Ultraviolence, now in HD
No point beating around the bush: The mid-1990s action anime legend Ninja Scroll is now on Blu-ray in North America. It's the best it has looked on home video yet.
But it's been a long time--20 years now--that Ninja Scroll first hit the streets. It's been a long time even taking into account of the lag of time it took to import it to the States and more. It is part of that bundle of shows which marketed anime as ultra-violent and ultra-not-safe-for-family, before the Pokemon generation grew up and liked anime for what it really is--a medium more so than a genre. Have you seen Ninja Scroll? No? Well click on!
Ninja Scroll (Blu-ray)
There are few anime that I feel poorly equipped to talk about. This is one of them. I think the weirdness is that this is one of those shows that made anime a thing to a crowd over in the English-speaking world, and I was never really comfortable with what that crowd watched: anime that were characterized by gratuitous sex and violence. Not that is really a problem; I always thought Ninja Scroll, one of the best out of that class, was particularly memorable because it is not only gorgeously animated, but the direction and choreography were bar none. There are few that can match it in how clever the various ninjas were designed, how these ninja powers played to create some thrilling and creative fights that hasn't been repeated yet since.
But that's where the problem begins. What is there to talk about besides the really awesome fights? The plot to Ninja Scroll, while it does a good job moving things along, is ultimately just an action vehicle. Surprisingly it highlights some of the stark contrasts in the medium, such as being a female ninja in a male ninja world? I don't know if one could walk that path without some serious gear, and I mean it in terms of real balls to tackle a thorny problem about how women are portrayed in anime. And more over, why would we start there, at an ultra-violent and sexually gratuitous masterpiece?
Nonetheless one must start somewhere. Ninja Scroll is the story about a vagabond ninja, Jubei, and how he runs afoul of a plot to steal a shipload of gold for the shadow shogunate, who wants to overthrow the current government by buying everyone off or otherwise threaten them. There are 8 super ninjas who work for the shadow shogunate, and Jubei (along with a local clanswoman ninja and a government spy) fights them in order to not only do what's right, but to face his own demons from his dark past.
I could also begin talking about Ninja Scroll's seemingly vast mind share in the early days of anime fandom, where the only thing louder and more vibrant is love for Akira. Or on the wholly different end, things like Sailor Moon, DBZ or Robotech--all surprisingly equally thorny in terms of themes, character and substance as Ninja Scroll. At least in Ninja Scroll, there is no pretense. You know what you are going to get when bad boys fly among the trees, going after each other's necks (or other weak points, as the case it may be for many of these mutant-like ninjas). It's high time to invest in pressurized animated blood. At the same time, it just makes certain other scenes a little bit jarring, such as with the random sex scenes (as important to the plot or characterization it may be), or the oddly scripted love triangle among the villains.
Well, none of those are reasons why most own and love Ninja Scroll. Even when it comes to praising all the creative and moving action scenes, I don't know if I have all the words necessary to express how engaging and tireless they can be. I don't know how many times I've seen Jubei take down that rock dude over the years--it's just wholly captivating. There is a good reason why all those old AMVs used footage from Ninja Scroll.
Sentai's Ninja Scroll on Blu-ray is generally competent. The dub track is just as you might have remembered it. The effects sound significantly more amplified on the dub track than the sub track, for some reason. Ryuzaburo's spinning blades, for instance, sounded like a whirlwind machine on the dub track, where as it sounded plain on the Japanese track. It's probably just added directionality in the rear sound stage in this case, but otherwise there's no discrepancy. The video is in 4:3 format, probably because it was the only format whose original copy is in good enough shape for a remaster. The video looks much better than the original release, rest assured.
The Ninja Scroll Blu-ray also comes with a commentary track featuring one of the writers, plus director Yoshiaki Kawajiri and animation director Yutaka Minowa. It's quite informative for many of the behind-the-scenes thinking that went on, and definitely a must-watch for real fans of this piece. The packaging is as bare-bones as you might have come to expect from Sentai's typical handiwork.
Among old school animated violence, Ninja Scroll occupies its own particular throne--it's definitely the most refined of them all. And with this remastered Blu-ray release, it's dressed for the 21st century.
9.0 – Exceptional (One of the best things its genre has ever produced. Its example will be copied or taken into account by almost anything that follows it.)
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