Ooh, does this ever bring me back.
Ninja Scroll (aka Jubei Ninpocho) holds a certain place in the, ahem, hearts of many a male nerd of a certain age. Although Western culture is fairly saturated with Japanese animation today, for several years after Akira the release of such products to the US was something more like a slow trickle, and that relative rarity gave these shiny foreign objects a certain cultural cachet: for many of us, they were the stuff of whispers in the cafeteria, late-night screenings at sleepovers, and scratchy VHS copies. For a time few titles held the reverence of the early import Ninja Scroll: with its dynamite combination of bizarre fantasy, outrageous violence, overt misogyny and gratuitous sexuality all served up on a slickly stylized platter, it was like the ur-text of what we’d come to expect from anime as a whole– it was the definitive “cartoon your parents don’t want you to see.”
In short, it’s everything an adolescent thinks is “mature.” Re-watching it decades later I can’t, in good conscience, recommend it to anybody– it’s crude, gross, and completely ridiculous. But it’s also kind of awesome. Ten minutes never go by without something violent, insane, or both happening.
Once again I will be breaking format here. Many of the fights are so short that grading them one at a time would be futile; therefore I’ll be breaking the entries down into villains. Or, rather, into devils, as the movie’s baddies are the wonderfully-titled Eight Devils of Kimon (“devil” having a different meaning in Japan than in the Christian context)– this movie is SO video-gamey. Some of the eight devils only have one big fight, while others have multiple fleeting skirmishes the run time of which adds up. Three of them– Benisato, Yurimaru, and Zakuro– don’t even make the grade at all, as the heroes’ encounters with them are so esoteric or or brief as to not qualify as a “fight”… and two of those three actually get murdered by their own compatriots, due to the emotional fallout of the weird omnisexual love parallelogram they have going on. Today we start with:
(voiced by Ryūzaburō Ōtomo)
An enormous (easily 7-8 feet tall) beast of a man. He has advanced strength and a sweet weapon, but his real trick is his ability to transform almost all of his body into nigh-impenetrable stone, at will.
Armed with: an enormous double-bladed metal spear that he can throw like a boomerang.
- The Koga Ninja, servants to the Mochizuki Clan. Most notably including Kagero (voiced by Emi Shinohara), a female ninja and poison tester who insisted on coming along. About ten or so altogether.
- Armed with: All manner of swords, knives and a huge arsenal of ninja stars.
- Jubei Kibagami, a former Yamashiro clan ninja turned wandering mercenary after he was betrayed. He’s the quintessential cowboy hero (samurai flicks and Westerns always did have that weird, mutually symbiotic relationship): stoic, upright and unstoppably badass. Based loosely on the Japanese folk hero Jubei Yagyu. Voiced by Kōichi Yamadera.
- Armed with: mostly his killer samurai sword, which is hooked to a string in his coat so he’s never far from it. Also, notably, a small knife/dart.
The Fights: This is not just the first real fight (there’s a cute little pre-title teaser where Jubei quickly schools some bandit chumps) but the first action sequence of the movie, and the introduction to the Eight Devils as well. So it had to come out swinging, and boy does it.
Off to investigate some shady dealings in a nearby village, the Kaga ninjas glide gracefully through the treetops at night, when they’re suddenly assailed out of the darkness by Tessai’s spinning blades. Many try to fight back by unleashing a torrent of shuriken, and although they strike with impressive percussive force, they all either miss the devil as he leaps among the shadows or bounce harmlessly off his stone skin.
It’s barely even a fight, really– it’s an execution. Not only are all the ninjas woefully overpowered but they also have no idea what they’re dealing with, and besides that they’ve walked into a trap. Heads and body parts rain to the ground. Tessai, having all the advantage, leers & chuckles as he rips them to shreds. (Interestingly, Tessai gets *one* assist here, unnecessary as it may be, when Yurimaru electrocutes a single ninja.)
Although Kagero is ordered to retreat by her captain, Hanza, she hesitates. Being quite the sicko, Tessai graphically rips off Hanza’s arms right before Kagero’s eyes, and then stares her down as he drinks the blood flowing out of the severed limb.
Kagero flees to warn the clan, but doesn’t get far– Tessai knocks her out cold. She comes to later, after the devil has spirited her away to a tiny hut in a quiet little town. He’s… well, let’s just say that calling it getting fresh would be an epic understatement, and leave it at that. It’s uncomfortable to watch as he paws all over her like an animal, so fortunately he’s interrupted when he looks up to find Jubei– a stranger to both parties at this point– quietly looking on in the little house. (It’s unclear if Jubei was already in the building or if he snuck in quietly; he could certainly do the latter, because NINJA!). He barks at the hero to leave, but Jubei quietly refuses. Angered, Tessai transforms his skin back into rock, and although Jubei’s a bit surprised, he calmly retort that surely not ALL of the freak’s body can be stone, and puts one eye out with a dagger.
Hero & heroine escape and part ways, with Tessai not giving chase per orders from a superior. Later on, though, the beast does track down Jubei to a quiet little street, reaching through a stone wall to seize him and then beating him near senseless. The hero takes it like a champ, and comes back swinging with a strike that pushes Tessai back but doesn’t cut him. They seem to be at an impasse, but Jubei notices that the monster’s skin is starting to crumble (we’ll find out later that his intimate contact with Kagero exposed him to the abundance of toxins always coursing through her body). Seeing an opportunity, the hero waits until Tessai throws his weapon again, then he dodges it and leaps in to cut off the villain’s hand with one mighty slice. Being both shocked and literally disarmed, Tessai can’t catch his boomeranging staff as it comes back to him, and it lodges right in the middle of his rocky bald head. Ouuuuuuuuch.Clinging spitefully to life for a few more seconds, Tessai rears back and tries to impale Jubei with the same blade, and even though he misses (barely), that’s still impressively hardcore. Then his own head slides down the length of the blade and he flops on the ground, dead. Tim Roth got off easy in comparison.
Tessai is how Ninja Scroll announced that it meant business, and, more specifically, just what kind of business it meant. This brute arrives on the scene as a one-man wrecking crew and displays shocking personal depravity, so it communicates what kind of threat level is involved when we learn that Tessai only represents one-eighth of the bad guys who’ll be dealt with. Though oddly Tessai is in some ways un-representative of the other seven devils; they’re all varying degrees of crafty and cunning, whereas he’s just a blunt instrument. On a more meta level, the movie’s aesthetic– gruesome, bombastic, exploitative– has been established right away. You can’t say you weren’t warned.
But whereas the one-side nature of Tessai’s takedown of the Kaga works quite well, his later confrontation with Jubei feels unfortunately short. It would have been nice to see some more back & forth as Jubei nimbly dodged Tessai’s attacks while struggling to find a way to truly hurt him. This I fear will be a running theme throughout the series.
Coming Attractions: Who’s this handsome devil?