Animesque: Greed, guts, and glory

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‘Ninja Scroll’ review

By Adam Tatelman, Staff Writer


Ninja Scroll falls into a category of Japanese film known as jidaigeki. This type of film, which was a major inspiration for George Lucas’ Star Wars franchise (Jedi, you say?), is based on a historical era known as the Edo period. This era began after a decisive military victory at the Battle of Sekigahara, where Ieyasu Tokugawa conquered all of Japan and established himself as the head of the Shogunate (military government).

During this period, there was a great deal of feuding between clans that either wanted independence or the Shogun’s favour. There was a lot of spying, backstabbing, and court intrigue. Basically, everything ninjas do. Enter Ninja Scroll, an animated jidaigeki film with a simple story of greed and ambition, overshadowed by crisp animation that lends itself to the stylized art and frenetic ninja battles.

The plot begins with the mercenary Jubei Kibagami, who stumbles upon Kagero, a ninja investigating the destruction of a backwater village. All of the typical adventure tropes occur, but with a dark twist. The village is part of a larger plot against Tokugawa himself, led by the mysterious Shogun of the Dark. Of course, Jubei turns out to have a connection to the villains, so he and Kagero carve their way through eight evil ninja masters to stop the Shogun.

Okay, so it’s not Shakespeare. Nobody’s watching this for the brilliant script. Ninja duels aside, there are a couple of fun twists: there’s sexual tension between Jubei and Kagero, but nothing can come of it because she’s a kunoichi—a female assassin whose body is poisonous to the touch. Yes, that is a real historical method of assassination. There’s a great scene where one of the evil ninjas tries to take advantage of the unconscious Kagero and dies from the poison.

The interesting thing about ninjas is the way their legend has grown over the centuries. The modern interpretation usually includes black robes and bizarre powers like invisibility, flight, and animal transformation. Think Ryu Hayabusa from the Ninja Gaiden series. The people of the Edo Era believed similar things, but all of the ninjas’ seemingly impossible feats were really accomplished through simple sleight-of-hand means.

The film plays fast and loose with this idea, casting the Shogun’s cronies as warrior-mystics like Benisato, a woman with living snake tattoos who can shed her skin to escape, and Mushizo, a deformed hunchback who carries a hornet’s nest inside his body. The heroes, by contrast, can only rely on their combat skill and subtle tricks. Jubei, for instance, keeps his sword on a barely-visible string so he can’t be disarmed. Watching the underdog ninjas triumph against superpowered opponents with their wits alone is great fun, especially when the bad guys meet such ironic fates.

I could go on about how the dub isn’t great and the early ’90s stock sound effects detract from the spooky Feudal Japanese atmosphere, but I had enough fun watching this show that I didn’t really care about those issues that much. When you get down to it, Ninja Scroll is basically a darker version of Grand Adventure films like Indiana Jones or Romancing the Stone. It’s a formula as old as time: strong-willed guy and gal slowly fall in love on an adventure to stop a greedy villain from doing bad stuff. Hey, if it isn’t broke, and it’s got this much personality and charm, I see no reason to fix it.