Please do not (ninja) scroll down!
If you have a predisposed bias against animation please erase from your mind this next analysis is anime. Certainly be open to the fact it was directed and animated by the Japanese. But please accept Ninja Scroll (1993) as a standard bearer for excellence in film, in general.
Why exactly is Yoshiaki Kawajiri not a more recognized name in anime is nothing short of shocking the more you discover his often violent, uncompromising, and equally unique vision when compared or contrasted to the masters the likes of Katsuhiro Otomo, Hayao Miyazaki or Mamoru Oshii to name the big ones.
Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic first discussed the work of Kawajiri here with an analysis of his contribution to Neo Tokyo (1987) with The Running Man segment.
The Running Man was the perfect vehicle for Kawajiri as a director to truly unleash his dark, relentless nightmare vision. One should not relent with that short when it comes to the work of Kawajiri. He may not be as acclaimed as Mamoru Oshii or Hayao Miyazaki, but his films are no less important as both anime and cinema.
Kawajiri is truly no slouch. The breadth and scope of his contributions to anime run long ranging from works as early as 1969 and offering key animation to one of my all-time favorites, Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (1972) to first key animation on the more recent Redline (2009). But clearly Kawajiri has a thing for ninja. His contributions in between those years are nothing short of astounding working with everyone from Rintaro to Katsuhiro Otomo and many others. Familiar titles in his repertoire include Future Boy Conan (1978), Barefoot Gen (1983), Harmagedon (1983), The Dagger Of Kamui (1985), Metropolis (2001) as well as project contributions to Memories (1995) and The Animatrix (2003).
Specifically, Rintaro's The Dagger Of Kamui is indeed a direct descendant of Ninja Scroll. Kawajiri's own inspired work there would inspire his more personal ninja journey leading to direction on his own Ninja Scroll.
If The Running Man was but a mere primer of things to come, it's indeed a short but great one. Kawajiri would be quick to follow moving from strength to strength with Wicked City (1987), Demon City Shinjuku (1988) and Ninja Scroll all genuinely strong examples of masterful storytelling infused with Kawajiri's trademark visual style.
When he's not the scriptwriter, as he was here for Ninja Scroll, Kawajiri brings his story to life visually with thrilling flair and distinct touches to the design work contributed by Kawajiri and Yutaka Monowa (look for a commentary by both men on 2015's Blu-Ray re-release). Kawajiri is like the Quentin Tarantino of anime. His work is graphic, but his stories are well-paced and unflinching visions of the worlds in which he desires to bring to vivid, colorful life. One of those notable Kawajiri themes is his ability to bring out the monster in man in a visual ballet of genuine horrors.
If you thought The Running Man was graphic, Wicked City and Ninja Scroll take it to another level. Blood splashes, splatters, sprays and explodes forth like a gusher. Tits and sexual violence also populate his graphic world filled with monsters both human and inhuman. As the case with his noir-ish Wicked City, Ninja Scroll culminates in a ballet of beautiful violence against a backdrop of the natural world during the Edo era.
Admittedly Ninja Scroll never lured me to its world. There's something about ninjas that leaves me kind of unmoved, which may seem odd given a love of Japanese anime with a passion. Maybe it's the lack of science fiction or a ray gun. Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles. Blech! Okay, what about your Science Ninja Team Gatchaman? I know. There's an exception to every rule. And truth be told Science Ninja Team Gatchaman is immersed in a world of science fiction, stellar mecha designs, colorful costumed heroes and a vast array of weaponry and vehicles. That dynamic show speaks to me. Not to mention it just oozes cool. Old school ninja just generally does not draw me in though I enjoyed Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954). Gonzo's Samurai 7 was significantly lacking in the animation department and never quite did the trick for me. But like those aforementioned samurai films, three ninja forge a team to destroy the demons or devils and do so with real, painterly panache.
Ninja Scroll takes the cake. It's just great cinema with a tale so engrossing I forgot I was watching ninja. It is positively staggering to watch Kawajiri's animation come to life drawing you into his world with the perfect mix of character and action.
Character designs, again by Yutaka Minowa, while not my personal favorite (I tend to prefer slightly larger eyeballs in my anime), are still striking, meticulous and beautifully animated. The lead is like a tougher ninja version of Spike Spiegel of the later Cowboy Bebop (1997).
The Eight Devils Of Kimon, eight ninja demons working for a dark shogun, are marvelously original creations and generate true thrills and downright scares throughout the film as each is betrothed with the powers of evil and sorcery. The designs here are nothing short of spectacular.
