Tag Archives: ninja

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



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