Ninja Scroll (獣兵衛忍風帖) is a 1993 seinen, jidaigeki-chanbara (period samurai film) motion picture that was produced by Animate Film and written and directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust). The film takes place in feudal Japan and revolves around a rōnin named Jūbei that gets caught up in having to battle the Eight Demons of Kimon, who are ninjas with supernatural abilities and powers, that are hellbent on overthrowing the Tokugawa Shogunate. The film is considered by many to be one of the best anime films ever made, and after re-visiting it a couple of months ago, I can understand why.
There are many things that make this motion picture so fantastic and, to certain degrees, quite relevant to the world’s climate, at least in the West. Between the amazing animation and gloriously gory violence, to the solitary figure who saves the day, and the thrilling fights between Jūbei and the Demons of Kimon—there is plenty to love and adore here. However, my absolute favourite facet is the creative methods of discussing the corrupt government and how they ultimately end up distorting the very people they claim to want to help.
Ninja Scroll is quite typical of Japanese mysteries from the post-war era in that it critiques the fallacies within a government that continues to let its people down time and time again, thus pushing them to the point of acting on behalf of themselves. This is a common occurrence in most, if not all, of Edogawa’s Rampo’s works, as well as Fūtarō Yamada’s works, who was discovered by Rampo, and who became the inspiration behind the film’s creation. Different facets of their pieces tend to play as allegories for the various issues and criticisms held by the citizens. Although, if I had to choose one individual with whom Ninja Scroll resonated the most during my watch through, it would be Osamu Tezuka.
One of the main reasons that Tezuka popped into my head is because of the manga Dororo, which I re-read after watching the anime. Tezuka was a brilliant individual who laced some hefty critiques of Japan’s mishandling of the nation post Second World War into his creations and Dororo is a prime example of that. It exhibited Japan’s lust for esteem and dominant authority as an Asian superpower via similar characteristics that were portrayed in Ninja Scroll.
For example, both titles use historical eras to formulate their contemporary condemnations. Both have demons or devil creatures that stemmed from a pact made with a Satan-centric figure. Each demon was a challenge that tested the chosen hero for a unique set of abilities, and thus prepared him to take on the big baddie at the top of the power ladder. In Dororo, it was to save a village while climbing the rungs of political prestige, whereas in Ninja Scroll it was to commit a coup. Both serials have a solitary anti-hero riding the line of neutrality as they happenstance come across the demons, and by the end their journey turns into one of vengeance rather than a moral sense of justice.
In Ninja Scroll, the brutality and violence worked as a metaphor for the rage that fuelled the general public as well as depicted the savagery of which the government treated their people. The Demons had to become the worst versions of the things they were hoping to abolish via the takedown of government leaders. In the end, most of them utterly lost sight of what it was they wanted to accomplish to begin with; their self-righteousness replaced by a prevailing thirst for inciting chaos, and this prevented them for carrying out their mission.
Jūbei represents the people who mind their own business and just try to survive from day to day, hoping to outlive the government or die in peace while things go to shit around them, until he’s backed into a corner, then he only fights for as long as it contributes to his continued existence. He’s the type of person that unknowingly starts a revolution because he was pushed far enough to fight; a grey individual that swims in a detachment that prevents him from falling into a stereotypical role of self-righteous heroism. The only reason he becomes so invested in kicking everyone’s ass is because he wants revenge for what is done to someone he grows to care for quite deeply for. How many figures can you look at in history or even fiction who never set out to become the face of a movement, but only acted in a moment’s of weakness or overwhelming emotion? It’s passionate and instinctive and honest—all the things that corruption can either never snuff out or fails in comparison to. He is the antithesis of venality.
Ninja Scroll’s marvellous commentary on fucked-up governments and their gross negligence of the people of a nation is a pretty compelling and one of the main reasons that I love the film so much. There is something new for me to experience or uncover every time that I watch and re-watch it, a feat that few films can offer. A second aspect that I appreciate about the motion picture is the animation. Even 27 years after its release, the animation holds up rather brilliantly. It’s beautifully detailed and vivid, even amid palettes of dark blues and bright reds. The lighter colour schemes help shift the tone and juxtapose Jūbei’s evolution throughout the film. The swordplay is sharp and captivating, and the female bodies aren’t excruciatingly disproportionate, but more natural and organic in shape.
Even with all these brilliant attributes, Ninja Scroll definitely shows its age to some degree, especially where women are concerned. It’s decidedly anti-feminist as women are dehumanised, whether they are fierce fighters and talented ninjas or not. There are graphic sequences of attempted rape and molestation as well as heavily sexist dialogue that the intersectional feminists of today will not appreciate at all. Unfortunately, it is an accurate representation of how women were perceived during the Tokugawa era of Japanese history, but that doesn’t make it any more agreeable. I was also disappointed with the minimal screen-time that some of the side characters received as I found quite a few of them to be wholly compelling. More information about them, particularly about their past, would have been a marvellous addition. In some instances, their presence in the film became a bit of a superficial convenience. I know there is an anime TV series for Ninja Scroll, and I’m hoping that there will be some character exploration there.
All in all, Ninja Scroll is an excellent film. I’m happy that I took a chance and re-watched again it after many, many years. It holds up remarkably in some ways yet not so much in others. The film is a great way to get acclimated to traditional chanbara media, and it’s also a superb work for constructing discourse on how creative fiction outlets play a part in the harsh critique of the more toxic areas of Japanese history, specifically pre and post-war era. Plus, it’s just an outstandingly brutal and badass film of ass-kicking shenanigans.
9 straw hats outta 10