Reviews: Ninja Scroll 10th Anniversary Edition (DVD)

Ninja Scroll is one of the absolute classics of anime. While Akira was probably the trailblazer in terms of Western appreciation of anime, Ninja Scroll was without doubt one of the three main breakthrough pictures (along with aforementioned Akira and sci-fi masterpiece Ghost in the Shell). Despite having been released in 1993, Ninja Scroll remains the benchmark for mature, thrilling, well-made anime.

Although the film has been followed up with a 13-episode series, Ninja Scroll – like Akira – works perfectly as a standalone film. Like Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy and its protagonist The Man With No Name, Ninja Scroll derives a lot of its narrative power from the mystique surrounding the main character, Jubei Kibagami.

It’s the mystery that hooks you – set in feudal Japan, the film opens with a confrontation on a bridge. A band of thugs confront our hero, before – you guessed it – he cuts them down with incredible skill. We don’t know anything about the character other than the fact that he’s a freaking badass when it comes to combat, and we want to know more. We then jump out of his story and into a different encounter; a band of ninja (the Koga) are sent to reconnoitre a town, but never make it there. While assembling in the woods, a hulking brute appears out of nowhere and absolutely destroys them. The monster turns out to be one of eight devils, a group headed up by an old nemesis of our hero. Jubei, a classic rogue, essentially gets himself entangled in the whole affair due to his incorrigible but basically noble nature. We are gradually exposed to the overall plot, which involves an ancient treasure, a spreading blight, an evil overlord and the struggle of the few who oppose him. It’s a classic structure, and much of the story is drawn from Japanese folklore (as are many of the characters).

The thin lines and accentuated features of the detailed animation style lend themselves to the mature tone. The film is extremely violent, oftentimes in audacious and creative ways. There are severed limbs, severed heads, punctured eyeballs, spinning ninja stars and impossibly sharp swords. The film does an excellent job at underlining just how powerful some of the characters are – especially in the two opening fights. The directing is amazing, with every scene filled with force and forward momentum. The sound design is perfect, and the voice acting – especially the Japanese cast – is excellent.

The DVD features both the original Japanese voices and the English dub (which in this case is actually quite solid). The special features include an interview with director Yoshiaki Kawajiri, a history of Jubei and other character profiles, interviews with the English-language cast and recreated and remastered 5.1 surround sound audio.

Ninja Scroll is one of the best anime films ever made, and the DVD is well-worth picking up.


review by Ben Vernel


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