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Ninja Scroll The Motion Picture Anime DVD Review

8 min read

Ninja Scroll Cover

The bloody classic returns to the shelves once more, this time in glorious high definition!

What They Say:
Swords shatter, blood sprays and demons suck the life out of dying men as the wildest samurai adventure is unleashed to tear your senses asunder! Jubei Kibagami has always been the master keeper of death, but in rescuing a ninja woman from a monster, he sets loose a chain of events that puts death in his own veins and sends them on a nightmarish odyssey through a surreal and devil-infested ancient Japan. How do demonic possessions, an annihilated village and a man Jubei thought safely buried in his past all connect? If Jubei can’t piece the blood-soaked clues together, his only consolation will be that he won’t live to regret it for very long! Prepare your mind and steel your gut for the insanely gore-packed orgy of violence that still stands alone and unchallenged as the ultimate anime action feature: the epic milestone in animation that is the legendary NINJA SCROLL.

The Review:
Audio:
All of the gloriously haunting music, sounds of nature, clinks of swords and screams of horror are preserved in the film via DTS-HD MA 2.0 in Japanese and DTS-HD MA 5.1 in English. The recordings help to establish the mood of this war torn time and the monstrosities committed during the period. Every echo establishes the atmosphere and the movie would be flat if not for these mundane nuances.

Video:
Since this is a re-issue of an anime from over twenty years ago, it is a great pleasure to see that Sentai Filmworks went to the trouble of digitally re-mastering the content. The muted colours of the original are now crisp and colour shifts from cel animation versus digital are now not as apparent.

However, they decided to keep the 4:3 aspect ratio of the original video; this is the biggest mistake of the disk. In order to keep this format, Sentai used a forced windowbox display. Although some may not find this distracting, doing so ruins the work of the restoration since the film uses so many blacks and blues to convey moods. By using those vertical bars, you can’t tell where the film’s frame ends since it blends into black screen; it distracts from the atmosphere established by those bleak colours.

Packaging:
In addition to using the standard front cover artwork and back description of a traditional case, Sentai added a sleeve accented by metallic foils and an embossed image of Jubei in the front. They may have wanted to add a bit of shine to attract more buyers for the disk, but since the film is so dark, it really doesn’t help.

Menu:
The menus subtly blend into the morbidity of the feature. The main use of cover art (or lack thereof) plus a black background splattered with blood is used on all of the screens; although it does suit the genre, the blasé overuse quickly grows irksome by a lack of originality since it is used on all of the screens. A bit of animation or addition of sound could have solved the problem.

Extras:
While the disk does not have an Extras section, the addition of a feature length commentary starring Director Yoshiaki Kawajiri and Character Design & Animation Director Yutaka Minowa more than makes up for this oversight. If you take the time to watch the film with this track, it helps to bring to the forefront the tribulations of making such a masterpiece before the advent of digital animation; (even if it sounds like a mutual admiration society a majority of the time.)

Cel versus digital animation: what a difference a few decades can make!

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
The beautiful Japanese country side of the Edo period has been marred by the lust for money and power by a foolish hunger of political greed. The corrupt will go to any lengths to satisfy their thirst even it means to sacrifice the people they were meant to serve and destroy any who may get in their way. This is the premise of Ninja Scroll.

Enter Jubei – a wanderer thrown into the chaos of a power struggle between a corrupt chamberlain and a mysterious figure known as the Shogun of the Dark. Although they may have different means to reach the same goal, their methods are eerily similar: the use of shadowy covert agents … the ninja. And so begins a battle for supremacy as the naive government official tries to match his human forces against the murderous drive of a band of demons. The end is mute as a forest littered by bloody remains becomes the result. All have fallen but a lone kunoichi, a beautiful assassin named Kagero. She must try to fulfill the last request of her leader: complete the mission.

However, be it fate or a lapse in judgement, our vagabond intervenes and becomes entangled within this conflict, forever changing his path. He must now join forces with Kagero to survive the wrath of the Eight Devils of Kimon – the underground army of the Shogun, each with powers more terrifying than the next and all thirsty for blood. They will not stop until the plan is fulfilled even as their own soldiers fall, for this only serves to stoke their desire and a hunger for this pair’s flesh and bone.

