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The blog below was under an older name of Hollyweird. I have kept the numbering the same so that I could keep track of my posts, but this is where it all begin back in the heyday of 2012…
Wings of Honneamise is a startlingly unusual Anime, and one well deserving of some coverage. Indeed, I don’t think that I’ve ever read about it. I just taped it off of the Sci-Fi channel once and realised that it was something special. Wings of Honneamise is a unique study of the mental and spiritual effects of an aspiring astronaut. However, I hope this does not sound too intriguing to anyone reading this as I actually left my Wings of Honneamise DVD at my parents last year.
So instead I’m going the polar-opposite direction and focusing on the very different, purely visceral Anime called Ninja Scroll. There is nothing subtle nor intelligent about Ninja Scroll. There is, however, a whole-hell of a lot of fun.
In feudal Japan, an evil clansman is desperate to mine gold out of a secret deposit behind the Shogun’s back in a quest to become the new ruler of Japan. Tricking two of his best ninja soldiers, Gemma and Jubei, the ambitious Lord convinces them to kill one another, leaving only himself as the sole person aware that the Gold mine exists. Jubei dispatches Gemma, but quickly goes into hiding as a Ronin; a master-less Samurai. Now surviving as a wandering soldier of fortune, Jubei wanders the land doing what he can to survive within his own code of honour.
(Think of the A-Team but with less milk, aeroplanes and banter).
Five years on and Jubei stumbles upon an entire village of slaughtered people alongside a wiped out army. Of ninjas. The only survivor of which is a female ninja called Kagero. Rather unfortunately for Kagero, Japanese fantasy often tends to feature rape. So as the only captured soldier she’s about to face that rather nasty fate via a massive creature that can turn its body into stone. Yes- you read right. This is a time of Demons and magic, you see. I may have forgotten to mention that part….
Jubei’s interruption of this attempted rape of Kagero leads to a battle with the stone demon, which Jubei ends up narrowly winning via reasons I don’t want to spoil. With ‘Rocky’ dead, a strange elderly man soon appears. This is Dakuan, a somewhat nasty and manipulative Yoda-like figure.
Dakuan explains that he is a spy, sent on a special mission to stop the Eight Devils of Kimon, a group of murderous demons. With Jubei having just slaughtered one Devil, the other seven will now come for him in retaliation. Dakuan then suggests that he and Jubei team up. Jubei scoffs at getting involved but is soon poisoned by Dakuan. If Jubei can survive for a whole day and defeat all the demons, Dakuan will cure Jubei and pay him handsomely. With Kagero joining them, the three protagonists now in place.
All we need now is a powerful ring-leader for the antagonists. Enter the re-incarnated Gemma, who sure can hold a grudge against Jubei. With all these pieces slowly in place, an epic battle for ancient Japan is about to begin…..
And epic it is! This film is pretty much just one thing; eye candy.
The action is frantic from start to finish, each frame beautifully composed and drawn. This was way before Flash Animation/CGI somewhat cheapened the form. The sheer hard work from all the animators is pretty obvious throughout the runtime.. Hell, go watch the sword fight between Jubei and the Blind sword smith, Mujuro. Pause the fighting it at random and you’ll see every sword movement is drawn in. Some strikes may move too fast to follow clearly at full speed, but it’s all actually in there. This level of detail is a huge part of the films remaining appeal. Released in 1993, of course Ninja Scroll’s presentation does look dated today. But the fact it still holds up as well as it does really is a testament to the all of the artists responsible.
To my mind, the lush visuals within Ninja Scroll come down to three further aspects beyond the aforementioned level of detail;
1)The colour palette
The colours in this film often ‘pop’ against one another. It’s important to note that Ninja Scroll is a very gory film. Blood flows as freely as a proud father’s open bar tab at a wedding.
Naturally then this red needs other colours to splash out against. The main contrasts are yellows, greens and and blues. Any of these are pretty evident just by watching the film. But it is the blues that really catch my eye whenever I watch this film.
Being a film about ninjas, there is a lot of night scenes. The shading of blues and blacks is really beautifully done, keeping the action clear but still setting the shady scenes wonderfully.
2) The backgrounds plates are are lovingly designed, varying from plague-ridden villages to bamboo forests to ancient temples to pirate ships and even more in between.
3) Finally, and probably the most key to Ninja Scrolls visual cues are the excellent character designs.
The Eight Devils of Kimon come across like Boss Fights in a video game; each is unique with their own attack and weakness. Jubei slaughters them one by one, with each fight getting progressively tougher. But like any good video game, each Boss should be memorably different from the others.
For instance, the sex-fiend Tessai is a giant made of rock, all bulging muscles and muted colours. Benisato is an attractive woman naked and covered in snake tattoos- which can then come to life. Mushizo is a dwarf with a hornets nest built into his body. Yurimaru is an effeminate, well dressed man who controls electricity through a series of thin wires- and so on. Each villain stand uniquely next to the others, which is quite a feat for a 94min film which also features 3 protagonists!
In fact the only character to stay largely ‘plain’ is the hero, Jubei. His classic anti-hero demeanour is enough to understand his personality its own. Yet it is worth pointing out that he is actually based on a Japanese folk hero, Yagyū Jūbei Mitsuyoshi. Perhaps his basic appearance is akin to an English version of Robin Hood where by simply putting hmm in a green hood makes him recognisable to people from the same culture. Or perhaps he simply looks even more badass to take out all these Devils and armoured Ninjas in nothing but his robes and a straw hat!
Writer and Director Yoshiaki Kawajiri deserves a lot of credit in the Anime world for puling off this film. It is brisk and energetic whilst being blood soaked and juvenile. Frankly he manages to fit an awful lot of plotting into a paper-thin narrative. In fact Kawajiri certainly must have dome something right as there was even a semi-sequel television show that ran for 13 episodes called, imaginatively, Ninja Scroll: The Series that he co-wrote. This is a film that lingers long after the simple fun of going ‘Cool! Swords!’. It mixes myth and design in a tantalising way that in many ways has yet to be matched by Fantasy/Action Anime two decades on.
Make no mistake, Ninja Scroll is dumb fun. Definitely dumb, and definitely fun. If you love action, monsters and bad dubbing then please do track it down. I did. In fact, it was the first ever DVD I bought along with a beast of a player back in 2000. I made this my first ever discs because I knew I wanted something with real flair to test out my new technology- and ‘Scroll sure as the Eight Devils of hell has a lot of flair.
Next time will be a look at a rather marvellous Spaghetti Western, which is also one of the bleakest films that I’ve ever enjoyed sitting through.
As for when ‘next time’ is I am not yet sure. I will be filming Frightfest in London soon, so maybe pre-Frightfest or maybe post-Frightfest.
Ooooh, the excitement of mystery!!
Thanks for reading,
P.S. I actually left my Ninja Scroll DVD at my parents house, too. I’ve just seen the film enough times to write this blog regardless!