Friday, 30 May 2014

獣兵衛忍風帖 / Juubee Ninpuuchou / The Ninja Scrolls of Jubei / Ninja Scroll

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.

Much about Ninja Scroll is deplorable and childishly gratuitous. Parts of it would be embarrassing to show to the uninitiated, and I would certainly be worried that it would confirm negative stereotypes of anime in the right – or wrong – context. But there’s a reason it was one of the big anime films of the nineties, not that far behind Akira and Ghost in the Shell in Western reception. And a large part of that is that the writing is genuinely good. It was to some extent despite myself – but I absolutely did enjoy Ninja Scroll, and appreciate its place in the history of anime’s Western popularity, even if, yes, I would be much more comfortable if the bare breasts and rape and splattering blood had been left out in development (not censored, the worst possible choice). Not because these things shock me, but the exact opposite – because they are banal and obvious: it is the ‘adult content’ that so often makes the property childish. 


  1. Sorry, but this is completely off-topic, I just picked a review at random since I don't know where else to post this. I've been following your blog for a while, never commented so far though. And every time I come back to check whether there's a new entry that interests me, I hope that you've finally reviewed Berserk (I'd prefer a review of the manga of course, but one of the anime would be fine too, for a start). I've been hoping for quite some time now, and just now I had a brilliant idea: dude, why don't you simply ask him?
    I don't even mind if you tear it to shreds, say it's the worst or just mediocre (I'm a Berserk fanboy myself). I just want to know whether you've seen/read Berserk and what you think of it. And of course, in case you haven't, if there is a chance that review it any time in the near future.

    Hope this isn't too annoying for you since it's completely unrelated to the review and kinda random. Also, I enjoy reading your blog a lot.

    1. Hi! Don't worry about commenting here - thank you for showing an interest!

      The truth is that I've only seen two episodes of Berserk so far. It's on my (long) list and of course I'm familiar with Guts' design, but as yet I just haven't gotten around to it.

      I will, though - it's definitely one that I plan to get to. So please do wait until I've seen one of the anime adaptations. Admittedly I'm not reading very much manga at the moment so it'll probably be the animated version first - but if I love it, I'll be checking out the manga too.

    2. Awesome! Another thing to look forward to. I'll definitely post another comment then.
      Btw, I would suggest that you watch the series first, not the movies. The movies seem to be more catered towards people who are already familiar with Berserk.