Ninja Scroll (devil 5 of 5)

Say whatever else you will about Genma, dude has chin for DAYS.

He registers a 3.5 on the Bruce Campbell scale, or 0.4 Z’Dars.

[A quick note: His name is definitely “Genma” not “Gemma” no matter what the subtitles on your copy say or what you think you hear. That’s the way it’s written in all the movie’s material, and the nature of the Japanese standalone “N” precludes the two sounds being interchangeable or an understandable Japanese attempt at mimicking a Western word, such as “Bejiita” for “Vegeta.” Don’t feel bad for how Manga Entertainment lied to you for decades, I just found it out myself.

Even though “Gemma” is still widely accepted amongst fans, I’ll stick with “Genma” here, as much for nerdy accuracy as for how I don’t need this site turning up in image search results for horny boys looking up a certain pair of buoyant British actresses who are also named “Gemma.” Although I spoiled that by said “Gemma” a bunch of times anyway. DAMMIT]

5) Genma Himuro

(voiced by Daisuke Gori)

The leader of the Eight Devils of Kimon. Although not quite the size of Tessai, still a monstrously huge & muscled man, with speed and quick-thinking to back it up. A cunning, ruthless and patient strategist. Most importantly, though, is his mastery of the resurrection spell: Genma has such control over his whole body that he can recover from any injury, even death.

Though the machinations of the plot would have required a showdown between the two anyway, for both Jubei and Genma this fight is personal. They knew each other back in the day, when Genma was a high-ranking vassal of the clan Jubei served as a ninja for. Jubei hates Genma for how the villain manipulated Jubei’s friends into killing each other over the stash of gold that would later serve as this movie’s Maguffin; Genma, meanwhile, is still ticked about the time Jubei cut his head off.

He got better.

He got better.

Armed with: Almost nothing. A good portion of his left arm is covered in metal plating, but for the most part Genma chooses to rely on his advanced personal strength and immortality to do the job.

Fights with:

  • Jubei, who is SO freaking pissed off.
jubeiyell

No, man, it’s spelled… ugh, never mind

The Fight: As the film approaches its climax the vendettas between hero & villain grow more personal. While Dakuan restrains him in concealment, Jubei watches as Genma fatally wounds Kagero, having impersonated her liege lord the whole story. This makes Jubei go completely apeshit; he breaks free from the monk’s grip and charges out sword-blazin’. He eliminates a small army of disposable, faceless ninja goons, one swipe at a time, while Genma gets away. Unfortunately that action mostly happens off-screen or in quick cuts & flashes, but it’s still one helluva cinematic beast mode.

After tearful goodbyes with Kagero, Jubei sneaks aboard Genma’s departing ship. With the help of Dakuan and (unwillingly) Zakuro’s gunpowder-filled body, Jubei creates a large explosion in the ship’s main hold, destroying or sinking all the gold Genma was going to use to finance his conquest of Japan.

The scene where Genma hears the explosion and calmly waits is pretty amazing. He sits stock still, only his eyes moving, as he takes it all in, and calmly tells an underling to order an evacuation. He barely moves but the artwork and voice acting convey someone absolutely enraged, knowing that his years of careful planning have all been undone. He descends into the fiery cargo hold to find Jubei waiting patiently.

The hero cuts quite the striking pose there, particularly as some blaring horns kick in along with the steady drumbeat. The two talk for a bit and then charge at each other. Jubei’s blade, unfortunately, proves a poor match for the villain’s speed and power, with every blow either being dodged or stopped cold by Genma’s plated arm.

Genma returns every strike of Jubei’s with a devastating counter, but, never missing a beat, Jubei just continuously picks himself back up and charges Genma again. He’s so relentless it’s almost funny. Jubei will not be denied– he gonna GET that ass.

When Genma seems tired of this game he traps Jubei’s sword arm in his own massive paws, and gives him the mother of all Indian burns– apparently up until it breaks. Then he pins the hero up against a support beam and hits him with a devastating series of blows. Undeterred, Jubei distracts his foe with some trash talking as he reels his sword back in and, with his uninjured hand, lops Genma’s own right arm off.

Aside from the initial shock, Genma reacts with admirable stoicism, and goes right back to beating the stuffing out of Jubei. He re-attaches his own arm and leans menacingly over the hero, who surprises him again with the rather direct route: he seizes Genma’s collar and head-butts him to death. Like, over & over. Just rams his forehead into Genma’s face until it looks like a pile of smashed ass. As with his undeterred behavior earlier in the fight, it’s at once impressive and morbidly funny. Skill and power disparities be damned at this point– Jubei is just a single-minded engine of vengeful rage. As he says to Genma, he’ll kill him as many times as it takes.