But what are they after? What drives them to such an elaborate plan of destroying an entire village to cover their ambitions? The conniving old man named Dakuan wants to uncover the plot but he needs help, and unfortunately for Jubei, he is the perfect pawn, after some toxic persuasion. Help him and he gets the antidote or not – it does not matter. All that this government spy cares about is the truth, and if he can gain some expendable allies to help, so much the better.

A prideful rogue who cannot ask for help, a dutiful spy who cannot trust anyone and a duplicitous stranger who engenders more questions than he answers. How can this trio survive with suspicion amidst … or will they against demons who seem to invincible? And now a ghost from the past has come back to haunt Jubei: Genma. Once considered a friend who died at his hand, how is he involved with the Devils? What does he gain and why does the chamberlain want it bad enough to risk his clan: GOLD – enough for either side to tip the scales in their favour.

As the race for treasure endures and more corpses join the pyre, Jubei painfully learns that the cure the old man promised was a ruse; but there is hope, use a stronger poison to cure poison. Kagero’s years as a food taster has built an immunity, but it has also made her kiss a death sentence. She can no longer feel the warmth of another without risking their life, but now that curse may be the only way to save him, if it will accept her. Her willingness to share her gift and Jubei’s rejection brings the act to a close.

With the prize near and their enemies closing in, the dual find the treasure fleet preparing to sail. But, how can they sabotage the cargo with Jubei succumbing to his toxic illness? Genma offers the solution as he reveals that he was manipulating both sides of the conflict: the chamberlain was his pawn and ending the partnership brings the contest to a close as he severs all ties with the death of the kunoichi. Kagero submits to her fate in Jubei’s arms as she breathes her last breath into our hero. This is his mission now.

As Jubei races to the escaping ship, Genma reveals that he is through serving a weak master and he will now become the new Shogun of the Dark. No one can stop him from building his own army and taking over Japan, until the inevitable epic battle between good and evil ensues; our rogue engages his former friend with renewed vigor but to little avail. With each strike, the final Devil of Kimon shows that he cannot be killed. He has died once, but even death cannot stop his ambitions.

Blow for blow and all seems lost until a river of molten gold threatens to bring the duel to an end. It proves to be the monster’s undoing as Jubei slices into the demon and lets the glittery magma sear him to the core, forever entombing the Devil in what he loved so much: Greed.

So ends the tragic tale of the Ninja Scroll: assassins for any who would pay but fall by the wayside and are forgotten. They wander into the mists of legend to be remembered only by a few but then dismissed as myth as they vanish into the fog of history.

In Summary:
The hypervisuals and a frenetic pace is what makes Ninja Scroll a pleasure to watch. Although the film may not be historically accurate, the corruption and means by which such crimes were carried out did exist within the Edo period. As such, the viewer’s realm of believability can be suspended by the interaction of relatable characters and an engaging plot. As Minowa’s designs and use of a palate of mood intensive colors brings the atmosphere alive, Kawajiri’s continuity to an intense interaction between various ideologies focuses on the story’s main theme: Suspicion. Who is right and who is wrong and what is the correct way to bring about change. What do they have to gain in this situation? What do they give up to gain their goal? No one person can trust the other without gauging that person’s intent.

This distrust is reflected by the usage of blacks and blues within the film – a dark reality that exists within us all. And yet, only released when someone decides to give in to another’s point of view – i.e. Trust. But when they do submit, hopefully it won’t be too late, as was the case for Jubei and Kagero. Although is was disguised by the accents of blood & violence surrounding them, the red of his scabbard and the red gem of her headband eventually lead to each other via the Red String of Fate.

Who knew that an anime could be so deep and yet so deeply satisfying at the same time?

Features:
Japanese 2.0 Language, English 5.1 Language, English Subtitles, Japanese Commentary Track

Content Grade: A+
Audio Grade: A
Video Grade: B
Packaging Grade: B
Menu Grade: C
Extras Grade: B+

Released By: Sentai Filmworks
Release Date: May 19th, 2015
MSRP: $14.98
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Video Encoding: 480i/p MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1

Review Equipment:
Sharp LC-42LB261U 42” LED HDTV and Sony BDPS3200 Blu-ray player connected by HDMI

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