Ninja Scroll is one of those movies that have reached anime classic status. It’s up there with Vampire Hunter D (1985), Akira (1988) and Ghost In The Shell (1995), just to name three. And you bet this qualifies as a memory movie for me. Trust me, if you’re an anime lover, you never forget the first time you saw Ninja Scroll. For me it was during a marathon of The Maxx in 1995. I can’t remember if MTV was airing an anime movie, or series, or what, but they kept showing snippets of Scroll before and after the commercial breaks, and the moment I set eyes on it my jaw dropped. I couldn’t understand why they were showing it either. Were they planning on airing it? I never had any idea. I finally noticed during one of the snippets the name of the movie—Ninja Scroll.
It just didn’t roll through my mind casually destined to be chucked somewhere deep and dark where it would eventually become forgotten altogether, no, when I saw the name of this movie, my mind branded it into every corner and onto every firing synapse it could.
Amazon states it hit VHS in June of ’95, which must be around the time I saw it on MTV. I have no direct memory of getting that VHS, but I assure you I did eventually buy it, though I seem to think that destined purchase didn’t actually occur until many years later. All I remember now is one day having the VHS, and having it until it first hit DVD in the late 90s. Unfortunately, in the mid-2000s I had to get rid of it when money was tight. I traded in all my anime, comedies and action flicks. Most of these I’ve re-bought in the intervening years, but when it came out in a 10th anniversary edition DVD in 2003 I don’t know why but I never acquired it. This movie has been re-released 4 times as far as I can tell over the years.
The version I’m currently reviewing here is a re-release by Section 23/Sentai Filmworks of their own 2012 release. The only differences this time out is you get a slipcover with some very cool variant cover art and that the poster art is used this time on the DVD and blu-ray covers underneath. I know there are people who don’t like slipcovers, but I’m not one of them. I look at slipcovers as an unconscious homage to the VHS days; VHS cases were basically cardboard created boxes, so now we have their 21st century counterparts wrapped lovingly around the DVD case.
I’ll be honest I don’t know why Section 23 decided to re-release it. I never bought their 2012 version (money issues) but the best I tell comparing the back cover art from Amazon is that they’re exactly the same. What I might presume is their initial release pulled in a good chunk of change, so here they are cashing in on it again, which I’m glad they did, and if you’re a slipcase lover you’ll be glad they did, too.
So, for the uninitiated, what’s Ninja Scroll about? The short answer: unadulterated awesomeness on a level your brain might not be able to fully grasp the first time around. Yeah, the character and action animation are that mind blowing. Now the long answer: Ninja Scroll is about vagabond/ninja-for-hire, Jubei Kibagami as he gets unwillingly mixed up in some seriously bad mojo this is side of feudal Japan. It all starts when these eight ‘Devils Of Kimone’ (pronounced kee-mone) at the command of their master, Lord Gemma Himuro, poison the water of Shimoda village, killing every person in it in an effort to make it look like a plague has ravaged the area. The local officials quarantine the town, which is exactly what they want, but something smells fishy. A team of ninjas is sent in to investigate the town but they are all wiped out before they even get there by one of the Devils of Kimone called, Tessai. He’s a hulking brute who can transform his skin into stone and uses a massive double-bladed sword that can be thrown and will return like a boomerang.
The only survivor of this massacre is ninja chick, Kagero. Not only does she have the fighting skill of a ninja but she’s also a food taster for the head of her clan, which means she tests food for poison. She’s been doing this so long and is so good at it her body itself has become poisonous. Anyone one who kisses or has sex with her will die immediately. This proves to be a plus when Tessai kidnaps and tongue rapes her.
This is where Jubei and the “larger picture” merge. He just so happens to be resting in the same abandoned hut Tessai chooses to rape Kegaro in, and immediately makes an enemy by deftly assessing a weakness of Tessai’s stone skin and using it to his advantage. He can’t be made of stone all over. Right? No, he can’t, and Tessai instantly takes a small needle to the eye. Jubei escapes with Kagero, who returns to her clan and reports back the tragic results of their mission.
Jubei meets up with Tessai again later as Tessai is now looking for revenge. In a brutal smackdown that leaves the vagabond visibly winded, he bests Tessai, killing him, but it was Kagero’s poison that kicked in at just the right time as his stone skin becomes brittle and breaks leaving him vulnerable to Jubei’s sword and his own weapon as it comes flying back cleaving his head in half.
Now, Jubei is really on their shit list. He’s actually killed one of them. We are then introduced to more of these eight Devils. The one in charge, well, the head lackey, let’s say, is Yurimaru, his lethal ability is being able to generate dangerous amounts of electricity favoring a thin wire he uses to wrap around victims and electrocute them.
