Yoshiaki Kawajiri's Ninja Scroll [Jûbê Ninpûchô] is a true cult classic. It was the kind of film you didn't want your kids to watch as a parent, and because of that its appeal was tremendous. Luckily my parents were pretty chill about what I was allowed to see. Even so, the film felt very much like a forbidden fruit back then, simply because you couldn't find this type of thing anywhere else (disclaimer: this was well before the internet became a thing). I owned the VHS back in the day, don't think I've ever seen it again since, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect.
During the late 80s/early 90s, anime experienced its first international boom. Films like Akira, Grave of the Fireflies and Patlabor 2 spearheaded that revolution, but anime wasn't just an unexplored treasure trove of cinematic prowess. Beneath those prestige projects thrived a massive pool of films and OAVs that reveled in excessive violence, horror and erotica. It didn't take long before parents took notice and anime's reputation was practically ruined. Of course that just made things more exciting for us kids.
Yoshiaki Kawajiri was one of the leading directors of all this "filth", with films like Demon City Shinjuku en Wicked City quickly gaining notoriety. While they were every bit as gory, vile and over-the-top as other contemporaries, Kawajiri's work was a bit more refined and recognizable. By the time Ninja Scroll was released, people in the West were onto him and were eagerly anticipating his next film. And Ninja Scroll didn't disappoint, though the more historical setting was a big change of scenery for Kawajiri, whose projects usually featured a more dystopian/sci-fi setting.
The story follows Jubei, a wandering ninja who takes on odd jobs to help out the needy. When one day he gets mixed up in a conflict between Kagero and the Eight Devils of Kimon, he inadvertently messes up the plans of the Shogun of the Dark. Though Jubei doesn't want to get involved, Dakuan, a mischievous monk and shogunate spy tricks him into joining the fight against his adversaries. It turns out the help of Dakuan will come in handy, because the Shogun of the Dark isn't willing to let Jubei off the hook so easily. The two start their journey to uncover who is controlling the Eight Devils, but not before facing each of them in a lethal show-off.
Animation-wise, Ninja Scroll can't compete with the big boys. That's hardly a surprise, as it was made with a fraction of the budget these flagship projects had at their disposal. Luckily Kawajiri could trust his trademark art style to make the difference, with its butch and bulky character designs and atmospheric background art. And of course the kick-ass monster designs, which are the prime reason for watching Kawajiri's films. The animation is limited, but clever. With relatively few frames it still looks as if there's plenty of movement, thanks to smart editing, some good use of filters and superb key frame drawings. The 4:3 format is a small bummer, but not too distracting. I'm pleased to say it still looks pretty impressive. If you want smooth animation, you won't find it here, but Ninja Scroll makes up for it with a bold aesthetic.
The soundtrack is less spectacular. Pretty decent but expected traditional Japanese instruments and sounds with a few added rock influences to beef up the action scenes. It's a soundtrack that works and fits the film, but remains firmly in the background. I actually had to skip through the film once again to get a better idea of what it sounded like. I'm not really going to fault the film for it, Kawajiri was clearly too occupied with other parts to really care for the music, but as always it's somewhat of a missed opportunity that could've added a little extra atmosphere on the cheap. The dub is good though, as long as you go for the original Japanese one. American anime dubs back then were even worse than the current ones, so unless you actually love stilted and lifeless voice work, just stick with the Japanese cast.
Apart from the beginning and the ending, Ninja Scroll is an extremely linear affair that basically counts down the number of enemies to be killed before our team of ninjas gets to face the final boss. If you want anything more than outrageous action and grotesque monster designs out of this film, this probably isn't for you. There are some little diversions in between to drag out the runtime, but they're nothing too remarkable, and they're likely not the things you'll remember afterwards. In that sense Ninja Scroll has a pretty niche appeal, which makes its cult status all the more impressive.
Despite all the negativity that has surrounded Ninja Scroll since it was first released, it has worked up an impressive cult status and is slowly establishing itself as a true anime classic. I was fully prepared to be underwhelmed by my latest rewatch, but Kawajiri's film held up surprisingly well. It's delightfully and excessively violent, sporting superb creature designs, a bold and expressive art style and brisk pacing. Everything you'd ever want and need in a gory, macho action film. I actually kind of miss these films, maybe it's time for a little revival.