Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Ninja Scroll (Film Review)

To say this one was a product of its time would be the understatement of the decade. Almost every trope you'd expect to find from an early 90s english dubbed anime is here from the mass violence to the, well, questionable treatment of women. The film is very much driven by its action and battles more than its plot, but the key thing which sets it apart from other schlock from its time is this one was well made.

A mysterious disease is spreading throughout a number of small villages off of the coast causing them to be abandoned and quarantined in a blind panic. When under the supicions of the head of the Mochizuki clan ninjas are dispatched to investigate, they are massacred by a superhuman assailant. The last of their number, Kagero, survives only due to the intervention of famed swordsman Kibagami Jubei and the two find themselves caught in a power struggle. On one side the ruthless agents of the ruling Tokugawa shogungate, on the other the Eight Devils of Kimon. Monsters of humans led by a man Jubei knows only too well.

The plot and pacing of the film can best be described as "video game" and "Van Helsing speed" with the film rapidly moving from one sequence to the next. No sooner do Jubei and 
Kagero finish one foe then they move onto the next one, occasionally defeating a few goons on the way. Treating them pretty much like a sequence of boss battles, hence the term video game. Furthermore the plot is direct and simplistic enough to follow without any problems as everything is explained as time goes by. Never with any particular depth or complexity, save for perhaps one scene when Kagero reports back to her clan, and with just enough detailing. Never too much to weigh things down but just enough to satisfy any curiosity the viewer has.

This is effectively the genius of the film - It knew exactly what it wanted to be and didn't try to be anything higher.
It wasn't pretending to have some deep message or even particularly memorable characters and cut everything down until it ran as smoothly as possible. It wasn't trying to make some flippant analytical observation of an entire genre which amounts to nothing, throw in hateful characters but expect the audience to love them, religious imagery for no reason in mech fights in order to look more intelligent than it is... Sorry i've been reading one too many forum arguments about Pacific Rim. The point is it was straight forwards and rather than having a deep plot, it relied upon certain sequences and some decent voice acting for the time to keep things in people's minds. Something which, for the film's intended direction and subject matter worked perfectly.

Some films were made to make you question life itself. This one was made to make you wonder just how long they spent animating so much blood and how many floorboards Jubei could headbutt a man through.

This brings us onto the animation which, while showing its age in a few places, is still decent and holds up well in many places. 
It's clear where cost cutting measures were implamented here and there but moments where a man spins a giant Darth Maul styled shuriken in one hand or punches through a wall still look decent. It's of a . It's of a quality which can easily outdo the average scene in Bleach but has the odd grittiness and crude charm of older animated series like Trigun or Berserk.

Speaking of Berserk it's time to talk about some of the problems I mentioned earlier. To say that Ninja Scroll has more in common with Sin City than it does Naruto would be a gaping understatement. Along with all the blood and graphical dismemberment you'd get from something 18 rated, the opening few minutes are so dark they're on the verge of making Game of Thrones look tame. The one sided curb-stomp battle featuring men with the highest blood pressure in all Japan being struck by a giant spinning serrated blade is followed by Kagero's attempted rape.
In fairness this is used to help establish the grimness of the setting, the monstrous nature of the villains and isn't used to titillate. Furthermore, disturbing as it might be, Kagero doesn't simply roll over in the face of it and both her apparent submission and unconsciousness were a ruse to try and kill her attacker. Unfortunately, while she is frequently useful and not diminished to simple eye candy, the plot never gives her a real chance to shine. By the end she falls into the background. Something of a big flaw given the film's introduction to the character. This is the one real misstep of the film's otherwise reasonably passable plot.

It's still definitely recommended in spite of that latter flaw. While clearly aged and by no means a Ghost in the Shell or Akira, it's one hell of a ride from beginning to end and a good way to waste ninety minutes. It might not have substance but it's got enough style to keep both anime familiars and those just after a ninja flick interested until the closing credits.

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