Tag Archives: manga

Ninja Scroll

Ninja Scroll

Format: Cinema

Release date: 23 November 2012

Venues: Key cities

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 26 November 2012

Distributor: Manga Entertainment

Director: Yoshiaki Kawajiri

Writer: Yoshiaki Kawajiri

Original title: Jûbê ninpûchô

Japan 1993

94 mins

On the eve of its 20th anniversary, one of the most popular animé films of the early 90s finally reached UK cinemas, ahead of an HD release on Blu-ray. Ninja Scroll was originally released in the West on the back of the success of Akira, as both US and UK distributors fell over themselves looking for the next big Japanese animated film that could cash in on the success of the cyberpunk classic, while ignoring for another decade the non-violent, but superlative work of Studio Ghibli.

The film suffers from the excesses that gave much contemporaneous animé a bad name. These include pans over still images to save the animators some time, as well as the more unsavoury scenes of rape, excessive female nudity, ultra-violence and the ubiquitous tentacled monsters. But none of these elements should be a surprise, as the director also animated more egregious examples in the form of his Wicked City pair of films (ôôjû toshi, 1987) and Monster City (Makaitoshi Shinjuku, 1988). However, in Ninja Scroll at least, these elements are offset by some beautiful renderings of landscapes, weather and the costumes of feudal Japan. The film’s bookends are also excellent: a surprisingly subtle fight scene on a bridge and a climactic battle on a burning ship full of molten gold.

That the film excels more in individual compositions than overall direction and storytelling is indicative of the fact that the director worked better as an animator on other people’s projects, rather than his own, most notably on one of the finest examples of the medium, Rintaro’s Metropolis (Metoroporisu, 2001) and the Satoshi Kon/Katsuhiro Ôtomo anthology Memories (Memorîzu, 1995).

While not based on manga like many of its contemporaries, the story in Ninja Scroll is still episodic to the extent of feeling like video-game plotting. The lead character – a wandering ronin called Kibagami Jubei – goes on various missions: retrieving gold, protecting the weak from being beaten and subjugated, and fighting a variety of creatures that transform from human personas into monsters. Some of these seem overfamiliar, such as those with the aforementioned tentacles, but others are terrific hybrids of man and nature, including a swarm of hornets that live within a hunchback’s vertebrae and demons that transform into rocks and shadows. Reminiscent of American super-villains, these characters and the rendering of rain and snow suggest the director also looked to the West for inspiration, to heroes and villains in Marvel Comics, as well as the then recently started Sin City comic by Frank Miller. Indeed, Kawajiri would look to Miller for inspiration again in his 2003 The Animatrix samurai episode ‘Program’.

Elsewhere, the inspiration is purely Japanese, with the wandering ninja relocated from a series of novels by Futaro Yamada, and placed in front of compositions reminiscent of paintings by Hokusai. This cultural mash-up is entertaining and often memorable, and the legions of adolescent males who have watched the film over the last generation ensured a thematic sequel in 1997’s Ninja Resurrection (Makai Tensho: Jigoku-hen), a spin-off TV series in 2003, and an official sequel in pre-production.

However, the rape scene, which borders on cannibalism and necrophilia, leaves a bad taste in the mouth (no pun intended), and one wonders if the BBFC actually made the right decision in 1995 when they originally cut it from the film. The other 93 minutes are a reasonable introduction to the genre for gamers and animé fans, who would be well advised to follow this with the superior animé series Samurai Champloo (Samurai chanpurû, 2004–05). However, for those seeking the best ninja/samurai action on screen, there are dozens of live action movies either directed by Akira Kurosawa or based on manga by Kazuo Koike that are much better films than Ninja Scroll.

