“Jubei Kibagami wanders feudal Japan as an itinerant swordsman-for-hire. After a past betrayal left him masterless, he has no more patience for warring political factions and their schemes. Unfortunately, both past and political intrigue collide when he meets and saves a female ninja named Kagero from a man with the ability to make his body as hard as stone.
The sole survivor of a ninja clan, Kagero continues her team’s last mission: investigate a mysterious plague that wiped out an entire village. Jubei wants nothing to do with this, but the stone-like man’s allies, a group of ninja with supernatural powers known as the Devils of Kimon, make that option difficult. To make matters worse, a government spy poisons Jubei, promising him an antidote if he can unravel the true intentions of the Devils of Kimon and their connection to the plague. The trail leads to shadow leaders, a plot to overthrow the government, and a man that Jubei thought he would never see again.” – MAL Synopsis
Ninja Scroll is a 1993 dark fantasy anime movie directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri. This anime is part of the trio of 90s adult anime movies, along with Akira and Ghost in a shell, that helped bolster anime’s popularity in the west. It has also been cited as being a big influence for The Wachowskis when working on the classic movie The Matrix. On an influential front, this movie stands strong, but solely as a movie it has its weakness and strengths. The weaknesses mostly coming from how certain characters are treated in this story. While I can meet this anime at its standards and judge it for what it is and what it’s going for. I can’t help but feel like there are unnecessary actions taken, that don’t add much to the story or the characters.
This movie has a pretty basic story. A notorious wandering ninja teams up with two unlikely people to defeat this evil ninja group. Character motivations for the mc and his companions work for the story and get you hooked just enough. Jubei goes from just being randomly thrust into this fight, to have a real reason to keep pushing forward and see the missions through to the end. Kagero is doing it for her clan and Dakuan is a government spy. Their character motivations work with what is a basic plot in which they seemingly wander around while being hunted by the Devils of Kimon. This story does something that I don’t like though. It ultimately has two villains that reside over the rest of the Devils of Kimon. The catch is, both of them aren’t fleshed out well and by the time we both see them on screen and they begin spouting their character exposition. It comes off as weak. I found myself saying “really? That’s it?” It’s a shame that after all the intrigue being built up about these two, they just fell flat as characters.
Jubei is cool as hell. I’m a fanboy for cool swordsmen in anime and he fits the bill perfectly. A wandering ninja for hire, with a good heart. In a movie filled with ninja using various magic techniques, he is the only normal one in comparison. His backstory gets hinted at here and there before it’s fully revealed. Like I said earlier it works for the story but it’s nothing crazy. Dakuan is a mischievous government spy that forces Jubei to help him with dealing with the Devils of Kimon and defeating the Shogun of the Dark. I liked his character despite him screwing over Jubei, but I can’t say that he didn’t provide some good comic relief at moments as well as be the driving engine in moving the story forward. The last of the main group is Kagero. Kagero is the emotional cornerstone of this movie. Almost every scene that is meant to evoke some sort of emotion involves her, and that can somewhat be of the determent to the movie. Overall a solid cast of characters that you can root for.
Spoilers. Skip if you want.
- Okay, so I feel like this should be talked about, so slight to mild spoilers ahead. Skip this section if you want. So, Kagero was treated horribly in this movie. From her clanmates getting slaughtered in the first 5 minutes to her getting raped twice. It just felt so unnecessary and cruel. While I can’t deny that it furthered her character, it was very uncomfortable to watch and her breakdowns felt real which makes it feel even more uncomfortable. To add insult to injury, her power to poison people by making love to them is used as the solution to cure Jubei of the poison he received from Dakao. It was real gut-wrenching for a main female character to be constantly taken advantage of while being physically and mentally abused. I loved her character so it just didn’t sit right with me. A story can be dark and have dark themes, but it just seemed so pointless for her to be treated like that multiple times. At least by the end of the movie, she gets some peace of mind but it wasn’t enough.
Besides the main group we follow, the only real characters of note are the Devils of Kimon. They have cool abilities that are unique to each other. One can harden his body with rock, one can control snakes over his body, one can control explosions, amongst the others. They have an interesting dynamic, as below the Shogun of the Dark and the leader of the Eight Devils, there seems to be some sort of hierarchy between the rest of the group. Some funny moments also happen between them, as some of them are in love (or just sleep with) their leader. Which causes jealousy and betrayal amongst the group. The Shogun of the Dark is this looming threat that ends up being nothing in the end. I will say though, his motivation was realistic for the era this is set in, but it ultimately boils down to revenge. The Devils of Kimon’s leader also has weak motivations but his ties to Jubei add a little bit more to him. Really in the end his goals turn out to be the same as all the Saturday morning cartoon villains on tv.
This movie looks phenomenal. The dark Edo era Japan setting is animated perfectly. The character designs feel like they belong but still are very unique. While the backgrounds are beautiful. The wind and rain blowing through the trees in the opening scene set the tone for how this movie is going to be animated and it doesn’t disappoint. Fighting scenes are choreographed well. It’s never a slideshow of attacks, you see every swing, every sword clash. This movie uses a lot of different environments as well. We see forests, temples, towns, cliff-sides, bamboo forests and the last part of the movie takes place on a giant ship in the ocean. Every scene is a treat to look at. I can’t help but feel like the music was underutilized in this movie but when it does swell it, it’s great.
When the credits rolled, I was left satisfied enough by the movie as a whole. The story was average but it had some cool characters, with interesting powers. This setting is always going to appeal to me and this movie does it justice with beautiful animation and a variety of settings. The characters as a whole are cool but some of the character motivations of the villains leave a lot to be desired. Ninja Scroll is the epitome of 90s anime and in a way, it feels nostalgic. There are certainly dark fantasy anime still being released today, but the vibe of the 90s/early 2000s anime is unique to the anime that came out during that time. At a 1 hour and 39 minute run time, this movie is a good watch if you’re itching for a good dark fantasy anime to watch.
Ninja Scroll – 7/10