Ninja Scroll (1993)

aka Jūbē Ninpūchō

2017 #3
Yoshiaki Kawajiri | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | Japan / English | 18

Ninja Scroll

One of the films credited with helping to popularise anime in the West in the wake of Akira (reportedly it has had a greater and more enduring impact in the US than in Japan), Ninja Scroll is a fast-paced fantastical action flick full of gratuitous swordplay, gratuitous gore, and gratuitous nudity.

The story begins with Jubei Kibagami, a roaming ninja-for-hire, who becomes embroiled in stopping the machinations of the Shogun of the Dark after he rescues Kagero (a female ninja whose team were slaughtered by the Shogun of the Dark’s minions, the Eight Devils of Kimon), an event witnessed by Dakuan, a government spy who has been sent to investigate and stop the evil Shogun.

Try not to worry about that too much, though: Ninja Scroll moves like the clappers through a plot that is at once incredibly simple and ludicrously over-complicated. On the one hand it’s an action-driven adventure, as our trio of heroes battle their way through the Eight Devils one by one. On the other, it’s got all sorts of backstory stuff about who the Devils’ leader is and how he’s connected to something Jubei did years earlier and what any of this has to do with Kagero’s clan and… so on.

Samurai snack

Similarly, the pace has its pros and its cons. It certainly keeps things lively, with new monstrous Devils turning up regularly, bringing bursts of exciting action with them; but it makes things bewildering at times, with a flurry of characters and exposition introduced throughout the first half-hour or so. Once it settles down, there’s actually some quite nice character stuff involving Jubei and Kagero, and to an extent Dakuan, who remains a tricksy and unreliable ‘hero’.

That’s not what the film is best known for, though, probably because it’s hidden after a big chunk of the other stuff: ultra-violence and a sex obsession. As to the former, men are literally ripped limb from limb, or cut in half, or quarters, with blood regularly spraying everywhere. Depending on your viewing preferences, it’s either incredibly extreme or we’ve seen the same kinda stuff more regularly since. I wasn’t as shocked as some reviews warned I would be, but it’s not for the faint-hearted.

The same goes for the sex and nudity, which embraces everything from the villains bickering about who’s sleeping with who (if they’re devils then half of them are horny ones) to Kagero being sexually assaulted by a rock monster. In the audio commentary recorded for the 20th anniversary, the writer, director, and animation director debate whether some of that content was unnecessary. One of them (it’s hard to tell which from the subtitles) asserts that there were always gratuitous sex scenes in the B-actioners that partly inspired the film, so it goes toward creating the right atmosphere. I guess individual tastes will vary — I mean, it’s not as if Kagero’s assault is presented as a good thing, but it is still presented. Or it is nowadays: on the film’s first release the BBFC cut that part out. Times certainly have changed.

Kick-ass Kagero

For all that Ninja Scroll feels kinda antiquated in this carefree presentation of repellant acts, it has stood the test of time in other ways. For the faults in what happens to her early on, Kagero emerges as a competent and assured female hero (for the most part). The animation is frequently great, with some painterly compositions inspired by traditional Japanese art, as well as dramatic action sequences. I watched the English dub, which is what it is (I’ve heard better; I’ve heard much worse), but on the aforementioned commentary track they regularly sing the praises of the Japanese voice cast, so maybe the subtitled version was the way to go.

Watching Ninja Scroll is a bit of a conflicting experience nowadays. Its story is both numbingly simple (“introduce villain, fight villain, defeat villain, repeat x8”) and insanely complicated; its sometimes balanced gender politics are offset by some gratuitous and distasteful content; its characters are initially archetypal and generally unlikable, but warm up in both regards as the film progresses. A bit like my opinion of it: I wasn’t entirely sure after my first viewing, but as I watched it back with the commentary I re-appreciated an awful lot of it. Maybe it’s a grower, then.

4 out of 5

Ninja Scroll is on Syfy UK tonight at 11:10pm.

Space Battleship Yamato (2010)

2014 #18
Takashi Yamazaki | 139 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Space Battleship YamatoA live-action adaptation of the popular, influential and long-lasting anime franchise, known in the US as Star Blazers (here’s a very good history of the series and its significance courtesy of Manga UK). Set in a future where Earth has been ravaged by alien assault, a nearly-defeated humanity learns of a device that might turn the tide of the war, but it’s located on the other side of the galaxy. The World War II battleship Yamato is retrofitted with spacefaring tech and its crew set off on a last-ditch mission to save mankind.

You can see how that setup is designed to fuel a lengthy series — it’s as much about the journey as the destination. Fortunately, the makers of this version haven’t gone all-out-Hollywood and attempted to launch a trilogy: without meaning to spoil the ending, the entire story is contained herein. It does occasionally feel like it’s been culled from a longer and more detailed narrative, not least in the abundance of central characters, but that’s not too detrimental. One distinct advantage (both of having a long-running predecessor and not aiming for sequels) is that nothing’s held back for future use — including characters. Not everyone makes it out alive, adding a genuine sense of peril that’s missing from most action-adventure movies. As someone not familiar with any previous version of the story, I can attest that this adaptation remains not only understandable, but very entertaining.

Some of the character arcs are a little on the predictable side — the maverick who comes to accept responsibility, etc — but there’s plentiful well-realised action to keep things rattling along. Some will moan about the CGI (as a space-based movie, there’s rather a lot of it) because it’s not mega-budget slick. Taking aim at criticsBut this isn’t a mega-budget production (Manga UK’s review refers to the “colossal ¥2.2 billion budget”, but that converts as only $24 million), so such criticism is misplaced. And it doesn’t even look that bad. Besides, if you only watch films for flashy CG spectacle, you shouldn’t be trying to venture outside Hollywood’s summer tentpoles anyway.

With a solid premise, engaging storyline, exciting action, likeable characters, and the bonus of telling an epic story in a single movie rather than forcing it to sprawl off (possibly-never-produced-)sequels, Space Battleship Yamato has an awful lot going for it. While a couple of niggles with its length and some amateurish-round-the-edges moments hold me back from giving it full marks, I greatly enjoyed it, and I think more broad-minded fans of action-adventure sci-fi will too.

4 out of 5