Zakuro, a female (keep in mind they may be called Devils but not one of them looks like a literal demon despite some of the weird abilities they have. For the most part they can pass as an ordinary human any day of the week), whose specialty is gunpowder and using it in insidious ways, like packing a dead body with it, making it walk around, and then making it go BOOM when she pleases. She’s got the hots for Yurimaru, but he despises her and we learn in that same scene it’s Benisato he really wants to nail. Benisato is one of the more “flashy” Devils. She’s basically a “snake woman.” She’s covered in snake tattoos that can slide off her body at will and take on three-dimensional life. She can also shed her skin when she feels threatened and can use these “cast off skins” as traps, disguising one as an old, harmless woman and cramming it to the brim with lethal vipers. Yes, all her scenes are always quite impressive to watch.
Another freaky Kimone Devil Jubei encounters later on is Mushizo, a squat hunchback whose back is literally a hornet nest and within the hornets that do his bidding. Another impressive Devil also encountered in the final act is Shijima, A freaky individual who can merge with darkness and shadows, has a funky steampunkish designed claw, can clone himself, which he does in one scene, and has mind control capabilities, which he raunchily puts on display after he captures Kagero, licks his two fingers and inserts them into her vagina. Later on when Jubei comes to rescue her she fights him. Are these two events connected? They could be or it could be he’s just a sexual deviant and can control minds the good fashion way, mind-to-mind.
A more ordinary “Devil” is Mujuro Utsutsu, he’s basically a blind swordsman and the final Devil is the leader I previously mentioned, Gemma. He knew Jubei in the past, in fact he set up Jubei to be killed, and when Jubei found out he ambushed him and separated his head from his body. It’s never explained but somewhere along the way Gemma acquired the ability to regenerate his body parts. Cut off a head, an arm, get mortally headbutted to death, which Jubei does to him in their final confrontation, or even get cut in half vertically, Gemma can simply put himself back together.
Aside from Jubei and Kagero the side of good as one more character, old man, Dakuan (pronounced Dok-ew-wan). He’s a government spy who had a ninja team wiped out by the Devils as well and he aligns himself with Jubei and Kagero to find out what’s happening in Shimoda village and why the Devils are involved. The big picture plot here involves gold and acquiring an army to topple governments.
What I found most interesting about the character of Jubei is he kind of reminds me of Snake Plisskan. Like Plisskan if you want to get him to do something you’ve have to trap him into doing it and since Jubei wants nothing more to do with these eight Devils, Dakuan traps him into helping him by flinging a poison tipped shuriken his way, and if he wants the antidote he’s going to have to do as Dakuan says. He also reminds me of Plisskan in that he’s not an invincible hero. Jubei gets beat to holy hell occasionally throughout the movie, the worst in the final confrontation with Gemma, but even though he’s been bloodied, bones broken and exhausted he still manages to fuck up the bad guys and win the day.
Speaking of getting bloodied, for those of you who like their feudal ninja movies violent and gory, you’ll find no lack of either in Ninja Scroll. Limbs are lopped off, heads are separated from bodies, bones are broken and a scene where Jubei loses his shit totally and single-handedly massacres a massive squad of ninjas on a rooftop battle will probably make you stand up and applaud; it’s one of many highlights of this flick. And the animation by Madhouse is just superb in every way shape and form.
It was interesting to learn recently that Ninja Scroll didn’t fare well in it’s native Japan when it came out and only acquired it’s classic anime status by reaching the rest of the world and wowing fans there. This is one of the reasons, I hear, why a sequel has never been made. One is planned but the original creators have constantly run into trouble trying to get the funds for it. The only evidence that exists of this sequel is this teaser.
Video/Audio/Subtitles: 1080p 1.33:1 high definition full frame—5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio, 2.0 Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio—English subs only.
There was at one point a DVD that included a 1.85:1 transfer, I think it was the 10th Anniversary Edition, but subsequent releases have dropped that transfer since the full frame version is the movie’s correct ratio, I hear. The 1.85:1 version is the full frame cropped. According to the commentary, which is ported over from the 2003 Anniversary Edition Ninja Scroll had to be extensively remastered. Apparently it looked like crap. This blu-ray transfer looks perfect in my opinion.
Wind and thunderstorms sounded a bit strange on the dubbed audio, the 2.0 Japanese track sounded a bit better in this department.
- Audio commentary with Director Yoshiaki Kawajiri and Character Design and Animation Director Yutaka Minowa (speech is in their native Japanese but English subtitles pop up so the commentary won’t feel like a missed opportunity)
(Note: The extras from that Anniversary Edition (Character Synopsis/ Photo Gallery, Director Interview, History of Jubei, English Cast Key Character Interview) were not ported over to the 2012 DVD & blu nor were they added to this DVD & blu re-release).
There was a series made in 2003 called, Ninja Scroll: The Series, which as I understand it is somewhat of a follow-up to the movie. I’ve never seen it, would certainly love to someday, but the series is out of print here in the US.
I did, however, make the mistake one time in buying something called, Ninja Resurrection, which I thought was a direct sequel, but the character of Jubei in that one is nothing like Jubei from Scroll and the animation was subpar. In fact I don’t believe that movie has anything to do with Scroll at all.