Alex Fitch


Tatsumi (Hell)

Format: Cinema

Dates: 13 January 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Soda Pictures

Director: Eric Khoo

Based on the work of: Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Singapore 2011

94 mins

Manga veteran Yoshiro Tatsumi is probably best known, if he is known at all, to Western readers as the creator of The Push Man and Abandon the Old in Tokyo, two translated volumes of his 60s and 70s gekiga stories, and A Drifting Life, a fat and fascinating, if frustrating, graphic biography. Gekiga (‘dramatic pictures’) was a genre created by Tatsumi and others in the late 60s, as they began to write and draw darker, more adult tales about contemporary Japanese life, departing from the children’s fantasy adventures that dominated the medium. Tatsumi’s classic tales, created while Japan was going through a period of rapid economic growth, reveal a downside to the boom, usually concentrating on the alienated and ground-down, the anxious and desperate beset by warped sexual obsessions, degradation at the workplace and humiliation at home. Tatsumi gleaned story ideas from grim tabloid shock stories and turned them into sweaty, angsty little dramas of unwanted foetuses and unrequited desire in brushy, grubby black and white.

Singaporean director Eric Khoo’s animated feature takes five of these stories and brings them to life with admirable fidelity. ‘Hell’ tells of a photographer whose shot of a moment of familial tenderness amid the horrors of Hiroshima brings him fame and admiration, until the horrible truth catches up with him. ‘Beloved Monkey’ details the downward spiral of a factory worker. The gentler, wryer ‘Just a Man’ deals with an ageing company man on the verge of retirement trying to blow his money on women rather than let his lousy family get to it. ‘Occupied’ almost comes as light relief as a desperate manga artist brings about his own ruination through an obsession with bathroom graffiti. And the devastating ‘Goodbye’ tells the sordid tale of a prostitute and her deadbeat dad in the aftermath of the Second World War. All are computer-animated lifts from the original art, augmented with scratchy, grainy filters, a black blizzard of dot tones and shaken and shocked camera effects. They have claustrophobic soundtracks and vocal work (most Tatsumi tales are dominated by male monologues) from Tetsuya Bessho and Tatsumi himself.

The five tales are appropriately scuzzy in places, recalling the forceful, hard-boiled crudity of Phil Mulloy’s cartoons (this is a compliment!), and recreate the original manga’s atmosphere of downbeat delirium most effectively. They serve as a pretty fine introduction to the man’s work, which I love, but I have to say I’d understand anyone who felt after this that they’d seen all they want to see. Tatsumi’s work was originally consumed in periodical form, in magazines surrounded by other varied material. Read or watched en masse by itself, it can seem a little overwhelming, too many songs in the same doomy chords.

Perhaps this is why Khoo decided to break up the stories with material taken from the autobiography A Drifting Life, wherein our titular creator, feeling glum after the death of his lifelong inspiration Osamu Tezuka, reflects on his impoverished childhood and the struggles he had progressing as an artist in the rocky world of pulp publishing. This is mostly fascinating stuff (well, it is if you’re a cartoonist), but it feels inadequate to explain the singular nature of the tales it’s interwoven with. A Drifting Life was an 8oo-page monster, which has been filleted here for little scraps, fractured moments that are entertaining enough but feel like far less than the full story. Worse, all the linking stuff looks bloody horrible in washy, blobby colour; where the story sections made a virtue of their roughness, their monochrome limitations, the colour stuff just looks cheap and nasty.

There is also a growing, crunching mismatch between the wistful, sentimentalised autobio stuff and the transgressive confrontational tales. We see the young Tatsumi have an awkward, fairly innocent, erotic encounter with a girl as a callow youth in the big city, and later witness the twisted sexual minefield of ‘Goodbye’ and wonder what the hell happened. A gulf opens up between the extraordinary tales and the simple workaday life as depicted, a gulf Tatsumi and Khoo seem to have no interest in filling in either book or film. A scene near the end of Tatsumi has the ageing manga-ka walking past characters from his tales and waxing nostalgic about all the worlds he has created while a pretty melody rings out on the soundtrack. The scene seems to belong to a film about Disney, or Tolkien, or Tezuka, a creator of Narnia rather than a chronicler of incest and existentialism. He smiles as a familiar monkey climbs up onto his shoulder, maybe we’re supposed to smile too, but we’ve just seen what happens to that monkey, and it’s far from pleasant.

Highly recommended for the graphically inclined, worthwhile viewing for the curious, now check out the books.

