“There was a shortage of directors; I was pretty fast in finishing my work and the producer thought: ‘He’ll be able to finish the storyboards in a jiffy’. I was pushed into dirtying! It’s absolutely necessary to be a fast artist…. unless you have a huge budget!” ~ Yoshiaki Kawajiri on how he became a director.
Ninja Scroll, Akira, and Ghost in the Shell – these are three animes which are heavily responsible for the beginnings of the anime fandom in the West. Directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri (See Nakama Brittannica podcast 7 & podcast 8 for more info on Kawajiri), Ninja Scroll runs for 94 minutes, has an 18 certificate and had 52 seconds cut on its original release, which were re-instated in the 10th anniversary release. The current HD release is the uncut/remastered version.
Ninja Scroll follows Kawajiri’s ideas of a film that could be accessible to anyone, regardless of their knowledge of Japanese history, so it has several references to actual facts and real figures in Japanese history, most notably the conflict between the shoguns Toyotomi and Tokugawa. Other historical figures to grace Ninja Scroll are Jubei Kibagami, which is an homage to real samurai Jubei Yagyu; and Dakuan who is inspired by Soho Takuan, a buddhist priest who was known as an adviser to several other historical figures of his times, such as Musashi, Munenori Yagyu, the shogun Tokugawa, the advocated Japanese emperor Go-Mizunoo and others.
Kawajiri ninjas are born of legends and magic; their skills range from turning their skin to stone to controlling snakes and wasps, and even resuscitation. Ninja Scroll was written and directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri and produced by Madhouse. What can be said of Kawajiri himself? His style is widely known, yet distinctive. Murray Walker famously said, “Each Kawajiri film is unique in every way, except for the next one, which is identical”.
The plot of Ninja Scroll follows our protagonist, Jubei Kibagami, a rounin who wanders around Japan, taking jobs such as retrieving treasures from bandits to support himself. When it’s suspected that the inhabitants of a village have fallen ill due to an epidemic, the Koga ninjas are sent to investigate the matter.
Once at the village, they are overwhelmed by powerful adversaries and only the kunoichi (female ninja) Kagero is kept alive by one of the enemies. As the attacker attempts to rape Kagero at a seemingly abandoned temple, he is interrupted by Jubei, who rescues Kagero; they then go their separate ways.
Government spy Dakuan, the sole survivor of another task force investigating the village, sees Jubei in action and tricks Jubei into helping him by poisoning Jubei. Dakuan offers him 100 pieces of gold and the antidote once they have beaten the Eight Demons of Kimon: Genma, the immortal; Tessai, the stone man; Benisato, the snake woman; Mushizo, the wasp man; Utsutsu, the blind swordsman; Shijima, the Shadow; Yurimaru, the lightning man and Zakuro, the explosive woman.
Each enemy is unique and some of Genma’s backstory is revealed, as this is not the first time that Jubei and Genma have met. Also, the dynamics of the group is explored in the complicated romantic relationships of Yurimaru, Genma, Benisato and Zakuro.
Ninja Scroll was made at a transition point in anime history where cell animation was being replaced by digital animation and is one of the last animes to use cell animation.
Some of Kawajiri’s trademarks are violence and sex, which are present in generous doses that will satiate all the fans. Another of his trademarks is the sudden outburst of speed; one moment, the characters are still, the next, they move as fast as light itself. This is a cheap trick, based on the realisation that sometimes some actions are too fast for camera.
The remastering of Ninja Scroll adds a layer of “crispness” to the the visuals of the show, which is very welcome. The decision to keep it in 4:3 format, is also welcome by me, as it maintains the original format, or as some would put it, it keeps the film as it was intended to be seem.
Overall, Ninja Scroll has its ups and downs, but if you’re looking for a great action anime, this is perfect for you.