Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Ninja Slayer From Animation
BD+DVD - Complete Collection
Ninja Slayer was once an ordinary man, working to feed his family like anyone else. That is, until his family was killed… by NINJAS! After almost being killed (by ninjas) himself, our hero was reborn as NINJA SLAYER, the ninja who SLAYS ninjas! Now Ninja Slayer roams the city, striking down ninjas wherever they creep. Beware ninjas, for there is a new ninja in town: ninja who is determined to SLAY YOU!
To find Ninja Slayer's stylistic progenitors, it's best to look outside of anime altogether, not to film or literature, but to another proud legacy of cheaply constructed comedy television - Adult Swim. With its unmoving cutout characters, jerky tempo, and proudly simplistic jokes, Ninja Slayer feels more like a fake anime constructed for a show like Aqua Teen Hunger Force, complete with live-action explosions transposed over flat 2D characters. If that sounds compelling, Ninja Slayer may well be your thing. If that sounds repellent, stay far, far away.
Ninja Slayer's central plot is established in the first few minutes, as a mild-mannered salaryman named Kenji Fujikiro sees his family killed by ruthless ninjas. On the verge of death himself, our hero is possessed by a Ninja Soul and takes on the mantle of Ninja Slayer. Ninja Slayer slays ninjas. That is the story of this show.
Story isn't really the point of a show like Ninja Slayer, though. It's essentially a gag comedy based around one central joke: “what if we constructed an anime that embodies the simplistic idea of anime and ninjas as represented in western cartoons and low-budget 80s movies.” Thus Ninja Slayer proceeds as a series of silly riffs on ninja cliches, as ninjas bow to each other and kill each other and evolve into stronger ninjas to kill each other even harder.
That description might make it seem like Ninja Slayer is some kind of action spectacle, but the show's aesthetic fiercely counteracts any attempt to find it satisfying as an action show. Ninja Slayer's visual style is essentially the same as Inferno Cop - flat cutouts of characters are moved haphazardly around the screen, interacting with each other in only the most charitably vague ways. One of the show's main jokes is “everything looks terrible,” and at times, the show's minimalist aesthetic can actually be pretty funny. Perhaps the show's best moments of visual comedy are when it briefly moves to a jerky yet traditionally animated climax sequence as a character powers up, only to switch back to the flat Inferno Cop style as they glide across the screen toward their foe. The first or second time that happens, it's a solid punchline.
Unfortunately, Ninja Slayer only has the one idea - “what if we made the worst, most hackneyed action show ever, intentionally.” That could work for a five minute short, but Ninja Slayer has twenty-six twelve-minute episodes. By the time the third episode or so rolls around, the show has already abused every possible permutation of “what if ninjas talked and acted in half-translated nonsense and clashed in the most visually uninspired manner" several times. By the time the twelfth arrives, Ninja Slayer feels like actual punishment.
The show attempts to give itself some sort of dramatic thrust, eventually complicating Ninja Slayer's story with a variety of side characters and longer arcs. Unfortunately, the show's overall tone is just so crass and dramatically self-defeating that it's nearly impossible to feel any emotional reaction toward these characters. It's possible for comedies to establish likable casts and veer into emotionally resonant material, but achieving that requires some sort of consistent emotional core, like characters who you get to know as people even as you laugh at them. Everything in Ninja Slayer is constructed as a one-dimensional setup for a cheap gag, so all of the show's attempts at extended drama land as tedious and emotionally sterile. It's hard to feel threatened by characters with names like “Darkninja” and “Hugeshuriken,” or the show's other superficially sketched heroes and victims.
Ninja Slayer's overall effect is clearly reaching for “so bad it's good” - but creating a successful “so bad it's good” show isn't actually as easy as it would seem. Stories that stand the test of time, even for their badness, demand flair, personality, and innovation. Goofy works need to consistently iterate on and rework their own jokes, but Ninja Slayer is one fairly simple joke from start to finish.
So Ninja Slayer's aesthetic is more or less “intentionally bad.” The show adopts an angular and neon-heavy visual style presumably intended to evoke a stylized idea of 80s ultraviolence OVAs. It's definitely a unique look, but most of the time, this aesthetic is wasted on Inferno Cop-style flat panel shenanigans. There are some occasional well-animated sequences, but they're the exception, and the show's floaty style of action and drama prevents any of its visual beats from feeling particularly impactful.
The music fares much better. Ninja Slayer's total dedication to one specific style carries through gracefully to its score, where shredding guitars form a natural backdrop to the show's on-screen lunacy. Additionally, every one of the show's episodes finishes with a different synth/rock ending track, amounting to a diverse and very catchy collection. The included dub is also quite strong - not only does the main cast really lean into the melodrama of the action, but the adaptive script manages to replicate the loose, quip-heavy tone of the original without feeling either too far from the original intent or too stiffly loyal.
Ninja Slayer's release contains the show on both DVD and Blu-ray, along with some initial trailers and episode commentary for episode twenty-five by Tyler Walker and Chris Sabat, where Sabat actually offers a congratulations for making it that far into the show. The commentary is as loose as you might expect for this show, with the two discussing bands they've been in, the difficulty of finding actors for a show like Ninja Slayer, and how they'd actually reuse character screams to match the show's tone. The binder-style packaging feels a little flimsy, and my discs actually came with some of the hard plastic interior already chipped away, but it's a reasonable release overall.
Ultimately, I can only recommend Ninja Slayer to people with an incredibly generous tolerance for one extremely specific joke. “What if the ludicrous version of anime you see on shows like South Park or Robot Chicken was real” is basically all this show has going for it - personally, I feel that joke only has enough legs to sustain itself for 12 minutes. Ninja Slayer is clearly having a fun time with itself, but even comedies need more substance than this. When your attempts at lunacy all strike the same simplistic note, even ninjas exploding in geysers of blood can feel remarkably boring.
Overall (dub) : C-
Overall (sub) : C-
Story : D
Animation : D
Art : C+
Music : B+
+ The show's central gag results in some occasional solid laughs, soundtrack is very fitting
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