For many anime fans, their first introduction to the legend of Jubei Yagyu was through the intensely graphic Ninja Scroll, which has been around long enough that most people probably remember it from ADV's VHS previews. Imagine their disappointment, then, when Ninja Resurrection came out and everyone was fooled into thinking it was some kind of sequel. Skip a few years forward and you'll find the true heir to Ninja Scroll—the Jubei-chan franchise, which is a far more convincing adventure than Ninja Resurrection ever was, and we're talking about a show that has schoolgirls
. Jubei-chan 2 continues the proud tradition of the first series, juxtaposing slick swordfights and nonstop gags to form an oddly entertaining mix.
The driving concept behind Jubei-chan is the kind of thing that sounds clever at first, but you have to wonder if it'll work: history's most formidable ninja swordsman, being reborn as a cheerful teenage girl? This is either going to be really funny or really stupid. Thankfully, Jubei-chan 2 is more funny than stupid, backing up the silliness with a solid story. The introduction of
Freesia and the Siberia Yagyu expands the series' universe and re-emphasizes the historical element, implausible as it may be. However, that's where the creativity stops, as the early episodes fall into standard adventure fare: Jiyu keeps trying to avoid the Lovely Eyepatch (and then it ends up on her face anyway),
Freesia keeps battling her, and the side characters keep making fools of themselves. Furthermore, the dramatic side of the story is its weakest point, being drawn out to interminable lengths as if to make up for the zippy pacing of the comedy sequences. Serious conversation and tense pauses are always a nice repose from slapstick antics, but that doesn't mean they have to be boring.
As for those insane slapstick antics, though—that's where Jubei-chan 2 shines. The side characters are almost as fun as the protagonists themselves, with uptight kendo fanatic Shiro and scrappy troublemaker Bantaro being delightfully inept as they try to support Jubei. On the opposing side are the Siberia Yagyu, whose complete uselessness at ninjutsu proves that holing yourself up in Siberia for centuries isn't the smartest way to train. Jiyu and
Freesia aren't quite as entertaining, but they do form the pillars around which the show is based, and in schoolgirl form they're more approachable than when they transform into full-grown warriors. The subtle (and not-so-subtle) hints of yuri between them also explores a dimension of young female relationships that most anime ignores.
The first few episodes of Jubei-chan 2 quickly prove that Studio Madhouse had plenty of money to throw around on this project, and more importantly, plenty of creative freedom. The visual style can be best described as fearless, with the staff stopping at nothing to get a good laugh out of exaggerated effects, sudden style shifts, and even live-action sequences. It's an approach that works best in moments of pure absurdity. Why is that one guy in the Siberia Yagyu drawn with really thick, shaky lines? Who cares? It's funny. Why does that small, pencil-scribbled samurai keep showing up in the corner of the screen? Who cares, it's funny! But Madhouse doesn't skimp on technical details, either, and when it comes to action sequences it's like being thrust right into the Edo period. With a kinetic quality rivaling that of the best ninja and samurai anime out there, Jubei and
Freesia's duels are remarkably fluid, as if this weren't a comedy series at all. The only shortcoming among the visuals is that the character designs, which were developed in 1999, have stayed faithful to the original series and give everyone a slightly dated, simplified look.
The theme music opens with a rhythmic guitar riff and leads up to a biting string melody, making it the perfect cue for fighting action—and then you start hearing it again, and again, and again. Apparently every swordfight must be accompanied by that urgent theme music, which takes away the impact of the fights because by the third episode or so you're wondering if they ever plan to change it. It's a shame, because the more low-key tracks are beautifully scored, providing an emotional undercurrent to the long, drawn-out drama scenes. But around every corner lurks the threat of yet another fight scene set to that damn theme music...
Geneon's English dub of the series is a worthy display of comedy voice acting, although it doesn't quite have the variety and energy of the Japanese audio track. In particular, Jiyu is voiced at a lower pitch than the usual schoolgirl role, which is something of a relief (although she was probably cast so that she could easily switch to the grown-woman personality of Jubei). There's also the strange case of Ayunosuke, the bearer of the Lovely Eyepatch, who speaks in an endearing childish stutter—until you realize that the odd timing helps to sync his mouth during expository speeches. It's a sly technique, but too distracting. As with most Geneon releases, the dub script sticks closely to the original translation, only falling away during big chunks of dialogue.
So apparently it is
possible to lampoon a serious ninja legend and make an enjoyable story out of it. With a rich arsenal of animation techniques and a decent plot to back it up, Jubei-chan 2 is an action-comedy that pulls off both the action and the comedy. It's not going to change your life, but it'll certainly add some brightness to it. Tired of hearing about Naruto all the time? Check out this ninja saga instead.