Eye For Film >> Movies >> Ninja Scroll: The Series (2003) Film Review
Jaded, cynical, laconic, relaxed almost to the point of narcolepsy and with his straw hat tilted over his eyes at a louche angle, the peripatetic hero of Tatsuo Sato's 13-part anime Ninja Scroll: The Series (aka Jubei Ninpucho: Ryuhogyoku-hen) drifts into the frame like a Clint Eastwood anti-hero from a spaghetti western.
Yup, you can tell from the outset that the mercenary ninja Jubei Kibagami is a man with a colourful past - and sure enough, he had already appeared a decade earlier in Yoshiaki Kawajiri's nastier, gorier feature-length anime Ninja Scroll (1993), and in fact has a much longer history in the Japanese imagination as the samurai folk hero Yagyu Jubei.
In this adventure, Jubei becomes embroiled in a violent struggle between the Hiruko and the Kimon, two rival clans of ninja demons hell bent on getting hold both of the mysterious Dragon Stone and the Light Maiden, who alone can release the stone's hidden power. In fact, the Light Maiden is Shigure, a restless young woman living in total ignorance of her status, and she stumbles upon Jubei just before her isolated woodland village is laid waste by destructive monsters.
Soon the pair are travelling together with young thief (and comic relief) Tsubute and wizened priest Dakuan - who had also featured in the Ninja Scroll movie - in a desperate quest to reach Yagyu village before the demons can stop them. It is all in a day's work for Jubei, whose special skill is to slice his opponents with such precision that they do not even realise they have been hit until their body splits in two - but with danger on all sides, there is little hope that Jubei will ever get the uninterrupted nap he so craves.
"Everywhere's the same, wherever you go." Jubei's philosophy, summarised in this recurring catchphrase, is all too literally borne out by these episodes. For no matter whether our four travellers find themselves in forest, field, town, river, cave, cliff's edge or on the sea, the events and scenarios they confront have a drearily regular consistency: demons (or occasionally humans) attack, Jubei works out their weak point and kicks ass. True, there is a broader, overarching narrative involving the twinned mystery of the Dragon Stone and the Light Maiden, but this is hardly riveting or even so very mystifying, and in any case it tends to take a backseat to the repetitive spectacle of stylised swordplay, so that watching this series transmits something of Jubei's weary ennui to the viewer too.
What prevents things from becoming too tedious is Takahiro Yoshimatsu's imaginative character design, ensuring the demons through which Jubei slices his way (typically two per episode) are carefully individuated and wonderfully bizarre. A giant who metamorphoses into a rolling juggernaut (in a wittily anachronistic homage to the Transformers), a hybrid of human and bicycle who uses her umbrella to create tornadoes, a toad who shoots webs from his forehead, and a mother whose 'children' are armies of ravenous moles that spring from her body - and that is just the rogues' gallery on offer in the first episode.
By the end, even these occasionally repeat themselves, there being only so much difference between a demon who controls moths, a demon who controls bats and a demon who controls monkeys. Yet for the most part Yoshimatsu has created enough wildly inventive - and sometimes terrifying - creatures to populate any number of television series. Most do not survive for more than a few minutes, but some, like the one-eyed swordsman/mesmerist Jyashi and his incestuous sister the implacable spider-like zombie Rengoku, deservedly get whole subplots of their own.
So Ninja Scroll: The Series is a drab, barely substantial narrative enlivened by a colourful assortment of villains. Adults should best avoid, but younger viewers (and drug-users of all ages) are likely to be stimulated by its trippy visuals. No wonder it opens with a frantic dash through a field of mushrooms...Reviewed on: 06 Nov 2006