Reviewby Theron Martin, Nov 30th 2012
Jubei Kibagami is a wandering expert swordsman who does odd jobs for gold and fends off the occasional discontented rival. Assistance he gives to Kagero, a female ninja/expert poison tester in the process of being molested by an overwhelmingly powerful foe, gets him embroiled in a bloody affair which involves a group of super-powered ninja called the Devils of Kimon, Kagero, and an old government agent dressed as a monk, the latter two of whom were independently investigating what, exactly, the Devils are up to concerning an apparently plague-stricken village. As Jubei eventually discovers, the plot that the Devils are executing involves an unpleasant incident from his past and their leader is someone that he was certain that he had killed five years earlier.
The late 1980s and early 1990s saw an OVA-powered wave of increasingly graphically violent fare which arguably peaked with 1993's Jūbei Ninpūchō, a work by Yoshiaki Kawajiri (of Wicked City and Demon City Shinjuku fame) which stands even to this day as anime's defining work of hyperviolence and the standard-setter for all super-power ninja titles that followed. It also became highly popular in the West as more mature fans, drawn to anime by its willingness to depict what American animation would not, saw it as the epitome of what was “cool” about anime; for the latter half of the '90s it was a staple of the 2 a.m. time slots in anime and gaming convention viewing rooms. It even received some critical attention outside of anime fandom. The gradual rise of fascination with moe elements and a general shift towards more toned-down violence in the early 2000s threatened to turn the movie into a nostalgia piece, but the resurgence in intensely graphic fare beginning in the mid-2000s has helped make the film relevant again. Thus the timing of its long-expected Blu-Ray release is highly appropriate, as it gives a new generation of anime fans who seek bloodier fare a new opportunity to get hooked on that good ol' hyperviolence.
For those who are too new to fandom to be familiar with this title, Ninja Scroll (as it is known in the U.S.) will not disappoint anyone who revels in highly graphic content, as anime violence simply doesn't get much more extreme than this. The movie is justly notorious for its early scene depicting one of the Devils of Kimon literally tearing the arms off of a ninja and then drinking the spilt blood or a late scene involving a character literally having his face smashed into a pulp by a series of head butts, and scenes of characters being impaled, cut in half horizontally or vertically, decapitated, deprived of a limb or two, or otherwise dying in gruesome ways are commonplace. The movie is also notorious for being one of the most sexually explicit non-hentai titles out there, as one (fully adult) character is graphically molested on two occasions and a full-blown sex scene is present on one other occasion. (Despite the claims of the creators to the contrary in the audio commentary track, that scene is not entirely gratuitous, either, as it is used to drive home a point about Kagero's tragic nature.) Nudity is present on other occasions, too.
Even if one is not into the graphic aspect, the movie can be highly entertaining simply as an exercise in intense, lively ninja action. Action scenes sizzle with energy and powerful maneuvers unencumbered by tiresome dramatics such as calling out the names of the attacks or engaging in elaborate wind-ups and/or power-ups; these are brutal fights which involve savage beatings, vigorously clashing blades in close quarters, and the omnipresent threat of danger. The thin plot mostly exists just to set up conflicts between the protagonists and the Devils of Kimon and allow various characters to show off their colorful ninja techniques; all of these have become standard fare over the past couple of decades (mimicry of both people and objects, becoming stone-skinned, control of insects, snakes, and/or people, turning creatures into living explosives, poisonous to the touch, striking out of shadows, shadow clones, regeneration, and so forth), but here they offer a great variety of entertaining challenges. The story is fleshed out a little bit by showing how the Devils use the situation to settle some petty internal rivalries and by playing up Kagero as a tragic character (she can't ever make love to anyone without killing them with her poison, which makes her witnessing of the sex scene a bitter pill to swallow), and it does have a major twist or two, but the movie's execution uses those elements as a complement for the action rather than as the movie's driving force. But that's just fine, since depth was never the aim here anyway.
Madhouse Studio produced the title under Kawajiri's guidance, in the process creating one of the most distinctive looking and sounding anime works of its era. Characters have big, elongated heads with substantial chins and prominent, exaggerated features, while body forms are heavily masculine, bishonen, femininely sexy, or monstrous, as the character requires. The all-cell artistry sports lavish backgrounds and numerous coloring tricks, including scenes done all in sharp red/black contrasts or varying shades of blue. The animation effort is strong enough to give the whole work a dynamic, smooth-flowing feel and the graphic content is, of course, lovingly-rendered. The musical score by the great Kaoru Wada, whose heavy, dramatic sounds also shined in titles like 3x3 Eyes, Casshern Sins, InuYasha, and Samurai 7 (amongst many others), delivers a weighty, powerfully driving beat which suits the material perfectly and wonderfully enhances its intensity.
As Manga Entertainment did with its earlier DVD releases, Sentai Filmworks retains the original 1995 English dub. The Japanese dub was composed of an all-star cast by early 1990s standards, while the English cast consisted of a mix of short-timers and those who would become long-term veterans: Wendee Lee (credited as Wendee Day), Kirk Thornton, Doug Stone, and Richard Epcar. The English dub still holds its own, however, in a rendition that adds in slightly more attitude and some distinctive vocal styling mixed in with an occasional awkward emphasis. The dub script stays very faithful.
Sentai's Blu-Ray transfer uses a digitally remastered print that apparently had to be cleaned up considerably from a badly deteriorated original master. The resulting video is only available in a 4:3 aspect ratio, but this is still preferable to using the cropped 16:9 widescreen version available on the 10th anniversary release back in 2003. The resulting picture quality is a significant improvement over previous releases, though the source print's age limits how crisp the picture can look and some occasional minor flaws in line transfers can be noted if one looks carefully for them. The sound upgrade, to DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 for the English track and Master Audio 2.0 for the Japanese track, is much more readily noticeable, creating a strong surround-sound remix.
For this release Sentai dispensed with all of the Extras which came in the 10th anniversary release in favor of a brand-new Japanese commentary track featuring Kawajiri and animation director Yutaka Minowa speaking with a moderator. Combined with the Blu-Ray upgrades, the commentary is enough to justify a double-dip on this title, as the movie-long discussion provides a lot of insight into who did the key animation for which scenes (and how one can tell that), how things done on this pre-digital effort might have been done differently with digital techniques, and certain key decisions made about shot selections, artistic features, voice actors used, and so forth. A layman who listens to it is sure to more readily notice some of the special visual features, such as choices made in the use of color in certain scenes or the slick trick used in the battle in the bamboo forest. A few juicy tidbits also float in the discussion, such as how the project was originally conceived as a pair of 45 minute movies and how the main protagonist is only named after Jubei Yagyu and not intended to actually be him. It also can be interesting to see how the creators' views of certain scenes have changed over the years.
Ninja Scroll's story is too thin for it to ever legitimately be considered one of the all-time great anime movies, but it is a classic well worthy of its jump to Blu-Ray.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : C+
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Fantastic displays of intensely graphic super-powered ninja action, upgraded sound, new Japanese audio commentary.
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