Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s classic anime Ninja Scroll was first released in 1993, reaching English speaking audiences two years later in December 1995. Along with Ghost in the Shell and Akira, Kawajiri’s film helped introduce western audiences to the visceral personality, brutally graphic and brazen potential of anime with its gratuitous sex, violence, death and blood and non-stop action. Now newly restored and set for rerelease on Blu-ray, Kawajiri’s labour of love, Ninja Scroll will reach an entirely new audience that will surely have nothing but the utmost admiration for its mastery of the animated movie, and one of Japan’s finest filmic exports.
Set during Japan’s Tokugawa period, Ninja Scroll sees female ninja Kagero sent to investigate a plagued village at the mercy of Tessai, a monster of a man who can turn his skin to stone. After being rescued from the grasps of the monster by wandering ronin Jubei Kibagami, Kegero and the strange loner unite. When shogunate spy Dakuan tells them that Tessai is one of the ‘Eight Devils of Kimon’ – a band of super ninja, apparently led by Jubei’s old nemesis Himuro Genma, whom he insists he killed many years ago – Jubei finds himself tricked into helping Dakuan bring them down. As an expert swordsmen, Jubei must rid of the Eight Devils, one by one; for him, it’s kill or be killed.
Thematically, Ninja Scroll explores many of anime’s traditional subjects, but visually it embellishes them, turning gratuitous sex into grotesque and vivid scenes of kidnap and rape, and abundant violence into nothing short of a bloodbath; it’s impact as a result, even today, is bold, shocking and ultimately eye-opening. However, Kawajiri’s film explores its themes on a deeper level too, by developing an interesting and dichotomous relationship between its main characters and also between the two sexes; it even poses a further dynamic by presenting the Eight Devils as a third entity; a band of beings that can arguably be seen as sub-human in nature, highlighting the director’s interest in horror created by “blending reality and fantasy”.
It’s obvious that deeper analysis of Ninja Scroll would reveal a lexicon of symbolism and historical reference, but it is in the visual that Kawajiri’s film should really be celebrated. Its gushing reds and deep plumes of blue and black, coupled with angular framing of character expressions, and editing that quite often utilises the jump-cut to emphasise a sense of disorientation that jars the viewer, establishing further chaos, Ninja Scroll is a champion of anime and belongs in the upper echelons of its history.