Ninja Scroll is about half of another incarnation of my argument that some of what we now call "classic" anime only earned the label because it was all we had at the time. Many of the anime titles the West cut its teeth on, back when anime was in its infancy, have not dated well. What seemed transgressive and groundbreaking back when the options were limited now just seems trite and nasty — not just because we have that many more options to choose from, but because it's become harder to swallow blithely some things in the name of entertainment.
I say half of another incarnation, because there's a good deal about Ninja Scroll that made it seem phenomenal in 1993, and which is still phenomenal: the dazzling animation (100% hand-drawn, 100% cel-painted); the baroque and creative action sequences; the way it reminded us of a time when a hit anime production could feature a cast of adults, not overgrown (or undergrown) adolescents. But what you could get away with in 1993 is not what you can get away with in 2015, and so if I celebrate Ninja Scroll it's because of its status as a milestone rather than as a full-blown classic.
Were I less determined to be conscious about my own critical prejudices, I would have had no trouble getting all hagiographic about Ninja Scroll's place in the company of such work. I love the look of the film; I love the venue it evokes; I love the action and the grotesquerie and the stylization. But those are not arguments for the movie's quality; they're reflections of things I already enjoy in other places anyway. And as much as I enjoy Ninja Scroll for the things I'm already primed to see in it, I know better than to stop there.
The good, the bad, and the shinobi
The setup for Ninja Scroll couldn't be a purer genre exercise: Jubei, a wandering mercenary, is tricked into helping a seedy Shogunate spy look for a man from Jubei's past — someone whom Jubei killed when he was working in his previous life as a ninja. We don't need to be told about Jubei's expertise; we see it firsthand when a trio of freakish assassins corner him on a bridge and lose to him bigtime.
His involvement with the story, and the story itself, aren't spelled out all at once. Instead, the movie backs into things sidelong. A cadre of ninja are sent to investigate a plague-stricken town near the coast, and are massacred by another grotesque. The only survivor is Kagero, the kunoichi or female ninja who also served as poison taster to her master Lord Hyobu. In true pulp-villain fashion, the stone-skinned beast who slaughters her comrades tries to rape her — only to find out that any intimate contact with Kagero is a death sentence, but only after Jubei butts in and rescues her (even if he won't admit that's what he did).
Not that Jubei is interested in romance, anyway — or dealing with cadres of inhuman ninja as a way to prove his machismo, for that matter. That's before a traveling monk named Dakuan enters the picture and tries to recruit Jubei into finishing off the rest of that rival ninja crew. Since a lone wolf like Jubei needs a little persuading, he poisons the guy and promises a cure only if he lends a hand. Not that Dakuan need have bothered, as it turns out: the chief Big Bad here is someone straight out of Jubei's past — a man Jubei decapitated, and so at first he has good reason to be skeptical if someone tells him the guy's walking around and preparing to overthrow the Shogunate. Then again, this is a world where Jubei's opponents can turn their skin to stone, shoot steel claws from the shadows, and manipulate creatures stuffed with explosives, so anything is possible.
Despite having a common mission provided to them by Dakuan, Jubei and Kagero do not get along, and at first refuse to even admit they need to work together. Their enemies are numerous, highly placed, devilishly resourceful, and totally lacking in scruples — and it might take someone just as ruthless as they are to take them down. Or, as Dakuan is hazarding, maybe the odds will be better if the heroes in question feel a little something for each other in a way that their enemies don't.
Get the girl, kill the baddies
Japanese bookstores have entire sections devoted to jidai-geki, period pulp-epic stories of samurai and ninja. These serve roughly the same function as the Western for English-speaking readers: to use the period as a source for thrills and escapism, and maybe a certain degree of glorification of the past as well. Ninja Scroll was contrived as direct homage to one of the more prolific and famed authors of such work: Futaro Yamada, he of dozens of ninja-and-samurai fantasies, some of which have even reached English-speaking audiences by way of their manga (The Yagyu Ninja Scrolls) and anime adaptations (Basilisk).
Ninja Scroll echoes not only the subject matter and stylization of those works, but also many of the things that made them pulpy. Maybe sleazy would be the more precise word, because a disconcerting amount of how the movie is intended to function as entertainment revolves around things that were, I guess, edgy and transgressive once upon a time, but now just seem foul. Most of it revolves around Kagero — she gets sexually assaulted not once but twice as a matter of course, both times at the hands of rival ninjas — but it also extends to the way "deviant" sexuality is used as a marker for evil (what with one of the bad guys being bisexual). The fact that the good guys are almost universally attractive and the bad guys are generally ugly, freakish, unappealing, etc. is another example of pulp shorthand at work in a bad way.
