Ninja Scroll was the first DVD I ever owned. I remember picking it up at Best Buy along with a few others for my new DVD player/Playstation 2. It was the first one I watched. Rather than moving on to the next DVD or game, I watched Ninja Scroll again. I think I ended up watching it a dozen times the first week. I’ve heard people go on for years, continuing now, about how Akira is a cinematic master piece and the best anime has to offer. I disagree. It’s Ninja Scroll.
Jubei Kibagami is a vagabond, wandering the land, selling his sword and skills. The movie opens up with a fantastic scene, showcasing his prowess, hinting at the action to come. The crux of any good anime is what special idea/skill/power the main character possess. Some are fantastical, coming close to bordering on nonsense. Jubei’s is simple. Aside from his blade mastery, there’s a thin string of apparently infinite length attached to his blade and wrist. If he is disarmed, he’s able to quickly recover his weapon. He uses it smartly in his many battles, adding to his cool ninja appeal.
Jubei is based on the legendary Japanese swordsman Yagyu Jubei Mitsuyoshi. Much about him has been lost in history so only a template of the man is represented. Jubei has been a common character in many animes, books, and other stories. Some versions show him with an eyepatch, but the records are unclear if he was blind in one eye or not.
The first act continues, light on action, introducing characters and plot points. A team of ninja’s are sent to investigate a possible plague outbreak. Amongst the team is a kunoichi (female ninja), and official poison tester, Kagero. After ingesting so many poisons (she has a natural immunity), her body has become toxic. Anyone who sleeps with (plot point!), or even kisses her, dies. The team is slaughtered, with her as the only survive. The killer is a large man, capable of turning his skin to rock. He captures Kagero, and attempts to rape her. Only by a timely intervention from Jubei is she saved.
This scene always unsettled me. I don’t care for sexual violence. I don’t mind it if there’s a purpose to it, affecting a character in some way to further motivate or change their actions. As long as it is done with purpose, I don’t mind. Still bothers me a little. Here I think it’s done with purpose. The assailant, Tessai, then battles Jubei. Due to his rock skin, he’s practically invincible. He dies during the battle due to the poison in his system from Kagero.
Tessai was member of a group known as the Devils of Kimon. As the movie continues, Jubei battles with each of the Devils, all of which have some nonsensical super ninja power. Benisato has serpent tattoos that come to life (I’m pretty sure one came from her uterus); Mushizo has a hornets nest in his hunchback; Mujuro is a blind swordsman, he’s actually pretty normal.
An eyepatched version of Jubei is in a movie called Ninja Resurrection that released around the same time. People often confused this for being some sort of sequel. It has nothing to do with Ninja Scroll. Stay far, far away. There was a 13 episode series in 2003 with the same name starring Jubei. I didn’t watch the entire thing, dropping off because the show was stuffed with too much over the top action and ridiculousness for my taste.
This movie defines many anime tropes. The movie was released in ’93, by then anime was over 40 years old. I don’t claim this movie invented them, but nailed them in every regard, good and bad. Sword fights, over the top villains, violent action, superior animation, hyper sexualization, mysongyny, it’s all present. The prototype for nearly every cliche is here, making this the best example of everything anime has to offer.
Still own the same DVD.