He ends up getting held to that word, because he has to kill Genma a few more times immediately: first with a sword to the gut and some wooden shrapnel to the chest….

… then when that doesn’t stick, ripping his sword out from Genma vertically.

Just as Genma starts to re-form and it seems like Jubei just can’t catch a break, the consequence of all those tons of gold being exposed to heat from the fire comes due, and a small flood of molten gold comes rushing in. Jubei high-tails it up a ladder, whereas Genma gets a thick coating of the liquid metal. He flails about a bit and grabs at Jubei’s leg, but the hero ultimately escapes while Genma sinks to the bottom of the sea, trapped forever in a frozen gold prison. If only he’d listened to his father’s lessons.

jww

This one’s pretty close to flawless. Unlike every other fight in the film, it doesn’t suffer from being too short. The build-up to it is excellent, it has some great change-ups, a killer setting, awesome music, cool moves by the hero and an amazing villain. They really did save the best for last.

Grade: A

Well, that’s it for Ninja Scroll. It somehow did mostly manage to survive the ravages of time and maturity. Thanks to Yoshiaki Kawajiri and all others involved for the memories.

Coming Attractions: How sweet, fresh meat.

Welcome to MY blue Photoshop filter!

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Ninja Scroll (devil 4 of 5)

Creeper ninja is creepy.

“Who, me?”

4) Shijima

(voiced by Akimasa Omori)

Shijima is arguably the most ninja-like of all the film’s many ninjas: he employs stealth, deception and diversion over outright combat. Also, whereas most of the other devils only have one real “big” power or gimmick (Zakuro stuffs corpses with explosives, Tessai can turn to rock, etc) Shijima has four: he can create illusory copies of himself, he can control people’s minds, he has a sweet chain-claw, and he can fade into & transport himself via darkened areas– allowing him to quite literally strike from the shadows. Though he pops up more than many of the movie’s other villains, he has a such diverse skill set and is interesting enough he could have stood to play a much bigger part.

Armed with: The Claw!

No, not this one.

Not quite….

There you go.

It’s a huge, sharp claw on one hand that he can fire off on a chain at will. And, as I suppose is standard issue for ninjas, a supply of small darts.

The Fights: Shijima has one very brief encounter early in the film, where he attempts to kill Dakuan as the monk is separated from Jubei on a trek through foggy darkness. Through a clever trick, Dakuan just barely managed to avoid the villain’s claw bursting out of the shadows. Not much to it, but a nice way to establish the character early on and tease at his potential.

The second time our protagonists encounter Shijima, they’re all standing in a clearing as they suss out the villains’ overall plot and figure out what to do. Shijima makes his presence known with several furtive movements at their peripheral vision, then goes all-out by surrounding the trio with dozens of his illusion copies.

He throws a few darts at Kagero (which she dodges) to attempt to keep her from sending off her carrier pigeon message for help, and that move turns out to be what Jubei needed to determine which Shijima is the real one. The hero lunges in and cuts the devil’s leg right off. Taking it like a champ, Shijima hops away wordlessly with Jubei in pursuit.

While Jubei hunts down what turns out to be a fake trail, Shijima uses the shadows to double back and kidnap Kagero– it’s implied he got the drop on her because she was stunned after Dakuan dropped some particularly shocking news on her. When the two men return, they find that Shijima has carved a note into a nearby tree telling them to come and get her, if they dare. Dakuan figures it for a trap (duh) but Jubei heads in regardless.

Shijima had, it turns out, taken the unconscious Kagero to an abandoned temple nearby. Between the dilapidated condition of the building and the setting sun, the place makes both a cool backdrop for a fight as well as a tactically advantageous (i.e., shadow-filled) ground for Shijima. Before Jubei arrives, the creepy little devil does something quite lascivious to Kagero, which is implied to be what allows him to mind-control her. So when our hero shows up and finds Kagero, she awakes with a glassy-eyed stare and immediately attacks him.

Kagero was never a match for Jubei, really, but his efforts at defending himself are hindered by the escalating effects of the poison he’s infected with (long story) as well as Shijima hassling him from the sidelines. But mostly Shijima’s contribution here is to use his claw to grab Jubei’s sword, attempting to drag it with him into the shadows. Jubei has to wrestle for control over it, which causes him to get stabbed in the hand by Kagero.