The staggering design work was also highlighted by Brian Camp in Anime Classics Zettai! where Ninja Scroll was dubbed one of the 100 Must-See Japanese Animation Masterpieces. I wholeheartedly agree.
Camp writes, "Kawajiri's specialty is bold linework and we see it here in every character, each distinct and memorable, with strong features and detailed countenances." Camp calls the Devils "fascinating and vivid" creations. Indeed these creatures generate much tension as their wickedness confronts the just.
Camp adds, "each of the 8 devils is such a formidable opponent, each with such a clever power or skill, that the encounters are always unpredictable and quite satisfying." Indeed, you'll find each leg of our heroes' journey harrowing and absolutely compulsive viewing.
"Kawajiri's directorial command enables these scenes to flow into each other seamlessly as the characters make their way through this perilous landscape, the horrors they face so wondrous that we can't look away from the screen even during the celebrated moments of ultraviolence." It is an artful dance of ninja skill as good versus evil generates a bloodbath.
Artfully illustrated by the extraordinary Studio Madhouse the art direction, use of color, backdrops and location art is nothing short of exquisite. Action sequences are expertly crafted and simply explode with ingenuity certainly matching some of the best work found in the studio's ninja tale The Dagger Of Kamui. The scenes and settings are a real treat for the eye. These fits of thrilling action are only matched by rich, focused character studies and moments of quiet drama filled with real power thanks to a stellar script by Kawajiri. This is just a masterpiece through and through.
While Ninja Scroll falls outside the bounds of science fiction in the purest sense there are the moments of the fantastical and horrific that are brought to life in the animation that are something to truly behold.
Digital animation today often falls short of reaching these rich and detailed heights. I can only liken the appearance of hand drawn animation to the digital work sometimes applied to live action infused with CGI. When CGI intends to mimic the flesh it simply cannot trick the human eye. With anime, the human eye normally can distinguish between the warm charms of hand drawn animation versus a digital re-production. Like the era in which it is set, Ninja Scroll is a throwback to the detailed best of animation's old school days.
So sometimes we reach the end of an analysis with an endorsement tagged with conditions or reservations, but not here. Ninja Scroll is about as perfect a piece of anime cinema I've seen. It's flawless in its storytelling. It may be an uncomplicated, straightforward story, but the characters themselves are placed in compelling, unpredictable scenarios and battles. It's mesmerizing in its beautiful animation. It's cinematic sweep is elevated by a timeless score from Kaoru Wada who favors classic string instruments and other sounds evocative of a long gone era. These elements assure the work remains timeless. Ninja Scroll is a fresh at times jaw-dropping picture filled with eye-popping spectacle that never holds back and just explodes with imagination making it a memorable treat.
You have to respect an artist like Kawajiri who appears to unleash his vision without efforts of editing himself. With subject matter that includes sodomy, nudity and rape, this is indeed mature cinema. Shocking scenes from a film more than two decades old can still leave a viewer gob smacked and in disbelief at what was achieved here.
This is a film that comes very highly recommended to anyone who enjoys a remarkably violent drama executed as art and that is sincere to its very core in delivering a classic story of good versus the very evil. As simple as it is it packs a heck of a visceral wallop. And yet through it all, there is balance to the evil formidable forces that attack our heroes Jubei and Kagero. These characters are the moral compass to the film. They are the honor and the light that stands for civility.
There is also a remarkably credible, subtle love story. Like the romances of Kawajiri's Wicked City and Demon City Shinjuko, Ninja Scroll's subplot may be slightly undernourished to some, but it works beautifully without being overt and painfully obvious. It is still affecting.
If you're looking for a great anime film particularly one that is far less family-oriented than Hayao Miyazaki's fare than Ninja Scroll is for you. You don't have to love the ninja sub-genre either. But if you love ninja, you'll love Ninja Scroll. It's a downright nasty, sexy little film.
Kawajiri deserves a place next to the great anime auteurs for directing a series of very special films and yet who the hell really knows this man? Keep visiting Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic to learn more.
For years, a Ninja Scroll sequel written and directed by Kawajiri has been rumored along with a live action adaptation, yet they remain non-starters. That's a shame. For now Ninja Scroll has been re-issued on Blu-Ray in 2015 with a new director and character designer's commentary.
WARNING: VISUAL SPOILERS BELOW