The Flame of Ninja Scroll Burns Eternal
Kawajiri's bloodbath remains a wild intro into anime
By Joseph Luster
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It's 2012 and I'm watching Yoshiaki Kawajiri's Ninja Scroll. Flash back to the days of Suncoast. Of clamshell VHS releases selling for a searing 30-spot. The days back-patting old school fans pine for but would never actually go back to unless paid a handsome sum. Yeah, I had fun then, too, but I also thought Samurai Shodown was a good movie and didn't flinch when looking in the mirror to find a high-schooler in an oversized black M.D. Geist t-shirt staring right back. I was kind of an idiot; a lot of us were. But there are two things that haven't changed since those Little Debbie snack-cake-fueled days: I still love snack cakes, and Ninja Scroll is still awesome.
The opening sets it all up perfectly. Jubei Kibagami strolls casually across a bridge, when he's suddenly ambushed from all directions. He doesn't miss a beat as a spear splits his hat in such a way that guarantees he'll look cooler for the duration of the film. After a quick but not overly showy display of his skills, we learn he's a modest man who'll pick up jobs for a similarly modest fee. Little does he know, he's about to be sucked right in the middle of a plot to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate, one that's bolstered by a nasty group known as the Eight Devils of Kimon.
From the title screen it cuts into that familiar Kawajiri blue, and we're soon introduced to the female ninja, Kagero, who ends up assisting Jubei on his quest. Then it's time for our first Devil of Kimon, Tessai, a colossal slab of a man who can turn his skin into a rock-hard shell. If Ninja Scroll becomes a gateway into anime for some, Tessai becomes a further gateway into the Kawajiri brand of action. Both in tone and pacing, this scene is classic. The whistle of Tessai's blade as it slices through the air. The heft with which he slams it into the ground. Later still, after Tessai has his way with a passed-out Kagero and gets ready for the real fight with Jubei, the casual but deadly rotation of his massive weapon. Hell, pretty much all the action in Ninja Scroll has weight to it, something that's seemingly not as highly regarded as filling the screen with impossibly swift, incalculable movements. The violence is, for lack of a less deranged adjective, exquisite.
Thus, some people will tell you Ninja Scroll is a plotless, mindless action movie. It's not. There are quite a few gulfs spent moving the story forward without action, its bloodbaths are just structured smartly. It's tough to get bored during Ninja Scroll. After Jubei kills off Tessai in spectacular fashion—with a tip of the major hat to the poison-tinged Kagero—he's a pulsing blip on the radar of the Devils of Kimon. They won't leave him alone until he's dead and buried, which is great for us, because it offers plenty of incentive to run through them one by one, highlighting their individual skills and quirks.
Kawajiri here is Hideo Kojima in Metal Gear Solid 3 mode long before the latter's flagship hero was a Snake Eater. Voodoo lady snake tattoos slither hypnotically across skin. A dwarf named Mushizo houses a hornet's nest in his back and the folks at Madhouse Studios call his bluff and dare to draw a bunch of damn hornets. Jubei's battle against the blind swordsman Mujuro Utsutsu whips recklessly through a bamboo thicket. The cloning ninja Shijima creeps from the shadows, highlighted by the glint of his chain-linked claw. Each showdown builds up to the finale against Gemma, one of the most sideburned, mullet-draped characters of an unquestionably sideburned, mullet-draped filmography.
If it sounds like I'm just prattling off moments that would make a younger me rocket back in his chair and shoot Capri Sun out of his nose, well, that sounds about right. Ninja Scroll was absolutely the type of film that factory manufactured anime fans during its prime, and it's got a stack of memorable moments to back that up. This is precisely what Daryl Surat talked about in his Gateway Anime article back in '08. Ninja Scroll may not have the same effect on me it did when I was first watching it over and over and showing it to friends. How could it? The Internet has taken over our collective minds since then and, needless to say, we've seen some sh*t. However, it remains as entertaining as ever and, should you find the opportunity, don't hesitate to hand a copy to someone who still has the wide-eyed, innocent potential to be shaped by the work of Yoshiaki Kawajiri.
And then burn in your golden Hell!