After seeing so many sci-fi anime flicks lately, an anime period adventure seems a little odd. But I guess Ninja Scroll the series would seem a little odd anyway. As soon as the show begins, we see a group of freaks fighting in a field full of luminous magic mushrooms (and they are magic mushrooms – check your reference books, fungus fans!). These freaks really are freaks too. There’s a horrible chick whose special weapon is a legion of flesh-eating caterpillars crawling beneath her skin. There’s this other, giggling fuck-up who fights with a king-sized umbrella – at the drop of a hat it turns into some sort of flying unicycle. Jubei, the mercenary ninja, jumps in with all swords blazing, reducing these monstrosities to well-minced mincemeat. The victim of these creatures, Rouga, asks Jubei to be his bodyguard. Jubei declines, self-righteously stating that he can’t trust a man who wears a mask.
Before we go any further, I think now would be a good time to talk about Jubei. Although Ninja Scroll is Japanese, Jubei is an archetypal American anti-hero. He’s a sword-for-hire, a loner who loves no-body yet does have scruples, even if he keeps them well-hidden. Like all the best heroes he’s a born cynic, forever mumbling to himself under his breath and spitting out sarcasm at his companions, always on the edge of frustration. You constantly get the impression the guy’s suddenly gonna explode, explode because the world’s so fucking dumb and he’s so fucking perfect and life sucks so friggin’ much and… arrgghhh! You know what I mean. He’s a pretty cool guy; he actually uses the word, “bodacious” (didn’t another ninja use that word? What was his name… Michaelangelo? Donnatello? Hmmm…) and he has a well-worn wisecrack for all occasions. No matter how many times and in how many different films I hear, “You’re lying through your tooth, old man!”, it always makes me chuckle. The old man in question, by the way, is voiced by former A Team headcase, Dwight Schultz.
So anyway, Jubei finds himself walking into a local village chock-a-block full of crappy, inept fighters led by pretty girl Shigure. (One of the village elders looks like Mickey Dolenz today – I kid you not!). Within minutes the village is attacked by a giant cyclopean cyborg, slaughtering villagers left, right and centre before turning into a 4x4 monster truck and mowing down the survivors – and anything else in its way. Rouga, in the wrong place at the wrong time, has his arm gorily torn off, his dying wish is for Jubei to deliver the Dragonstone to the now departed Shigure.
And that pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the series – Jubei, in his quest to deliver the Dragonstone, fighting a progressively weirder set of grotesque creatures. These creatures are a pretty ghastly bunch though, including a glass man with a pilot light in his chest, a bunch of leather-clad skeletons, a mother and child possessed by a crawling eye (they have to be chopped up, Evil Dead style – the eyes gets sliced in half), a campy, coneheaded Shirley Temple lookalike (the fact that he turns out to be a good guy is even more disconcerting!) and an electrified flying Buddha-cum-substation. Tendrils are a common trait amongst Ninja Scroll baddies; we have living hair, bandages, roots and even toilet-paper carrying throwing stars. Though at base, the series is predictable – there’s really no getting away from the fact - here above descriptions should show you that Ninja Scroll is varied enough to keep the viewer’s interest. You have to wait almost until the end to find any twists in the tale.
No matter how weird, wild or wacked-out sci-fi pictures can be, they’re still bound by the laws of nature, of physics, of Newton and Einstein and – if you can open your mind that wide – Tesla. Fantasy though, the realm of magic and mysticism, is bound only by the limits of the writers’ and artists’ imaginations. Ninja Scroll is surreal, very surreal, and it’s probably this that is its entire appeal. There’s no need to think too much when watching this, there are no apocalyptic philosophies on offer here as in a lot of sci-fi anime, just non-stop action.
Intelligent discussions on anime flicks beg two important questions. The first is: What are the chicks like? Well I guess you’re out of luck, mangapervs, because there ain’t much talent on offer here. Shigure is pretty cute, the best girl here but Jesus!, those bad girls are bloody awful! The worst is the aforementioned gothic-caterpillar girl; she looks like Cher peeling herself off a morgue slab – again. Certainly one dominatrix you would try to escape from.
The other question is: How gory is it? The answer: Fucking really fucking gory! Gory beyond belief! Whenever Jubei draws his sword it blows a crimson Old Faithful, with huge geysers of blood spraying everywhere – it make Shogun Assassin look like Hong Kong Phooey! Usually people end up getting sliced clean in half, other times they have a limb or two cut off first, but they never die peacefully. One haunting scene features a battleship floating in a scarlet sea of blood and dismembered limbs. Another, sure to anger all good Christian perverts – sorry, parents – fairly graphically depicts a little girl having her throat cut. OK, so she’s a monster, but she don’t look like one!
One complaint I’ve heard against Ninja Scroll is, “It isn’t as good as the movie.” I haven’t had the pleasure of the film, so I can’t really comment although it’s usual for TV spin-offs to live in the shadows of their big-brothers (conversely, movies based on TV shows are often as good, if not better, than their small-screen siblings). Personally though, I feel that the TV format really works in its favour – being composed of 13 twenty-odd minute shorts means that Ninja Scroll never lets up with the action for very long. In short, if you want fast-paced, hard-edged anime, then get this.