Original release: June 5th, 1993
Running time: 94 minutes
Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese
Writer and director: Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Composer: Kaoru Wada
Cast: Dean Elliot, Wendee Lee, Rudy Luzion, Dougary Grant, Richard Epcar
If a Japanese anime fan asks an average person about Japanese anime, the number of answers is limited and quite predictable. They might mention a title by Hayao Miyazaki, the most well-known and successful animator outside Japan. His Spirited Away (2001), Princess Mononoke (1997), My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and many others enjoyed worldwide success and critical acclaim.
If not Hayao Miyazaki, then the answer will probably be one of three titles – titles that also served me as a sort of triangular gateway into the world Japanese anime some years ago. They might say they liked the post-apocalyptic action-thriller that brings science and theology just about as close as they can get in Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, but answer could also be Mamoru Oshii’s cyberpunk classic Ghost In The Shell; a profound and unparalleled exploration of the human condition in the context of our relationship with technology.
The third probable answer to a general enquiry about Japanese anime will be Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Ninja Scroll.
Unlike Akira and Ghost In The Shell, both of which take place in a bleak cyberpunk setting, Ninja Scroll is an animated period piece that nevertheless has themes that are just as relevant to the world of today. The story takes place around the 17th century in feudal Japan during the Edo period with several players and agendas; making the narrative nearly as complex as that of a film noir.
In the centre of the plot, there’s a mysterious plague that claims the lives of everyone in a small village in the territory of Mochizuki clan. As a result, no one dares to go near the village and it turns out that the plague was in fact deliberate poisoning; a conspiracy to keep people away from the area. A team of Koga ninja sent to investigate by the leader of Mochizuki clan are all slaughtered but one; the only survivor is Kagero (Wendee Lee), the only female member of the team.
Her nearly lethal encounter with Tessai (Dougary Grant), a stone golem is interrupted by vagabond samurai Jubei (Dean Elliot) who also gets reluctantly involved as events unfold. Adding to the mystery, manipulative government spy Dakuan (Rudy Luzion) joins in as they find themselves up against supernatural demons led by Gemma (Richard Epcar), who was thought to be dead as Jubei personally decapitated him five years prior in a conflict over a secret gold mine.
In spite of a complex story, Ninja Scroll is as strong thematically as it can be. With all of the fantasy elements, magic and supernatural powers; the subject of greed and desire in the film is something that’s very real to all of us: money. It all eventually boils down to different groups fighting over money which they all intend to transfer into weapons and power. The last image of the film’s villain – of which there is more than one, we can argue – is a golden statue as he fell into melted gold, sinking into the bottom of the ocean along with hundreds of gold bars. It’s a beautiful visual clue that sums up the film’s portrayal of money and power.
Kagero also has a fascinating back story; she was the official food taster for the Mochizuki clan’s Chamberlain for many years and as a result she developed immunity to poison – which in turn made her body poisonous. Anyone who sleeps with her or kisses her dies from poisoning. The wandering samurai Jubei is also poisoned by the government spy Dakuan; this deadly poison is slowly taking its effect so Dakuan can blackmail Jubei in return for the antidote.
Kagero is raped twice by two different attackers – they’re destined to die as a result – but during the course of the story she falls in love with Jubei as they end up working together against a common enemy. Dakuan soon tells them the only antidote to Jubei’s poison is actually Kagero. So in context, rape is poison and love is cure – a beautiful message that’s only emphasised by the tragic end to this love story.
The feature presentation leaves no room for complaint; the music by Kaoru Wada is superb; I especially liked the pre-fight musical theme beautifully building up tension to the exquisite fight scenes. There’s much in Ninja Scroll that makes it recommended for adults only. Two scenes with rape, another with sexual intercourse, homosexuality openly discussed, the corpse of a child in the poisoned village and the general level of on-screen brutality all make the film restricted to an adult audience.
None of this is for effect or in bad taste however, Ninja Scroll is a serious film that doesn’t take any of its themes lightly. Although government is frequently mentioned, Dakuan is the only character to represent government and as he lives on at the end, the film might say that government is necessary evil in a chaotic world. As Dakuan says:
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.