1993’s Ninja Scroll is critically acclaimed with good reason. The Japanese animated action thriller has its roots placed within the groundwork laid by Ninpocho, a series of historical fiction by Futaro Yamada; specifically Makai Tensho. In Makai Tensho, Yagyu Jubei Mitsuyoshi fights the warriors of the dead; resurrected by Mori Soiken to overthrow the Shogunate.
Ninja Scroll also strongly resembles the plot from the 1981 Kinji Fukasaku directed Samurai Reincarnation (starring Sonny Chiba) which was also based upon the same Ninpocho source material.
Personally, Ninja Scroll is one of six movies that, not only introduced me to the Japanese animated artform, but also solidified my argument that animation was not just a family-orientated medium. The other five are Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988), Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995), Hideki Takayama’s Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend (1989), Tsutomu Iida’s Devilman: The Birth (1987) and the finally his sequel Devilman: The Demon Bird (1990).
All of the above mentioned movies were distributed in the United Kingdom by Manga Entertainment during the 90’s; their name a source of confusion that still exists today due to their popularity and longevity. Many audiences still can’t differentiate between the words Manga (referring to Japanese comics) and Anime (referring to Japanese animation).
Manga Entertainment were significant, at least in the UK, during this time because of their output which included many hyper-violent OVA’s dubbed with additional profanity. Today western audiences associate Anime with the ultra-cute style of Studio Ghibli, but decades ago Japanese animation was perceived as a medium that revelled in macabre excess. Perhaps Ninja Scroll, Manga Entertainment’s most successful release during that era, could be blamed for this association with its brutal blend of sex and swordplay? Viewer discretion is advised!
Set in feudal Japan, the lord of the Yamashiro clan discovers that the clan’s chief retainers have found gold in a mine they intended to keep secret from him. Wanting to take the gold for himself the lord orders a team of Ninja, led by Genma Himuro, to kill the chief retainers. The ninja, including close allies Jubei Kibagami and Shinkuro, slaughter the chief retainers, thus eliminating any resistance.
Unsatisfied knowing that the ninja now know of this secret mine Genma orders his team of assassins to kill each other. Jubei disobeys but reluctantly kills his friend Shinkuro in self-defense as the other ninja lie dead; Genma nowhere to be seen.
Time has since passed, but Jubei’s thirst for revenge remains strong. Taking his opportunity Jubei, now a wandering swordsman-for-hire, springs from the snow and decapitates the head of his enemy Genma.
Unknown to Jubei however, Genma Himuro inexplicably resurrects himself and becomes the leader of several demon ninja, known as the Devils of Kimon. Together with the Shogun of the Dark, the Devils of Kimon intend to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate, whom have recently sent spies to determine where the secret gold mine is located. The Yamashiro clan need protection, thus the Devils of Kimon are sent to assist under the Shogun of the Dark’s direct instruction in return for gold from the secret mine.
The Yamashiro clan’s shipment of gold is caught in a storm, and shipwrecked upon a coast near the village of Shimoda; part of Mochizuki clan territory. The Devils of Kimon, undeterred, head to the village to recover the gold themselves and poison Shimoda’s water; killing all witnesses. This poison was used to make it look as if a plague had killed the villagers, but this still warrants investigation by the Mochizuki Koga ninja who are sent to investigate the next night.
Upon their arrival into Shimoda, each of the Mochizuki Koga ninja are slaughtered by Tessai, a stone demon; except for Kagero, a female ninja who is subsequently sexually assaulted. That is until Jubei Kibagami arrives at the village of Shimoda and intervenes; blinding Tessai in one eye, and assisting Kagero in her escape. Tessai is only one of the Eight Devils of Kimon however…
For me, Ninja Scroll is one of the most memorable, and ultimately rewarding Japanese animated films that I have seen. I wrote and formatted the synopsis above so that events from the film would be read in chronological order. In Ninja Scroll however, key events from Jubei’s past are explained much later in the story; creating a beautifully complex narrative. Multiple viewings are highly recommended.
Thematically Yoshiaki Kawajiri explores the traditional concepts one would expect to find in a Japanese animated film from this era, but visually Kawajiri makes his impact, establishing chaos that is as bold as it shocking; highlighted by smooth, almost flawless animation and choreography, courtesy of animation director Yutaka Minowa. It is safe to say then that Ninja Scroll is an important entry, not only in anime, but in pure cinematic expression at its most limitless; each frame flawless in its execution.
Ninja Scroll (Jube Ninpucho) (1993), directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri.
Written by Yoshiaki Kawajiri.
Starring Koichi Yamadera, Emi Shinohara and Daisuke Gori.
Followed by Ninja Scroll: The Series (2003).
Ninja Scroll is available to buy from Amazon.co.uk; plus if you decide to make a purchase after following the link provided you will have supported Attack From Planet B, so thank you.