Ninja Scroll on Blu-ray
Trapped into a mission … not of his choosing, Jubei finds a powerful reason to fight.
What They Say:
Jubei Kibagami has always been the master dealer 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!
The audio presentation for this film mirrors what we had before as we get the original Japanese in stereo while the English mix is a 5.1 design, both of which use the DTS-HD MA lossless codec. There’s a lot to like with both mixes as there’s a rich feel to the music design that’s more apparent now and even some of the ambient effects come out more clearly and add a new dimension to it. The dialogue is well placed at times across the forward soundstage with a bit of depth from time to time that gives it a bit better of an effect. While the show is not one that I ever found to be amazing, it performs solidly here and delivers the thrust of the action well and the dialogue cleanly. We didn’t have any problems with dropouts or distortions during regular playback.
Originally released in 1993, the transfer for this feature is presented in its original full frame aspect ratio in 1080p using the AVC codec. The show has seen many, many releases over the years and it feels like I’ve seen this numerous times across many formats. It’s also been a visual treat, one that does stand up to the test of time so far as we pass its 20th anniversary and what we get here is the best that it’s ever looked. While there are bits of dust and dirt that creep in from time to time, it’s filled with solid backgrounds that have a good natural film grain to it that gives it a rough and appealing look. The colors are rich, the animation looks far better than I remember it ever looking before and there’s a fluidity that really does shine to it. The lack of cross coloration and noticeable line noise only adds to it, giving it a great look. While some of this may not be quite as noticeable on smaller displays, if you’re a fan of the show and have a big screen HDTV, this is definitely the way to experience it.
The packaging for this release uses a standard-sized Blu-ray case with new artwork that we haven’t seen with prior releases. With a good mixture of black and red, the background is eye-catching and that allows the character artwork to blend well with it, murky as some of it is, as we get both Kagero and Jubei together with weapons drawn and intense expressions. The logo is simple but effective and adds a bit more weight and definition to the cover. The back cover uses a couple of shades of red for the background which makes for an easy-to-read summary that covers things well. A few solid images from the show are used and the extra features are listed clearly. The production credits are white on black and have a minimal approach to them and the technical grid lays out the details clearly and without any problems. No show-related inserts are included nor is there a reversible cover.
This release also has, at least with the first pressing, an o-card slipcover with it that’s definitely nicely done. This one gives us a look at Jubei up close in the foreground where he has his scabbard in his mouth while his sword is out with a look of intensity across his face. The background adds a bit of the violent/gore side of things in a good way without dominating or drawing too much attention to it. The really nice part is that the sword and hand are embossed and the silver flare to all of it really lets it stand out well. The back cover uses the artwork from the Blu-ray case itself with the cast of characters by bringing in a bit of the silver flare as well, while also having the standard technical grid that breaks things down so you know what’s included with it.
The menu design for the release is pretty simple as we get a split screen that dominates as a static piece where the left has the logo in black with red splatters all over while the right side has the original cover artwork that we’ve seen across many releases over the years which looks good if just a touch soft, which isn’t a surprise. The navigation menu along the bottom follows the same black and red blood-splattered design with clean white text for the selections that are easy to navigate and easy to tell what’s highlighted. Submenus load quickly and easily though there’s not a lot to go through there. The bottom strip also doubles as the pop-up menu and works well in blending with the show and being fairly in-theme.
The only extra included in this release is the Japanese commentary track that was done some time ago, which is available through the language options menu.
Ninja Scroll is a feature that has dominated the anime landscape in English-speaking countries for over twenty years since its original release. One of the early titles brought over, its blend of sex and violence definitely attracted a lot of attention but also because of the team behind it. With animation by Madhouse and pretty much everything else under the supervision of Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Ninja Scroll defines the classic nature of a ninja movie with its blood, sex, and violence. With familiar name characters that go back centuries in Japan, it’s easily accessible and fits the bill of what people think a ninja movie should be like. With it being released in numerous forms, getting some TV time as well and a full season TV series at one point, it’s a feature that has defined a genre. And rightly so.
The basic premise of the film is all about revenge and acquiring gold, but it’s of little consequence in the end. With a brief prologue here, we see events set five years prior that show traitors, bloodshed, and the crushing of people that has to lead to our lead character, Jubei, getting out into the world on his own. In the present, the Eight Devils of Kimon have been gathered under the man behind events from all those years ago, Gemma, as he was able to resurrect himself after being killed. What he’s managed to do is draw together an incredible force of supernaturally powered shinobi in order to seek out what he’s been after all this time. Unfortunately for him and his group, Jubei has come across them in the present as well and ends up saving a ninja woman named Kagero in the midst of being raped by Tessai, one of the ugliest of shinobi who can turn his body rock hard.
And so begins the journey through which Jubei starts to go against the rest of the Eight Devils, all of which are quite varied and have their own quirks and abilities. The initial takedown of Tessai is brutal but there’s a thing of beauty to it as well. The violence is strong and swift with a cleaving to the head that settles things. As we see with some of the others, sexuality is a big part of their attacks as well, such as Benisato who has a full body series of snake tattoos that she can draw to life. The sexuality of the show is a big part of the appeal for many back when it came out, but it still holds up well and even feels like it’s done better after all this time since there’s less overt sexuality in a lot of anime features theses. But one by one, Jubei ends up coming against the Eight Devils and finds himself in tight situations where he gets hurt quite a lot himself.
The quirk to the feature is that of Dakuan, a government spy who knows what Jubei is and uses him to his advantage. With some simple promises, some poison, and some coin, he’s able to nudge Jubei in the direction he needs to get him more serious about going after Gemma. He knows far more about Jubei than might be let on and his appearance certainly makes it easy for many to not take him seriously. While he’s not a ninja, he’s well versed in a lot of the dark nature of them and knows how to take advantage of people through the art of words. With him hitching onto Jubei in order to get everything done, he provides some good narrative to the journey that allows Jubei to play off of and to add that extra bit of knowledge when appropriate.
When I first watched this all those years ago, I was only partially familiar with Kawajiri’s works. Having seen a lot of them since then, understanding his influence more and the kind of craftsmanship he brings to the medium, it’s definitely easier to be far more impressed this time around, especially where it’s all so much richer visually. The mixture of the classic beauty of the powerful and strong ninja, the supernatural aspect, and the natural world angle that’s played heavily with the environments used here, it’s captivating in how it moves us through the various Devils that Jubei has to fend off, either alone or as Kagero comes more into the mix. Because this is one of the foundations of the genre, it’s easy to dismiss it as derivative, but it’s the kind of feature that set the rules on how ninja anime should be done. When all we had was hardcore action and violence, it left me less than impressed in the nineties as I wanted more than that. Now that it’s harder to come by, revisiting it shows just how ahead of the game this was.
It’s been a couple of years since Sentai Filmworks first brought this out on Blu-ray, but it sold well enough that it was largely out of stock at most retailers. That says a lot about the overall popularity of the show and that it really is an evergreen property. While not without its minor flaws, and having had many other adaptations of the same material in both anime and manga form, Ninja Scroll is a work that definitely deserves to be held up as it is. Yoshiaki Kawajiri goes for the core essence of what a ninja story should be with its action, violence and the supernatural aspect of it and many have attempted to replicate it in the years since. While the basic premise is just that, basic, it works well in the classic sense of having the “heroes” dealing with the bad guys one by one (for the most part) as it moves towards the epic finale. With great-looking animation, strong attention to detail, and a good blend of sex and violence, Ninja Scroll has delivered for over twenty years. And this Blu-ray edition does it all the more so. Highly recommended.