Ninja Scroll

In the early years of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the lord of the Yamashiro clan hires a team of ninja to eliminate the operators of an illegal gold mine. However, when Gemma, the ninja leader, orders his followers to kill one another so that the mine’s location can be kept a secret (and so the Yamashiro can take control of the mine for themselves), one ninja, Jubei, refuses and kills his fellow ninja as they attack him. Jubei then kills Gemma in revenge. Five years later, Jubei has been reduced to the life of a wandering mercenary when he saves a young woman – Kagero – from a vicious assault. She reveals that she was part of a ninja team ordered by the head of the Mochizuki clan to investigate reports of a plague in a nearby village; however, her team was attacked and annihilated by a monstrous individual who apparently had flesh of stone. Jubei is thus unwittingly drawn into a sinister conspiracy, in which the descendants of the shogunal family displaced by the Tokugawa plot their return to power, aided by the gold from the Yamashira mine and a cabal of ninja with hideous supernatural powers. Along the way, Jubei is manipulated by a Tokugawa spy into working for the government, while mutual feelings of affection flower between Jubei and Kagero. This is when he makes the most horrific discovery of all: Gemma is not only not dead, but may in fact be the puppet master behind the unfolding events…

Based on the novels of Futaro Yamada (which in turn influenced the manga that became the source of the anime “Basilisk”), “Ninja Scroll” was a co-production between JVC, Toho, and Movic, with the animation provided by studio Animate. Released in Japanese cinemas in 1993, it was a box office hit, despite generating enormous controversy because of its graphic depiction of combat and sexual violence.  Presented in a classic hand-drawn animation style highlighted by a vivid colour palette, “Ninja Scroll” races along at a headlong pace, bombarding the viewer with images of violence and death, all set within a brooding rural landscape that conveys its own sinister menace. But in the midst of this bloody mayhem, the heart of the narrative is composed of a deeply human story, the connection between the status-less Jubei and the abused and objectified Kagero; through their relationship, she comes to an understanding of her own worth and dignity, while he learns how to once more be human and vulnerable despite the traumas of the past. Like Gennosuke and Oboro in “Basilisk”, their love is doomed and tragic; but it is the very tragedy of their relationship that leavens and humanises what would otherwise be mindless slaughter.   Violent, nihilistic, and bittersweet, “Ninja Scroll”, along with “Akira” and “Ghost In The Shell”, formed a triumvirate of films that revived anime as a serious art form in the 90s, and which re-sparked interest in anime among Western audiences after the fade-out of the “first wave” anime of the 1970s and 80s.

Text ©Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2020. All rights reserved.