Mark Stafford

Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood One

Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood One

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 23 August 2000

Distributor: Manga Entertainment

Director: Yasuhiro Irie

Writer: Hiroshi &#332nogi

Original title: Hagane no renkinjutsushi

Based on the manga by: Hiromu Arakawa

Japan/USA 2009

90 mins

The second serialised TV adaptation of the manga series Full Metal Alchemist starts in media res with cyborg brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric helping the military stop a super-villain with ice powers from terrorising a city. Almost immediately, the brothers find themselves fighting ‘Isaac the freezer’, a fight that reveals Edward’s metallic arm plus his power to create lighting and objects out of seemingly thin air. They subdue Isaac, but he escapes, and the brothers find themselves being debriefed at HQ before being invited back to the house of their commanding officer for quiche and a place to sleep as he’s a fan of their work. Meanwhile Isaac disguises himself as an officer to sneak into the Central Prison to give another rogue sorcerer the offer of work…

The above plot précis only covers the first nine minutes (including the long opening credits) of the first episode and makes it clear that this series is one aimed at fans of the franchise rather than newcomers to the experience. While the plot may be bewildering, there is an alluring cinematic style to the fight scenes, with the street lamp and moonlight penumbra of its city setting giving the animation an evocative feel that suits its ‘steam-punk’ aesthetic. However, while casual viewers who have enough experience of both Western and Eastern (super-hero) comics may take the script in their stride - expecting correctly that the back story and the thrust of the ongoing narrative will be revealed shortly enough - the odd schizophrenic animation style is much more off-putting: every engaging ‘camera’ angle and beautifully rendered scene that intrigues the viewer is offset by strange childlike drawings that accompany comedy moments and scenes where Edward reveals the more immature elements of his character.

If you haven’t seen any extract of Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood, the best way of describing this is as if the animation was suddenly handed over to a 10-year-old who was asked to do a more cartoony rendering of what’s going on in the scene, before the animation process was handed back to the professionals, a couple of hundred frames later. This is a style of drawing called ‘Q-version’, which isn’t unknown in dark fantasy animé, but is usually reserved for extras on DVD collections and not inserted into the main animation except where the entire endeavour is meant as a post-modern parody of the genre, such as Production IG’s mini-series FLCL. Production IG’s animation in general seems to have been the model for this series: the dark Gothic flavour of the art plus the enigmatic opening credits, which suggest various layers of reality and include a cameo by a hound, are all reminiscent of IG’s various Mamoru Oshii productions (Brotherhood narrator Iemasa Kayumi was also the voice of ‘The Puppetmaster’ in Ghost in the Shell). But unlike the animation produced by IG, this series takes more of a scattershot approach, including as many references and heightened emotions as it can to produce an overall effect that is neither one recognisable genre nor another.

I haven’t read the Full Metal Alchemist manga, but I did watch the first two episodes of the 2003 animated series to compare the new adaptation with, and found the previous version a lot more watchable than the new series. The animation of the 2003 series suffers in comparison by being a little less Gothic and cinematic, but while it shares the notion of having more comedic expressions integrated into the characters for moments of heightened emotion, these are shorter in length and limited to their faces - more akin to an actor pulling a comedic expression than the actor being replaced by a cardboard cut-out for a scene. The original Alchemist also begins with the tragic accident that turned Edward into a cyborg and Alphonse into a talking suit of armour, before jumping ahead to the present, and this is a more intriguing opening than the fan (only) friendly start of the new series. So, while the animation and score of the original series are more generic than that of the remake, the storytelling is more confident and endearing, and made this casual viewer want to watch more.

Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood treads an odd path: it could easily be a continuation of the first series, as it includes the same characters and narrative, and the same actors voicing those characters, but by remaking some of the same plots, it’s likely to put off fans who saw the 2003 version, when ironically they are the audience who will appreciate it most. The justification of this new series is down to both the lucrative nature of the franchise and presenting a more faithful adaptation of the manga, as the comic only finished recently so the previous animated series had to continue with new plots that diverted from creator Hiromu Arakawa’s strip when they ran out of instalments to adapt. That being the case, since Brotherhood drops viewers into the middle of the story, before revealing the characters’ origins in flashbacks, the animators could have started with the first issue of the comic not adapted the first time around.

