When I wrote my review of Basilisk, I had a lot to say about 80s-style anime marketed in the West as ‘adult’, and how juvenile it all was. While Ninja Scroll was released in 1993, on some level it was my point of reference. Basilisk is very much connected to Ninja Scroll – it was an adaptation of the source that seems to have inspired Ninja Scroll, a novel entitled Kouga Ninpuuchou or ‘The Kouga Ninja Scrolls’; the aesthetics are similar; and both concern a variety of fighting ninja with outlandish magical powers.
And Ninja Scroll contains much of what I decried there – that endlessly juvenile attempt to seem grown-up and serious by including lots of blood, unpleasant rape scenes that are clearly meant to titillate and objectify, rather ugly pointy-chinned designs even on the good-looking characters and macho themes of revenge-killing with hypermasculine baddies.
And yet, for all I thought it would be full of values and stylistic choices I can’t stand and often have to struggle against when I explain how rich and varied anime can be...I liked Ninja Scroll. More than I liked Basilisk. It even moved me more than Sword of the Stranger, while objectively not being as well-made or as thematically appealing.
A mercenary swordsman with a past as a respected ninja saves a girl from a thug trying to rape her. When the thug goes for revenge, the swordsman – Jubei – is drawn into a conspiracy to steal gold from a mine to fund shadowy organisations. It is an operation Jubei coincidentally was involved with some years ago, and which has led to the leader of the sinister ninja group charged with smuggling the gold having a grudge against him. With help from the rape victim – herself a kunoichi, a female ninja, who rather absurdly has a body so full of poison that a kiss or embrace will kill a man – and from a funny little man who works for the Bafuku, Jubei fights. He fends off a sequence of attacks from outlandish ninjas who can do things like literally sink into shadows and send massive amounts of electricity out of their body and down little wires. Finally, he goes up against the formidable Genma, leader of the Eight Devils of Kimon.
It’s all pretty absurd, and there’s something very painful about the character trope of pushing others away lest they get hurt made so literal with a woman who inadvertently kills people when she has sex with them. And yet...somehow, in the details and the character interactions, it works. The chemistry between Jubei and the kunoichi Kagerou is often absurdly overt yet sparks superbly and is believable throughout, even after awful objectifying rape sequences. The little Yoda-like government agent is actually funny, and endearing despite his acerbic nature and unsightly appearance. Jubei is the quiet type, but his cynicism, refusal to do as others want him to and his very shounen fighting style of largely taking a terrible beating but then winning in a flash are oddly fun. And while the ending is a bit unsatisfying – Viserys ain’t got nothing on this – the overall plot is quietly clever and paced right to sit between all-out action and mystery, and the minor character get fleshed out in remarkably little screentime.