Ninja Scroll is an engrossing movie about samurais at war and ninjas lurking in the shadows in feudal Japan during the EDO period. It is of the Jjidaigeki-Chanbara genre which is very popular in Japan. Ninja Scroll, Akira and Ghost InThe Shell were the anime that created a wave of popularity in adult oriented anime during the 90s and were also influential to other films like Ninja Assassin. The story for the movie was inspired by western espionage fiction and by the works of Japanese novelist Futaro Yamada.
The movie focuses on a vagabond ninja named JuibKigama, who is loosely based off a samurai in the EDO period Yagyū Jūbei Mitsuyoshi. He goes on a mission to kill the Eight Demons Of Kimon who are terrorizing the country and plan to overthrow the government. Juibei Kigama is assisted by Kagero, a female ninja and food taster for her clan as he embarks on his journey to destroy the demons.
Dakuan is an elderly spy who despite his age, is still very lethal and possesses a vast array of deadly skills honed by time and experience. He coerces Juibie into going on the mission by poisoning him and would provide the antidote when Juibei kills the demons. However, he only has a short time to complete the mission before he dies.
Ninja Scroll has a straight forward story but it is engaging from start to finish and very entertaining. While there aren’t any twist and turns and complex side issues because of its simple plot, the main characters are complex and deeply flawed and each has their own inner struggles to deal with. They are very engaging and likeable despite their flaws and you care about them.
The chemistry between Kagero and Juibei is interesting. Each of them has their own variety of abilities and skills. Kagero is infused with toxins which means that anyone who kisses her or has intercourse with her they end up dead. She is also immune to all forms of poisons. Juibei is a supreme Ninja and a deadly swordsman and very quick witted.
The main antagonist of the film Gemma, the leader of the demons, has absolute mastery of his body which makes him immortal. If one was to decapitate him, he could automatically have his head place right back onto his body. The other demons are ruthless and intimidating. They also use uprising against the Japanese government to settle rivalries violently amongst themselves.
The action is one of the main highlights of the film. Each fighting scene is fast paced and superbly choreographed. At the same time, it is ultraviolent, intense and not for the faint of heart. The close up scenes of slashes, blood, and sword fighting are realistic and adds into the graphic violence of the film. Each character also uses a variety of martial arts and sword fighting techniques during fight scenes which spices things up. Each blow the delivered by the fighters is potentially fatal and nobody holds anything back in the brutal fights. The fights are short but overall very effective and no fight ever feels the same in the film. In one scene, one of the demons Tessai, rips of the arms of one of the characters then drinks the blood. There are some scenes of nudity and an instance of rape.
Another main highlight of the film is its intricate animation. Blood dripping and leaves being blown in the wind are done effectively and it looks very natural. Small touches like butterflies floating and birds flying add a touch of the surreal. There was not a single instance of CGI in this film and the hand drawn cel shading style looks really impressive even today.
The Art direction is really amazing and unique. Each character design looks excellent and each of their designs is also based off the demonic powers they have. Bensaito, one of the eight demons, has intricate Yakuza like snake tattoos all over her body which comes to life whenever she is in danger. The overall body designs of each character also look realistic and distinct from each other. The background designs of the world are nicely colored and finely detailed. It creates an accurate visual impression of what the EDO period of Japan looked like. The use of the color red is very occurrent in the film per its violent nature and the blue hints for the art design looks sharp too.
Visually it is very dark and bleak which goes in perfectly for the dark storyline. The use of light and contrasting shadows is also another notable aspect of the animation. The atmosphere of the world is grim and horror styled throughout and there are good elements of suspense and drama too. The editing and transition from scene to scene is very smooth.
The voice acting sounds is well done and the dialogue is good. Juibei makes some good wisecracks as he is quick witted. The translation from Japanese to English script is quite good but there are a few hiccups.
The musical score fits in very well with the setting of this film. It sounds heavily like the music of the era by its use of instruments and the songs styled from that time period. The sound design on the blu ray is upgraded to very high quality. New extras are added in for you to look at and you can switch to Japanese audio if you want.
There are some small downsides to the film but nothing really major. While the villains are really threatening and unique, they are mainly evil for the sake of being evil just as you expect demons to be. Sometimes there is the occasional noticeable errors in the animation. The plot is paper thin and the story is not fleshed out fully it often is served to focus on the conflict.
Despite the simple story and thin plot, I really enjoyed Ninja Scroll and it is one of the best anime films I have seen.
The film gets 5 out of 5 stars.
If you enjoy samurai films, you would really want to watch Ninja Scroll. Get for the blu ray version as it shows everything uncut and uncensored.