Review: Ninja Scroll / Cert: 18 / Director: Yoshiaki Kawajiri / Screenplay: Yoshiaki Kawajiri / Starring: Koichi Yamadera, Emi Shinohara, Takeshi Aono / Release Date: November 26th
Offering a combination of swordplay, sex and political intrigue, samurai tales are an understandably popular subgenre of Japanese anime, and, almost twenty years after it was made, there's no better example than Ninja Scroll. If you've seen it, then I'm only telling you what you already know. If you haven't seen it, then this new Blu-ray/DVD release should send you flitting with lightning speed to the shops.
Things kick off in gruesome fashion with a village falling prey to a mysterious and deadly ailment. A local bigwig orders in a team of ninjas to find out what's going on. But their investigations – and their lives – are cut short when they run into one of anime's most horrific villains, the stone giant Tessai, whose two-bladed sword flies through flesh and bone like a buzz-saw. It's a massacre, and it reaches its grisly culmination with Tessai ripping off the ninja leader's arms and guzzling blood out of the stumps.
Luckily, Jubei, a wandering samurai, is on hand to help one of the team – a feisty female ninja called Kagero – make her escape. Not that she's grateful – she's too proud and independent. Plus she's uneasy around men, for the singular reason that, having served for years as her lord's food taster, her body is steeped in poison and toxic to the touch. Nonetheless, they soon become unwilling allies, guided and goaded by Dakuan, a government spy disguised as a monk.
Together, the trio become embroiled in countering a convoluted plot to destabilize the whole of Japan. But first, they have to defeat the Eight Devils of Kimon, a group of nasties that includes the aforementioned Tessai as well as other equally formidable foes, such as a hunchback with a hump full of wasps and a shadow assassin who pops up eerily from the ground.
Writer/director Yoshiaki Kawajiri whips the story along at breakneck speed, maintaining a feverish momentum which is matched by moody Frank Miller-ish visuals. Leaving aside its lofty place in the anime canon, Ninja Scroll is an outstanding horror flick, a seamless flow of chills, thrills and lethal jeopardy. The action set pieces are explosive and iconic, and the brutal violence and frank sexuality (with Kagero being involved in several controversial scenes) still have the power to disturb. The characters are fascinating, too – Jubei, a laid-back slacker-swordmaster with a murky past; Dakuan, who is a bit like Yoda only smaller, less good looking and with a tendency to crushing sarcasm; and most of all Kagero, a beautiful, accomplished heroine haunted by regret. We've only seen the DVD version of this new release, but it looks very crisp indeed and shouldn't be missed.