Jubei decides to let him have it, releasing the sword so that it stabs Shijima as it comes in. The creeper slowly tumbles out of the darkness, dead. Jubei passes out and Kagero comes to her senses.

Shijima’s a lot of fun, so it’s a shame that after two really promising build-ups he had so little participation in his own final battle; pitting the two heroes against each other is an interesting twist, but it’s too brief and Shijima’s own presence in that fight is minimal. However, as a whole he’s a welcome and dynamic addition to this movie’s crazy little world. Thanks, Shijima.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: Boss fight!

GEMMA SMASH

Ninja Scroll (devil 3 of 5)

Dance of death.

3) Mujuro Utsutsu

(voiced by anime legend Norio Wakamoto)

A change of pace from his companions, Utsutsu is a devil with a genuine sense of honor & fair play, and though he speaks with an air of superiority it’s less bluster and more of a well-earned confidence. A supremely talented swordsman, Utsutsu’s real advantage is related to his blindness: his hearing is greatly magnified to compensate, allowing him to rapidly react by echo-location and listening to his opponents’ muscle movements. Basically he’s like the superhero Daredevil… and many, many other genre characters. Honestly, this gag is a little played-out, and probably was even in 1993. Do real life blind people find this trope offensive?

Armed with: A simple katana, which he can also use to “blind” opponents by shining light on their faces. The implication is that he’s merely reflecting sunlight off of it (difficult in a setting where the trees create a lot of shade) but the visual and its effect are so oversold it seems more like it’s glowing of its own accord.

Fights with:

  • Jubei, mostly.
  • Kagero, who again plays a small but vital role.

The Fight: Kagero, having been overcome with emotion, foolishly charged into a trap (you don’t have to be Mister Sensitive Feminist to deduce that this movie thinks VERY little of women), which caught her and reluctant partner Jubei in an explosion that sent them off the side of a cliff. Using Jubei’s cord-attached sword as an impromptu grappling hook, the two find themselves literally hanging on by a thread. They ascend one at a time, and find that not only was Mujuro Utsutsu waiting for them at the top, it was he who held Jubei’s sword after it dislodged from the rocks, acting as their anchor. Very sporting of him– shades of Princess Bride.

Utsutsu challenges the pair, which Jubei takes personally. In fact, all throughout the fight he behaves with uncharacteristic pride, repeatedly insisting to Kagero that he fight Utsutsu alone. This can’t be personal to him since he doesn’t seem to know the devil from earlier, so it’s possible that he sees a more direct challenge to his personal skill in Utsutsu’s straightforward swordsmanship, or perhaps he’s still upset with Kagero for her dumb play earlier– after the fight, he does dress her down about not taking her own life seriously.

Anyway, the two men charge off into the nearby bamboo forest, running alongside each other for a long time before Jubei ever makes his first move. What follows is the closest thing to an actual sword duel in the entirety of Ninja Scroll. And it’s mostly Mujuro’s game: he reacts with ease to all of Jubei’s strikes, and when he goes on the offensive it’s all the hero can do to keep up.

Jubei still attempts to think strategically, though. He brought the fight to the forest to, as Utsutsu immediately guesses, try to dampen the devil’s advantage– the preponderance of static obstacles would ostensibly challenge his ability to navigate. However, Mujuro’s skill is more powerful than that, and he dodges every tree with calm ease. He’s even unruffled when Jubei covertly slashes a few of the bamboo stalks in the hopes that the resulting noise would mask the hero’s own movements, but he is again unsuccessful; Utsutsu can hear him even amongst a veritable cacophony.

Mujuro then puts Jubei on the defensive and pursues him with a series of strikes that the hero only barely counters. One of the advantages of animation is employed here as we see Jubei being pushed what must be a dozen feet or more over the course of his multiple parries– a bit of choreography that would be impractical and/or silly-looking if attempted in live-action.

Waving off Kagero’s attempts to help, Jubei squares off against Utsutsu once more, even as the devil employs his trick of trying to weaken Jubei’s sight with the glare off his blade, turning the hero’s own eyes against him. Jubei gets knocked to the ground as they clash in mid-air, but Mujuro’s killing stroke is stopped short by a dagger Kagero had left planted in a bamboo trunk and escaped his “radar” vision. Jubei wastes no time killing the surprised villain with one lunge through the heart.

