Reviewby Zac Bertschy, Aug 31st 2003
DVD: 10th Anniversary Special Edition DVD
By now, if you haven't heard of Ninja Scroll, then you've either been living in a cave in the Sahara Desert for the past twenty years, or you are unfamiliar with the country of Japan as a whole. In any case, for the last ten years, Ninja Scroll has served as a ‘gateway drug’ to the world of anime. Nine times out of ten, if you talk to any given otaku, they'll tell you one of the first anime titles they saw was Ninja Scroll. Given the sheer volume of anime available on today's market, for a title to have that kind of recognition is special; this film, love it or hate it, is a permanent addition to anime culture in America, alongside Akira and Ghost in the Shell. To commemorate ten years of Jubei and his bloodletting antics, Manga has seen fit to release this handsome 10th anniversary DVD edition of Ninja Scroll.
To ask, “Is Ninja Scroll any good?” is a silly question; the concept of whether or not this is a “good” movie is moot. Fans have long digested this film, and to give a single opinion of it, thumbs up or thumbs down, is to send a single drop of water into a bucket long since overfull. The question with this release is, “Is Ninja Scroll still valid in today's anime marketplace?” and, furthermore, “Is this DVD worth my twenty dollars?” To answer the second question, if you're a fan of this movie, you don't need anyone to tell you to buy this thing. The first question is a little trickier, though.
Ninja Scroll is partially responsible for the negative image Anime had in the mid to late 1990s, up through the recent explosion in the last three to four years. This film is ridiculously violent, exploitative towards women, and is essentially wall-to-wall gory action sequences. The film gained notoriety mostly for its violence, not because it was a masterpiece of modern cinema; this was the sort of thing Junior High students traded around between each other in secret and college students watched as a rite of passage. Countless others watch it while inebriated (using any means necessary, legal or otherwise), and others still watch it for inspiration when directing action sequences. No matter how you slice it (pun intended), Ninja Scroll is not admired for its touching, poignant story, or amazing character development, so if by chance you're one of the three people on planet Earth who haven't seen this movie, you've been warned. People like to watch Jubei hack up grotesque monsters. That's really all there is to it. As a relic of a now-bygone era, Ninja Scroll certainly lives up to its reputation; there are gallons of blood, lots of people die, and there are even a couple of short sex scenes in there for good measure. The problem is, this isn't what anime is anymore. By that measure, Ninja Scroll has become irrelevant, a reminder of a now-dead era.
As you watch the rock-skinned demon guy rip the arms off of some samurai and drink the blood from his veins, and then summarily rape that samurai's female companion, stop and think. This is what anime used to be in America. Anime used to be synonymous with graphic, brutal violence and sex; mothers would shield their children from it, and frankly, they had every right to shield their children from something like this. Ninja Scroll is entertainment for adults and adults only, and anime isn't for adults only anymore. By all accounts, in the year 2003, anime is for everyone. An extremely small portion of it is of this variety, and the ‘sex and violence’ angle of anime has been marginalized to the point of near-obscurity. Whereas in the past your local video store's anime section had ten copies of Ninja Scroll and Akira, nowadays, you'd be lucky to find a single copy of it amidst the countless family-and-teenager-friendly titles. Does Ninja Scroll belong on the shelf next to Tiny Snow Fairy Sugar? Sure, but mostly as a reminder of what came before. Beyond that, this film has little to redeem it.
Oh, sure, Ninja Scroll is still an entertaining film. There is pleasure, both carnal and guilty, in watching the grossest of the gross get cleaved in half by the wisecracking Jubei. This film should be the bible on how to pace an action movie, setting the still-intense action scenes just far enough apart to make the viewer crave more. It's somewhat refreshing to say Ninja Scroll, a venerable old warhorse, still has some shock in it. Parents would rightly still be outraged by what they see on screen, and that makes any grown man titter with joy. Husbands would still get busted by their wives for watching this late at night. The naughty filth of Ninja Scroll, even after ten years, hasn't completely diminished. Sure, we've all seen worse at this point (have we?), but this film is still a feast for the horror-minded.
One thing can be said about this production: the top-notch animation still holds up. One of the jewels in the Studio MADHOUSE crown, Ninja Scroll is beautifully animated. You'd be hard-pressed to find another film from 1994 that has this much fluidity of motion and sticks as steadfast to character design. Manga chose not to redub this film either, restoring the now-classic original English dub (warts and all), presenting a gorgeous-sounding 2.0 stereo track and an even better 6.1 DTS track. They've digitally restored the film, so the blood is redder and the flesh is brighter, and they've added a special 16x9 widescreen version for home theater enthusiasts. There are a handful of extras on the DVD; one assumes that the real feature on the DVD is the restoration done on the film, not superfluous extras like commentary tracks and whatnot. It would have been nice to see some of the Japanese promotional materials, but this release is celebrating Ninja Scroll in English, not in Japanese.
This DVD is a piece of nostalgia. If it were intended to introduce Ninja Scroll to a whole new audience of otaku, then they've missed the revolution. Anime fans these days don't want Ninja Scroll; they want Rurouni Kenshin or Trigun or Naruto. The days of the super-violent, big-budget action anime film are dead and gone, and this DVD serves as a reminder of that. If you crave a return to the days that not every male character in anime was hyper-attractive, when the bad guys bled gallons and gallons of blood, and when anime was little more than a synonym for excess, then by all means, buy this DVD. The rest of us have, blessedly, moved on. That's not to say there's no pleasure in looking back, of course. There's some charm left in Ninja Scroll, but as a famous archeologist once said of another infamous relic, “It belongs in a museum.”
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : B
+ A fun little trip back in time. Still an entertaining film.
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