from 1993.
Kawajiri Yoshiaki's Ninja Scroll was one of the first feature-length films, along with Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira (1988) and Mamoru Oshii's Ghost In The Shell (1995), to show Western audiences what could be achieved in anime made for adults – or at least for adolescents. Its story is a fantasy adventure, full of demons and magic, yet set in the very real world of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and with far too much blood and sex to be suitable for the children at whom cartoons were then typically being targeted in the West.
Its protagonist is Kibagami Jubei, drawn loosely from the samurai folk hero Yagyu Jubei, but here recast as a vagabond ninja-for-hire. Like a Clint Eastwood anti-hero from a spaghetti western, Jubei drifts through a dangerous world, embodying a spirit of both individualism and (guarded) altruism that was at odds with the feudal values of the time.
Serving no master, but unusually fair-minded towards others and fiercely loyal to comrades, Jubei cuts a contradictory figure – a moral modernist (and mercenary) in a medieval milieu, yet still (expertly) wielding an ancient sword even when his opponents are turning to such novel imports as guns, explosives and electrical wiring.
After recovering an impoverished clan's stolen treasure for a cut-price fee, Jubei finds himself unwillingly embroiled in a local plot, perpetrated by the murderous Eight Devils of Kimon, to bring down the Tokugawa government. Joining forces with cursed female ninja Kagero and manipulative Tokugawa spy Dakuan, Jubei must fight one ninja Devil after another, each with their own bizarre supernatural powers, until he finally faces their leader Genma, miraculously still living even though Jubei had personally beheaded him several years earlier.
"Don't let it cross your mind that I wouldn't mind raping a dead girl," demonic man-of-stone Tessai threatens the captive, half-naked Kagero as he licks her all over. Jubei will intervene before Tessai can get much further, but the monster's monstrous words and actions – including the graphically bloody massacre of Kagero's fellow Ninja – signified a considerable departure from the standard Saturday morning animated fare for kids.
Even the plotting, full of treacherous double-crosses both personal and political, is surprisingly convoluted. In the absence of any cause or authority that acts beyond its own narrow self-interests, this is no tale of 'goodies' and 'baddies', but rather a depiction of an amoral universe with only a single individual offering any kind of moral centre. In this nightmarish vision of feudalism run riot, the deadly toxins coursing through both Kagero's and Jubei's veins betoken a poisonous age of sickness and contagion whose plagues are entirely man-made and self-inflicted.
Offsetting all the visceral violence in Ninja Scroll is an elegant and imaginative visual stylisation with a very rich colour palette. Indeed, the backgrounds and interstitial idylls evoke the finest artwork of Studio Ghibli – while the animation allows writer/director Yoshiaki to realise all manner of surreal phantasmagoria that would have been impossible to stage in the live action of the Lone Wolf and Cub or Lady Snowblood series that Ninja Scroll so lovingly references.
There is so much going on here, that the film's total lack of subtext – or, more generously, its pure escapism – only sinks in afterwards. It may be a tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing – but all that demon-whupping sure is fun.
Sato Tatsuo's 13-part follow-up anime Ninja Scroll: The Series (2003) was alright.
Fast, furious and fabulous to look at...
...although there is not really enough going on in the shadows, subtext-wise.