Although the disruptive ‘Q-version’ interludes calm down by episode five of Brotherhood, other negative elements of this series still outweigh the positive: long, self-indulgent ’emo’ scenes, while possibly suitable for the story of an orphaned teenager with great power and responsibilities, bring the plot to a halt, and the over-dramatic score, though more memorable than the first series’, often distracts rather than supports the storytelling. At the risk of suffering Full Metal fatigue, I watched the first two episodes of the original version in-between the first two discs of the second series, and another element that wasn’t (yet) present in the original Alchemist but which blights the remake was the character of Alex Louis Armstrong, a caricature of a circus strong man who likes to strip off his shirt and profess his affection for Edward. This might be an example of Japanese humour that doesn’t translate well, but it adds a weird homoerotic element between a grown man and a young teenage boy.

The various elements of Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood that I found distracting from the ongoing narrative may be due to the series’ greater adherence to the manga than its predecessor; if so then this shows the problems in translating one medium too accurately into another. These elements may be unique to Brotherhood alone, but either way this seems to be a serial that exists mainly to satisfy an existing fan base. Newcomers to the range who may be intrigued by the early 20th-century setting and the mix of magic and technology on screen would be well advised to give the 2003 series a watch and only return to this if they’re then desperate for more.

Alex Fitch



Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 9 August 2010

Distributor: Manga Entertainment

Director: Yoichi Sai

Writers: Kankuro Kudo, Yoichi Sai

Based on the manga by: Sanpei Shirato

Cast: Ken’ichi Matsuyama, Koyuki, Suzuka Ohgo, Kaoru Kobayashi

Japan 2009

120 mins

When an event as prestigious as the London Film Festival describes a film as ‘probably the best ninja movie ever made’, as film critic and author Tony Rayns did in their 2009 programme, then you have to sit up and take note. The film in question is Kamui - The Lone Ninja, which has been loosely adapted from the classic Japanese comic book written by Sanpei Shirato in the mid-1960s through to the early 1970s - one of the first manga titles to become popular overseas when it was published in the US in the 1980s.

Yet while Kamui, the comic book, is widely commended, not least for its accurate portrayal of feudal Japan and its mix of exciting action with political and social commentary, Kamui, the movie, is unlikely to reach such high regard or indeed meet the LFF’s lofty tag. It’s clear that by choosing Sanpei Shirato’s ninja stories, director Yoichi Sai had pretensions of doing for ninjas what Akira Kurosawa did for the samurai, but Kamui never quite manages to fulfil its potential. The film’s biggest flaw is its overly slick, CGI-packed, blockbuster-friendly polish; although it delivers plenty of thrills during some well-choreographed fight sequences, the story lacks the kind of emotional depth to truly engage the viewer on any level beyond that of a teenage boy’s cry of ‘Awesome - cool fight!’

The overall result is a movie that promises much but delivers only in fits and spurts - like a rollercoaster ride where your anticipation builds as you trundle up that first incline, all tense with excitement as the carriage crests the initial peak in the track, only to discover there’s a slight downward slope on the other side with a few neat turns to follow before the cart disappointingly comes to rest at the exit point.

And those turns seem a long time in coming. Although the running time is a fairly standard two hours, the paucity of action, as good as it is when it does come, and a preponderance for over-exposition of story and characters make the film feel a lot longer.

This film starts well enough, as Kamui flees the ninja tribe that trained him from a young age, with the intention of retiring from the assassination business, but as he soon discovers, it’s not so easy to leave a life of killing behind. After rescuing an opportunistic thief from certain death at the hands of a local lord, he winds up hiding out on an island, joining up with pirates - with a penchant for fishing for great white sharks with big swords - and then fighting not only the lord’s armies but also his old clan who have been commissioned to chop him up into so much sushi.

Sparks of inspiration glitter throughout and the action sequences are exciting without being particularly ground-breaking, but the film’s lack of pace, muddled story (perhaps the result of trying to pack too much in from the comic book) and lacklustre performances hamstring the film almost as soon as Kamui makes his initial break for freedom. By the time you cross the first-hour mark, you’ll be looking at your watch and counting down the minutes to the inevitable final ninja-pirate army showdown.

So, is Kamui ‘the best ninja movie ever made’? Probably not. Stick to pizza-eating turtles…

Daniel Peake