Again, even though there’s some slight supernatural enhancement, this is the straightest fight in the whole film; it is, ironically, unusual in its ordinariness. And certainly never boring. Short, as most every Ninja Scroll fight is, but more in the “whew, that was intense” sense rather than the “aw, that’s it?” one. Mujuro Utsutsu is very efficiently introduced, deployed and dispatched, during the course of which we get a thrilling little scene that allows for some very head-scratching relationship development of our two leads. Not truly great, but not bad at all.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: Ninja, vanish!

Ninja Scroll (devil 2 of 5)

There’s a lot of buzz about this devil.

2) Mushizo

(voiced by Rezo Nomoto)

A hunched, hideous man with a schtick that’s unusual even amongst the Devils of Kimon. We don’t see much of Mushizo, but he’s notably cunning, treacherous, and agile.

Armed with: he wields a long, two-pronged spear that unfortunately gets little use. But his real weapon is the hive of killer wasps he carries on his back, the residents of which he has some degree of control over.

“I call this look ‘Blue Steel.'”

Fights with:

  • Jubei Kibagami, our katana-wielding protagonist.
  • Kagero, the lady ninja who plays the static yet pivotal role here of distracting the majority of the villain’s swarm.

The wily monk Dakuan is also there with the heroes, but he contributes little. Similarly, Mushizo’s compatriots Mujuro Utsutsu and Zakuro stand by and watch, warned away from participating by Mushizo himself.

The Fight: The unlikely trio of protagonists have gathered in the tiny village where the villains have faked a plague. They barely have time to pay their respects to the innocent civilians when a few, and then a LOT, of wasps start swarming in. Like, thousands. As they start flooding in over the hill, the scene’s music (frequently re-used in trailers and ads for the film) kicks in: a steady, pulsing drumbeat with occasional dramatic blaring horns. It’s really cool.

They all try to run from this plague of murder bugs, but Kagero stands firm, and casts a spell to counter the swarm. The details are a little murky but it involves expelling an unknown number of cherry blossoms from her sleeve, which somehow poison and/or distract the wasps– some are shown dropping, but not at nearly the rate needed to hold off a group that size. Also, is this the only spell she knows? That’s kinda lame. Still, the image is kind of weirdly striking.

Kagero holding the line means it’s up to Jubei to take down the source. He spots Mushizo and chases him to the village’s water mill. The two banter for a bit until Mushizo surprises Jubei by launching  a few darts that only narrowly miss his face, then following up with a surprisingly deft lunge of his spear.

Jubei dodges and counters by slicing Mushizo across his hunched back, but the villain laughs and says that all he’s done is damage the hive, thus enraging its residents.

Jubei flees again and finds refuge in the nearby river, though he can’t stay there indefinitely; Mushizo and the wasps both wait patiently for him to emerge. Jubei quietly maneuvers himself underneath the branch where his foe perches waiting, and with awesome ninja skill he rockets out of the water, cutting off Mushizo’s foot along with the branch he was standing on.

The villain doesn’t miss a beat, lunging at him on the way down. Jubei catches the strike on his sword, and when Mushizo fires a poisoned dart from his mouth (!), the hero just barely stops it with his sword handle. Above the river the two other devils muse on if Mushizo was able to finish off Jubei on his own, but Mujuro’s assessment proves correct: the trip underwater is drowning the wasps so, in a panic, they’re trying to sting their way to safety. Mushizo’s own pets rip him apart from the inside.

As you can see there’s very little to this fight– to the point where I considered not even including it. But after already disqualifying three-eighths of the film’s villains, this segment’s nasty little Quasimodo deserved a bone. Besides, it’s creative and weird even by Ninja Scroll’s standards, and it shows our two co-protagonists cooperating in an unexpected way; the fight also briefly cuts back to Kagero halfway through, wincing under the pain of maintaining the spell, so we see her contributing more and also put a ticking clock on Jubei’s efforts to take down the Wasp Whisperer.  But still a shame that we didn’t get more of Mushizo, especially after his delightful speed and unpredictability with physical weapons.

Grade: C+

Coming Attractions: Jubei gets blindsided.

Ninja Scroll (devil 1 of 5)

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:

1) Tessai

(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.

Damn, you’re ugly.

Fights with:

  • 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.

WARNING: Don’t look at the above picture if you don’t want to be grossed out

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.

[insert headache joke]

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.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: Who’s this handsome devil?

None of your beeswax.