Review: Ninja Scroll (Blu-Ray)

Ninja Scroll achieved a cult following in the formative stages of anime fandom in Australia, becoming what could arguably be part of a holy trinity of genre-breaking Japanese animation alongside Akira and Ghost in the Shell in the early 90s. It was also infamous for being the first of many anime appearances on the legendary Des Mangan-era Cult Movie segment on SBS. It’s been nearly 20 years since it first screened, and the release on Blu-Ray is a welcomed chance to check it out once again.

Ninja Scroll’s story is on the surface pretty simple – vagabond/ronin Jubei Kibagami is a sword for hire and happenstance dictates his involvement in a broader government conspiracy designed to overthrow the ruling Tokugawa government through the use of advanced firearms secured via secret gold shipments. The movie starts with Jubei delivering a bloody show of expertise in disarming some bandits before shifting focus to the remaining roster of players, most notably Kagero who is set to take on the spotlight alongside Jubei.

The movie takes a sharp turn from all the jibber-jabber in one of early 90s anime’s most infamous scenes where a small army of ninja are butchered by a demon we discover is part of the broader conspiracy, followed up with a confronting scene between him and Kagero. Action takes a back seat as the rest of players assemble, including the exploration of the ties between the protagonist and a previous acquaintance caught up in the action before finishing off with some amazing set pieces and suitably muted ending, something not unusual if you consider the clear inspiration from other live action samurai/ninja drama movies.

After all these years the movie definitely stands up – animation is slick, detailed and organic in a way that is difficult to replicate in the digital age we are now in. It revels in its excess – the gore is intense and the sexual imagery maintains its impact. The direction and design are pure Kawajiri – there are stylistic and thematic similarities in some of his other works, most notably Wicked City which arose in the same period funded by Japan’s economic bubble, and his angular designs and attention to detail are fantastic to see on screen.

What’s interesting though is that for all its reputation, the actual fighting sequences are somewhat sporadic and don’t dominate the whole movie. The narrative is tight and not exceptionally deep, but it fits the mold this movie is designed to echo. It is the impact of the action sequences that make them seem bigger and more epic than what they actually are – for this, Kawajiri and his team deserve some significant kudos, as the reality of the movie’s action/narrative composition only hit home when watching it for this review despite watching this movie countless times of the years.

The Blu-Ray release is lean, but delivers where it needs to. The audio benefits from the HD upgrade, sounding as deep and rich as what my memories of watching this on a 32cm TV alongside Anime Inferno co-founder Inferno at the grand age of 14. Presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio, the animation looks absolutely spectacular, retaining detail, fine levels of grain and beautiful colour saturation, especially in the harsh red-tinged sequences towards the end of the film. The commentary track is interesting and reveals some interesting facts about the production, and the included booklet featuring words from Amos Wong and Jonathon Clements is a nice accompaniment to the release.

It’s been a nice trip down memory lane with Ninja Scroll – I may be older and have been exposed to a lot more anime since the first time I watched it, but it still holds up as a pivotal part of my interest in anime as a medium and a great piece of adult-oriented animation.

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A review copy was provided by Madman Entertainment to the author for the purpose of this review.