What's also curious is how the movie tries to offset all this, in a way that both helps and hurts at the same time. When Jubei finds out that the only cure for his poison is to sleep with Kagero (no, I didn't get how the logic of that was supposed to work either), he's appalled — not the first hint of how he feels about her, but one of the broadest. Later, when it's become clear Kagero has feelings for him, she offers herself to him as a way to save his life, he turns her down — in what is, ironically, one of the most romantic moments in the movie. The other comes when Jubei finally does take Kagero up on her offer, but only in the form of a relatively chaste last kiss. The message as far as his character goes is clear enough: he loves her to the extent that he can't bring himself to treat her like a trophy. It even makes Kagero's motives plain: she's not upset because Jubei has rejected her sexually, but because she's unable to save him. It's fine characterization, but that only makes me wonder all the more what it's doing in a story that demands Kagero be molested by evil ninja, twice, to make its points.
One argument as I have heard against making too much hay out of this particular subject goes like this: Given that this movie features such an amazing array of grotesque, stylized killings — many committed by the hero — why would the rape material be more offensive than any of that? What makes murder less distasteful than rape, especially in a story that's meant to be a little bit on the seamy side? For this I have two answers, one involving rape and the other involving storytelling.
In the first place, it's getting harder for anyone who pays even passing attention to current events to not notice how attitudes towards rape have changed drastically across even just two decades, amongst both women and men. It's become harder to ignore that far more people get raped than get murdered; that most rapists never go punished because they're rarely thought of as rapists; that rape victims are too easily blamed for their actions; and that the overweening majority of rapists don't see themselves as criminals, let alone sex criminals. It's harder to think of rape as something one uses to jazz up a story in a throwaway fashion.
This leads me to #2: storytelling. I don't think Ninja Scroll wants to use this material wholly frivolously, but that's how it ends up coming off, because a movie doesn't always end up being about what its creators tell themselves it's about. Wings of Honneamise has a scene of sexual assault that many people have not applauded — not because it's treated like entertainment or spice, but because all that's ostensibly serious about it is fumbled in the delivery, and because its contrast with the story's surrounding material is so jarring. Ninja Scroll has sexual assault partly as a plot device and partly as spice, and so the relationship that develops between Jubei and Kagero seems too well thought-out to be surrounded by such seediness.
A common truism about genre entertainments is that it's bad form to complain about stuff that's par for the course. Griping about the sleaze and the seediness of Jess Franco's movies is beside the point, because that's why the movies exist in the first place. I know some of this is a genre requirement; the colorful vileness sported by pulp villains is part of what makes these things what they are. But what they are isn't to be swallowed unthinkingly, or reproduced in newer work just because someone else got away with it once upon a time. Not all pulp conventions are jolly, innocent escapism, even when everyone in the audience is ostensibly a consenting adult.
That, I think, goes double for dealing with a medium that has come a long way from being given thoughtless blanket treatment as an exploitation subgenre ("Anime — isn't that those porn cartoons?"), where part of the purported fun was the transgressiveness and the exotic frisson associated with seeking out something relatively unknown. I can only hope we've moved past that.
Blasts from the past
If Ninja Scroll does some things problematically, it does other things immensely well, so much so that the action-movie fan in me almost (repeat: almost) feels bad for saying anything critical. The 90s were an immensely fertile time for the anime industry, both in terms of material being produced to fill rental shelves for the home-video explosion and upscale theatrical releases like this one. One could scarcely have asked for a better pedigree: the animation company was Madhouse, the animation director and designer was Yutaka Minowa (RED LINE), and the screenwriter and director was Madhouse veteran Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, among many others).
Kawajiri has never lacked chops for visualization, and the pleasant surprise of something like Ninja Scroll is how that goes beyond stuff like showing people being sliced in half and turning into human blood volcanoes. At one point Kagero and Jubei pause for a moment in a meadow filled with fireflies, and it's far tenderer a moment than the movie seems to need (although in retrospect it gains context as the relationship between them deepens). Even the clichés work, as when at more than one point he gives us the trademark samurai-story image of ninja flitting past an oversized full moon in silhouette (or charging right at the camera). And then there's the animation itself — hand-drawn, fluid and full-bodied in a way that seems to be going shamefully out of style. Longtime anime soundtrack veteran Kaoru Wada (later of Kingdom Hearts, InuYasha, and Casshern Sins) supplied a score that wouldn't be out of place for a live-action version of this material: half bombastic modern-day orchestral, half period rhythms and instruments.
This, in a way, is part of the trap. I could have written an entire essay in the vein of those last couple of paragraphs, where I used those kinds of glorifications as justification for why this is a good movie and not merely an accomplished one. But the fact that I liked parts of it, or that I felt obliged to speak better of it than I knew I ought, stood out for me as warning signs. Ninja Scroll is almost certainly essential viewing when it comes to anime history, or the way ninja/samurai tropes can be executed with flair and bombast. Beyond that, though, is something I'm loathe to praise for the mere fact of its existence.